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Top Fundraisers Feel The Heat in Ward 4

By Yolanda Woodlee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 27, 2007

Toward the end of a Ward 4 political forum Wednesday night, a campaign volunteer, Vanessa Dixon, stepped up to the lectern and addressed the underlying anger often directed at the two best-financed candidates in next Tuesday's special election.

Dixon said candidate Muriel Bowser, an advisory neighborhood commissioner, accepted campaign funds from a development company and supported that company's multimillion-dollar project. Dixon also reminded the audience that Michael A. Brown had pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor election law violation a decade ago.

"If they can't be trusted in small matters," she said, "how can they be trusted with the larger responsibility of being a Ward 4 candidate?"

Dixon, who is backing Graylan Scott Hagler in the 19-person race, said it was time to raise in a public forum issues that have circulated in private and on the Internet.

Bowser, of Riggs Park on the ward's eastern side, received a $500 contribution in January from a Rockville firm, Ellis Denning Construction and Development, according to filings with the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance. She also received at least seven other contributions through limited liability corporations related to the company. Company officials could not be reached for comment yesterday.

In an interview yesterday, she said that at a February meeting of her Advisory Neighborhood Commission, she introduced a resolution recommending that the D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustment approve a variance in her neighborhood for the developer. The company is planning a $300 million project, known as the Dakotas, with high-end condominiums and a supermarket and other stores.

"I have not accepted any money to give anybody anything," Bowser said. "I'm on record as supporting this project long before I became a candidate."

Bowser, addressing about 150 people at St. Paul's Episcopal Church on Wednesday, defended her support for the project.

"This project is good for our community," Bowser said during the forum. "This developer is working with our community to bring positive change. Yes, I voted for that and would vote again."

Kathy S. Williams, general counsel to the campaign finance office, has said that publicly disclosed contributions are exempt from the District's conflict of interest law.

Brown's election law violation has been raised before. He pleaded guilty in 1997 to a misdemeanor count of making a contribution above the legal limit to the 1994 reelection campaign of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).

"I made a mistake," Brown said during the forum. "I took my medicine, but nothing was like the medicine I had to take from my father when he found out. . . . I took responsibility." He is the son of the late Ronald H. Brown, who was commerce secretary in the Clinton administration when he died in a plane crash.

During the final week of campaigning, some candidates and residents are lashing out at Bowser, who has raised $371,000 in the campaign, and at Brown, who has raised $183,284. Opponents have criticized them for accepting corporate contributions and have pointed out that more than 80 percent of their money has come from outside the ward, according to campaign reports.

The Ward 4 special election will fill the remaining 19 months of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's term on the council.

Fundraising reports this week showed that the combined total for Bowser and Brown was more than the combined total for all the other candidates. Candidate Tony Towns was in third place with $45,795, followed by Renee Bowser and Charles Gaither, who each raised slightly more than $31,000. At the lower end, T.A. Uqdah and Lisa Comfort Bradford each raised about $5,000, according to finance records.

The financial front-runners, Bowser, who is supported by Fenty, and Brown, who ran against him for mayor, have been jokingly referred to as "the two MBs," for their initials. The rancor against them has come from wealthier sections of the ward, including Colonial Village and Crestwood, where Fenty lives, and working-class neighborhoods such as Lamond Riggs and Petworth, where Wednesday's forum was held.

Bowser has also faced questions about whether she will be independent of Fenty, who is campaigning heavily for her.

During his unsuccessful run for mayor last year, Brown acknowledged that he was involved in two civil suits, which are pending. In one case, a printing company owner sued him over a business deal at the Washington Convention Center that soured. Brown said the disagreement was over "a good-faith investment." At the same time, he was engaged in a dispute with Verizon Center, which sued him over $636,000 owed for a leased luxury suite. Brown called the lawsuits "the price of doing business."

During several forums in the past two weeks, Hagler and another candidate, Douglass Sloan, led a chant by candidates meant to embarrass Brown and Bowser. "Ward 4 is not for sale!" the candidates yelled, while clapping. On at least one occasion, Brown and Bowser joined in the chant, saying they agreed with the others.

Other candidates have acknowledged meeting secretly to strategize on how to stop the momentum of Bowser and Brown.

The Ward 4 candidates often agree on the issues. They all want to improve the Georgia Avenue commercial strip, build affordable housing, improve schools and reduce crime. Many are concerned about overdevelopment.

In Takoma, residents are worried about too much building near the Metro station and the loss of green space. Elsewhere in upper Northwest, there is concern that the lots of large houses will be subdivided into two properties. There is also worry over what will happen to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which is scheduled to close in 2011.

As a result of their similar positions on the issues, the candidates often look for ways to distinguish themselves.

Carroll Green described the field as "one independent, one Statehood-Green, 15 independent Democrats and two special interests candidates." Green was referring to Bowser and Brown as special interest candidates.

"I don't take corporate or developer's contributions," said Renee Bowser, who is not related to Muriel Bowser. "They're trying to buy your vote."

Although some residents at forums this week said they are pleased that questions about candidates' ethics are coming to light, others said it is disappointing to see the campaign get personal.

Jackie Mitchell of 16th Street Heights said after the forum that she likes Uqdah and Lisa P. Bass because they have stayed above the fray.

"If you're going to make an attack on two people, then do it on all 19 candidates," Mitchell said. "I don't think anyone up there is perfect."

Staff writer Elissa Silverman contributed to this report.

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