How D.C. became a District of Corruption
By Kojo Nnamdi,
Vincent C. Gray’s election as mayor in 2010 was the result in no small measure of his success in tapping a deep well of resentment in the black community over Adrian M. Fenty’s perceived aloofness. Gray was helped along in this effort by Marion Barry.
I wrote in this section at the time that if the template for black mayors who connect with black voters is Barry and Newark’s Sharpe James, who have both served prison terms, then “Vincent Gray needs to hurry up and get himself locked up so he can keep it real, too.”
I now regret those words, as prophetic as they appear. I still think that Gray is a decent and thoughtful man, but he stands at the center of a political culture that is corrupt and broken.
At a contentious city council meeting this summer, Barry spoke about the council’s credibility problem and voters’ doubts about the D.C. government. “The stain is deep,” he said. He’s right.
I came to D.C. in 1969, and the future I imagined for it when the Home Rule Act was signed in 1973 was that the city, home to some of the smartest people and most innovative civil rights activists I knew, would provide a shining example of a democratic revolution. Some of that has come to pass. From qualified blacks who have new access to senior positions and contracts, to the revival of downtown and other areas, from new restaurants and theaters to green spaces and bike lanes, the District has indeed improved, often in ways I couldn’t have imagined.
The political culture, however, has deteriorated. It has what is clearly a pay-to-play political process, with personal corruption and campaign fraud now at the center of the system.
The latest example of this came on Tuesday, when federal prosecutors said that Gray’s 2010 mayoral run was funded, in part, by a “shadow campaign” of $653,000 from a prominent District contractor. Three Gray campaign consultants have pleaded guilty to corruption-related charges.
This shadow over the Gray campaign comes after former council member Harry Thomas Jr. pleaded guilty to charges of theft of government money and falsifying tax returns. In May, he was sentenced to three years in prison. And in June, Kwame Brown resigned as D.C. Council chairman after federal prosecutors charged him with bank fraud.
The question is:How did it come to this? How did we come to this?
We came to this by a quick, narrow route. The relatively short period of time since we began electing our mayor means that we haven’t built time-tested political operations comparable to those of other major cities or states. We’re still on a learning curve, so campaigns in this town tend to have all kinds of openings that invite skullduggery. Seasoned and trustworthy political operatives are in short supply, their roles eagerly adopted by back-slapping cronies and slick new arrivals.
Gray didn’t officially launch his campaign to challenge Fenty until the end of March 2010, relatively late in the game. Although he was D.C. Council chairman, he had more policy than political experience. The campaign was like a fast-moving train with conductors who hopped on board after it had left the station, collecting fares with no tickets to show for them, passing the money around so few knew who was actually paying. Sleight of hand that was clearly too dazzling for either the media or the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance to keep up with. (In fact, on Thursday, the office said the Gray campaign inaccurately documented at least $100,000 in expenses.)
But it was magical. Gray won the election.
Emboldened, a few of these operatives immediately began job-placement activities — for children, friends and even for a fringe former mayoral candidate whose major accomplishment consisted of relentless attacks on Fenty. The fact that they didn’t allow a reasonable amount of time to elapse before undertaking these activities is another indication of their lack of experience.
It didn’t take long for this to be exposed, and thus began the long and painful saga of firings, resignations, investigations, denials, perp walks and guilty pleas that have become a staple of the District’s news cycle.
City governments are often corrupt. Mayors and city council members are prosecuted and imprisoned nationwide. What makes D.C. different is that all of this is happening concurrently, in the nation’s capital, sitting in the shadow of the Congress that denies it voting rights.
This is also the city that I’ve been covering for 40 years as a journalist or talk-show host, conducting town-hall meetings in every ward, listening to the hopes, aspirations (and yes, complaints) of residents who expect integrity from their elected officials. Why? “Because this is Washington, D.C.,” they’d say.
They expected something better. But it’s exactly because this is Washington, D.C., where politics is stunted, that it never gets better.
We don’t have statehood or voting rights in Congress, which means there is limited political space in the District. School board member, council member, mayor, non-voting delegate to Congress, and soon, attorney general. That’s it. Those are all the available opportunities for elected office in the District of Columbia. (Okay, if you insist, there are the positions of advisory neighborhood commissioner and statehood senator and delegate. But, quick, name your ANC and your statehood senator! I rest my case.)
This is not a place you come to channel political ambition by way of local politics. Ask Jesse Jackson. He was elected shadow senator in 1990 with the hope and expectation that the Voting Rights Act would make him a voting U.S. senator. He quickly divested himself of that notion and headed back to Chicago.
If you happen to live in a smaller suburb of the city, you have all of those opportunities plus the state legislature, the Congress or the governor’s mansion. Instead, in the capital of the United States, local politics can’t lead beyond the mayor’s office, so no ambitious political operations or machines exist here. Political operations proceed in fits and starts, and change from election to election.
The result is that a relatively small percentage of the city’s remarkable talent pool is interested in running for office, which sometimes makes room for less-qualified opportunists who view public office as a lifestyle upgrade and taxpayers and campaign contributors as neighborhood ATMs.
In a town in which the largest employer is the government, the relationships between such elected officials, government contractors and wannabe government contractors are at best suspicious, and at worst, well, by now you know the $653,000 shadow campaign story.
So, what should we do about this?
My first instinct is to yell, “Start over!”
That’s what my teenage friends and I used to yell at the movie screen in Guyana when we sauntered into the cheap seats late and the movie had begun. Of course, the projectionist wasn’t about to listen to a group of idiots who demanded the same thing almost every afternoon in August, when schools were closed.
But when I think about politics in the District, all I want to do is yell, “Start over,” presumably with the same result.
The key question is not whether the next mayor should be black or white, or how we can ensure that one race or the other isn’t dominating city politics.
We, the public and the news media, need to know the specific source of every dime that’s contributed to campaigns, and to our elected officials.
We need to get our council members out of the business of approving contracts.
We must have access to details of all government contracts.
We need to end party primary elections, so talented people who are not registered Democrats have a better chance of winning and retaining office in the city.
And, most important, we need to intensify the effort for voting rights and statehood, so we can expand opportunities for candidates citywide.
Because we still have a shadow senator and not a voting member on Capitol Hill, we get a shadow campaign.
Kojo Nnamdi is the host of “The Kojo Nnamdi Show” on WAMU Radio (88.5 FM).
Read Kojo Nnamdi’s 2010 article “For D.C., Vince Gray’s election is a bold step backward.”