More on the D.C. corporate giving initiative


Brown and Weaver announce their initiative Tuesday (Mike DeBonis/The Washington Post)

First off, initiative organizer Bryan Weaver said yesterday that the proposed changes are based largely on language proposed by former D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson way back in 1999. That’s true, with an exception — Patterson’s language would have also banned direct donations by unions, not just business interests. The initiative proposal from Weaver and Sylvia Brown does not include unions, specifying only that a “corporation, limited liability corporation, or partnership” cannot contribute.

Further evidence of the District’s pro-Democrat, pro-labor bent?

Not so much, says Weaver, who has served as an organizer for the Service Employees International Union. The issue, he said, was initiative backers “writing by committee.”

“The main goal of a lot of folks was bundling,” he said, referring to donations from companies with related ownership. “Unions don’t really bundle.”

If there’s evidence that unions are skirting the spirit of the law to enhance their political influence, Weaver said, that’s “probably something that should stop. But it’s not something we were thinking about at the time.”

For the record, 14 states treat corporate donations differently than union donations, according to data maintained by the National Conference of State Legislatures. In Iowa, for instance, direct corporate donations are prohibited but unions can give without restriction.

Also, reading my story today on the initiative plans, you’ll note one general objection is beginning to form — that banning direct business contributions would push corporate influence further into the shadows, into the less regulated world of political action committees and “super PAC”-type nonprofit groups. That’s what I heard from council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), who is pledging to move forward with campaign finance reform legislation, and from D.C. Chamber of Commerce CEO Barbara Lang.

I got a different objection from council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large). I queried him because he recently accepted at least $9,000 from companies associated with gasoline mogul Eyob “Joe” Mamo and $6,000 from companies associated with taxicab magnate Jerry Schaeffer — both of whom stand to have their businesses affected by bills before the council.

Orange, in other words, is a poster boy for the type of “bundling” that Weaver and Brown detest. He’s also — and I take great pains to point this out — not alone on the council in doing so.

Orange, whose race carries a $1,000 contribution limit, said that bundling “is certainly a legal way of raising campaign funds,” and that he had faith in Bowser and colleagues to address the problem without turning to an initiative.

“If the citizens of the District of Columbia want to change the way campaign funds are donated, they can make that change at the ballot box,” he said. He said if presented with an initiative petition, he would not sign it.

The Board of Elections and Ethics said Wednesday that a hearing on whether the initiative is suitable for the ballot has been set for Feb. 13 at 10:30 a.m. — a long wait that could threaten backers’ goal of having petitions circulating during the April 3 primary.

Weaver said he was “optimistic” that the timing would work out.

Mike DeBonis covers Congress and national politics for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015.

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