It may look like a campaign rally, and its honoree is on the brink of running for a third term as mayor, but the "50th Birthday Party Celebration" for Mayor Marion Barry is just a nice little way of wishing hizzoner the best after a half century on Earth, organizers of the event swear.
Just the mayor and 5,000 of his closest friends.
Barry's birthday does fall at about the time of the event, to be held March 8, but already the party-poopers are grousing that this is really a political event in an election year.
And why? Just because the long list of patrons and sponsors includes District employes, city contractors, local labor leaders and political activists. Organizers say the party is expected to draw some 5,000 people to the Convention Center at $15 a head. That's in addition to the nearly 80 patrons who each paid $500 and some 800 sponsors who have paid $50 apiece for two tickets.
Barry has not announced his candidacy for a third term, instead choosing the coy approach of dropping hints of what he would do "if" he runs -- such as announcing who his campaign manager "would" be. (If he runs, it would be Anita Bonds, a key strategist in his last two mayoral races.)
This delay in announcing has some side benefits, in particular the role that city employes can take in staging "nonpartisan," nominally apolitical events such as a birthday party. If this were a campaign event, city employes could not help organize it or sell tickets to raise funds for a candidate.
D.C. City Council member John Wilson (D-Ward 2) has other concerns, charging that city employes are planning the party on D.C. government time. Regardless of whether the extravaganza is political or not, party planning is not in the job description of city workers being paid with taxpayer dollars.
Betty King, a special assistant to the mayor for boards and commissions, has done much of the party organizing but has said she has done it on her own time.
City employes are subject to the federal Hatch Act, which prevents them from taking part in partisan political activities. As long as Barry is not officially a candidate, employes do not have as much risk of running afoul of the law.
John Hechinger, the city's Democratic National committeeman, is cochairing the party committee and said he was asked to serve by King.
"She [King] was representing that the mayor requested that I do that," Hechinger said. "I think that almost all politicians have gotten to the point where they have birthday parties. It's a way of raising money. The president does it."
Hechinger said it is not unusual for people to question whether this type of event is really nonpolitical. He said the president will frequently go on "nonpolitical barnstorming tours" that opponents claim are actually political trips. "The fact is that anything the mayor does from cutting a ribbon or having his birthday party is bound to be determined to have some political offshoot," Hechinger said.
He said he believes it might be advisable for the party organizer to file reports on contributions and expenditures, as required for political events. "It might be healthy to do that," Hechinger said.
Keith Vance, director of the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance, has ruled that the group putting on the celebration, Friends of Marion Barry, does not have to file such reports with his office because they have said the party is nonpolitical.
King said that any money left over after paying the cost of the party probably will go to charity.
But Wilson raises the point that if reports are not filed, the public will have no way of knowing just what happened to the money. The money raised for the party could secretly be diverted to the mayor's campaign, despite assurances from King and other organizers that that will not happen, he said.
In addition, people working on the party could submit inflated bills and then channel the excess money into the mayor's campaign in the form of contributions, Wilson added.
"If he [Barry] can't afford to have a party [with his own money], then he shouldn't have it," Wilson said.
Wilson and others also pointed out that the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, which has loaned office space to the party organizers, is partially funded by the city government. He said the Chamber received $225,000 last year and is seeking a similar amount this year.
D.C. City Council members Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large), Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) and Wilson declined to be honorary patrons for the affair, while the other 10 city council members agreed to do so.
Schwartz said that the fact the mayor will be running for reelection makes the party a political event.
"He had a choice to have a small intimate affair or a citywide extravaganza," Schwartz said. "Since he chose to have a big citywide extravaganza in an election year, then it should be looked upon as a political function."
Barry apparently will be able to have his birthday cake and eat it, too.