The city's real estate industry has targeted three members of the D.C. City Council for defeat in this fall's election as part of an unusual new political effort aimed at transforming the makeup of a City Council it views as overtly hostile to business interests.
Three of the city's largest real estate organizations have formed a new political "umbrella group" that has begun to recruit probusiness candidates to run against incumbent council members David A. Clarke (D-Ward 1), Polly Shackleton (D-Ward 3) and William Spaulding (D-Ward 5.)
The prospective candidates are being promised financial contributions and campaign support, including the services of a political consulting firm that has been retained by the new coalition of real estate brokers, home builders and apartment and office building owners.
"They're out to get me," says Clarke, who likens the effort to former President Nixon's "enemies list" and the "hit lists" of the National Conservative Political Action Committee. "It's negative politics; they are trying to encourage the politics of fear. They want council members to be so afraid of them they will not risk incurring their wrath."
The industry leaders deny their campaign is negative and say they are acting because of a litany of "antibusiness" legislation, including passage of the extension of rent controls and restrictions on condominium conversions.
However, the council did repeal the city's real estate speculation tax. Moreover, some tenant groups view the council as probusiness and note that even under rent control substantial rent increases are allowed for some types of apartments.
"It's a defensive posture of survival on our part," says John T. O'Neill, executive vice president of the Apartment and Office Building Association and a key player in the joint industry effort, which also includes leaders of the Washington Board of Realtors and the D.C. Builders Association.
"They the City Council have destroyed the rental industry in this city. The home building industry is down the tubes. New construction is down the tubes," O'Neill said. "And the viewpoint of the industry is, if we don't do something entirely different and dramatic this time, we're not going to fare any better in the future."
O'Neill's harsh criticism of the council is not endorsed by most other city business leaders, many of whom enjoy easy access to the council's chambers. Greater Washington Board of Trade executive vice president John R. Tydings, whose group has declined to participate in the real estate leaders' new coalition, says the City Council has shown some sensitivity for the concerns of business, citing its 1980 passage of an industry-written workers' compensation bill that rolled back benefits to workers with job-related injuries. In addition, the council recently aroused the ire of some community groups by striking down the city's tax on real estate speculation, after lobbying by O'Neill and others.
"Sure, the council hasn't gone as far as we'd like," says Tydings. "But I wouldn't want to make a blanket condemnation of the council. I don't think it's fair to say that all of businesses' troubles in Washington are generated by the City Council."
Many city businessmen have grumbled that ever since the first home rule government took office in January 1975 the City Council has been mostly populated by "ex-civil rights workers and street activists" who have little appreciation or understanding of business concerns. Yet for the most part, O'Neill said, city business leaders have blindly contributed money to all candidates running for office, regardless of their stance on business issues.
"Anybody who signed up on the ballot got money from the business community," O'Neill said.
City campaign finance records show that while the real estate community gave extensively to all sides in the last mayoral race (the Board of Realtors, for example, contributed $1,000 apiece to all three major candidates during the same week in September 1978), it has tended to restrict its contributions in council races to incumbents.
But their money has had little impact in influencing legislation, at least from the real estate industry's point of view. The council, responding to tenants' organizations and other advocacy groups, has passed a series of laws, such as its 1979 rent control act, that were strongly opposed by some segments of the industry. Ironically, many tenant groups claimed the council caved in too much to the industry on rent control by permitting increases on recently vacated apartments of as much as 20 percent a year.
"That law was such a moderate form of rent control," says Marie Nahikian, a former tenant activist who now works for the city housing department. "It was a classic example of the council balancing the interests of both sides and coming out with a compromise."
But as real estate leaders see it, the mere existence of any rent control law shows the council's ideological bias against landlords and, some add, the free enterprise system itself.
"There are some people on that council you could never convince that we shouldn't have socialism," says J. Gerald Lustine, a real estate developer who has been active in the new coalition. "For many years, we've had no input into that government whatsoever."
That kind of hard-line rhetoric is one reason why the Board of Trade turned down offers to join the real estate leaders when they first began holding a series of meetings more than a year ago aimed at forming the coalition that would give business a new mechanism to flex its political muscle.
One of the real estate group's first steps was to hire Sam Newman and George Rodericks, political consultants who served in the administration of former mayor Walter E. Washington, to conduct a $20,000 detailed political analysis of the four wards where incumbents would be running for reelection in 1982. Another $40,000 was committed for the consultants to provide technical support to the candidates endorsed by the coalition.
Already, the real estate leaders have begun talking with such prospective candidates as Richard Lee, a 38-year-old florist who plans to run for Spaulding's Ward 5 seat on a platform that calls for cutting workers' compensation benefits and lowering the minimum wage for teen-agers.
"We feel pretty good about each other," said Lee, who acknowledges that the real estate leaders have discussed campaign contributions and other support with him. "Basically, they told me they were looking for somebody who they could discuss their issues with and that heretofore they haven't gotten that cooperation. All they said they wanted was an open ear."
The coalition had originally planned to target all four ward council members up for reelection this year: Shackleton, Clarke, Spaulding and Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6). But some industry leaders, such as Board of Realtors' president James Eichberg, say they might end up recommending that the group endorse Winter, the only one of the four to reverse her stand in November and vote against the speculation tax opposed by the industry.
The real estate leaders' game plan was quickly dismissed at the District Building. Clarke said he was "honored to be on the list" and predicted the tactic would backfire. In his ward, which includes Hispanic and "Bohemian" sections of the city in and around Adams-Morgan, the group would have trouble finding any candidate "who wasn't to the left of me," he said.
Shackleton and Spaulding, meanwhile, said they were unaware of the industry's plans.