March 23, 2012

D.C., we have a problem — and it’s clear our elected officials are too conflicted to solve it. Every day, fresh headlines chronicle the latest developments in a federal investigation or ethical lapse in the District’s government, and almost all involve the corrupting influence of corporate money in local politics. One day it’s that our elected officials have accepted thousands of dollars in questionable campaign donations; the next, questions are raised about whether contracts were steered to political allies. The list goes on and on. Every incident is rooted in the same culture of “pay to play,” a system that creates cozy, mutually beneficial relationships between elected officials and the corporate money shakers who help keep their seats secure.

Our city’s lax campaign finance laws allow deep-pocketed donors to make a mockery of contribution limits through “bundling” checks from limited liability companies (LLCs). By giving money through these veiled spinoffs, corporations can give many times more than can John Q. Public. At the same time, when reelection time rolls around, some elected officials practically shake down donors by expecting them to “max out” through LLCs, building an enormous financial advantage that drives challengers from the race. And so when a tough issue comes up for a vote, we are left to wonder whether our council members make decisions based on what’s best for our community — or for the donors who keep them in office.

It’s time to break the cycle, and it’s up to us to do it. Our D.C. Council members have already proved they have no stomach for fixing a broken campaign finance system that works so well for them; just three months ago, they rejected campaign finance reform amendments to an ethics bill by votes of 12 to 1. Late-breaking legislative proposals, such as limits on money-order donations in the wake of the revelations of numerous such donations linked to D.C. contractor Jeffrey Thompson, only nip at the edges of the real issue.

That’s why residents across the District have come together to ban direct corporate donations through a ballot initiative that we hope will be approved in the Nov. 6 general election. Initiative 70, as this effort is called, will cut off key avenues for buying access and influence by banning direct corporate contributions to political campaign committees, constituent services funds, inaugural and transition funds, and legal defense funds. To be sure, this law won’t solve every campaign finance issue. It does strike at the heart of the most troubling issue: the distortion of the policy-making process by the ability of large corporate donors to hand thousands of dollars to grateful incumbents.

Now is your chance to help reform our government. D.C. Public Trust — the nonprofit grass-roots group driving Initiative 70 — needs to collect a little more than 23,000 signatures of qualified D.C. voters to get the measure on the ballot. We’ll be at supermarkets, high school graduations and all types of community events through July — and we’ll be outside polling places for the April 3 primary election and the May 15 special election in Ward 5. We need your help to make this reform.

This is our opportunity to make a clean break from the past and demand that our elected officials answer to us — the people they were elected to represent. Until we resolve the ethical cloud hanging over D.C. government, we won’t be able to focus on critical issues, such as how to maintain affordable housing, close the city’s economic opportunity gap and improve public education. Join us. The solution is in sight — and it is in our hands.

Sylvia C. Brown is a Ward 7 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner and chair of D.C. Public Trust. Bryan Weaver is a D.C. political activist and former D.C. Council candidate.