District voters could decide in November whether to ban direct corporate contributions to local politicians and candidates after activists delivered more than 30,000 signatures to the city elections board Monday to get an initiative on the ballot.
D.C. Public Trust, a grass-roots group, needed about 23,200 signatures from registered voters, or 5 percent, to get Initiative 70 on the ballot. They also had to get 5 percent of voters in five of the city’s eight wards. Organizers said they exceeded expectations, getting more than 5 percent of registered voters in wards 1 through 6.
The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics will begin a 30-day review process that involves a more thorough examination than candidates get on the ballot, said Alysoun McLaughlin, a spokeswoman for the board.
The board will check every name and address to ensure that the person is a registered voter. There will also be a random sampling of 100 signatures from each ward to check authenticity, she said.
In addition, the challenge period, during which a citizen can raise questions about the petitions, begins Thursday.
Initiative 70 would prohibit direct corporate contributions to campaigns, constituent service funds, legal defense funds and inaugural and transition activities.
The pending initiative comes as two council members have pleaded guilty to various ethical lapses; two campaign aides to Mayor Vincent C. Gray have pleaded guilty to their involvement in paying an opponent to work on behalf of Gray’s campaign; and a third was charged Monday in connection with illegal campaign contributions. A federal investigation into campaign contributions and independent expenditures continues.
About 300 volunteers fanned out and collected signatures at grocery stores, farmers markets and other venues, said Sylvia Brown, a Ward 7 community activist and chairman of the group.
Ward 1 community activist Bryan Weaver said the biggest obstacle to gathering signatures was anger turned to apathy. “We anticipated the people who were going to be critical of it. ... What we didn’t expect were people who had thrown their hands up,” Weaver said. “It was across the city. ... There was this growing sense of anger that should be harnessed.”
During his monthly news conference, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) refused to state his position on the proposed referendum. But in an off-camera meeting with reporters later, Mendelson said he has concerns with the referendum but isn’t likely to campaign against it.
“I think the restriction will actually impede disclosure and favor incumbents, and I don’t think that is a good thing,” Mendelson said. “But I recognize voters are very frustrated and that is why they are pushing the initiative, and I don’t want to interfere with that.”
Mendelson was selected by his peers to replace former council Chairman Kwame R. Brown, who resigned last month before pleading guilty to a felony bank fraud charge and a misdemeanor campaign violation.
Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), a chief proponent of the initiative, counters that it’s up to the council to strengthen disclosure laws. He added “the weakest disclosure laws are done by corporations. ... The council could have fixed that, and did not.” Wells said that he fears that Mendelson is trying to “protect the status quo” on the council.
“He has not been in front of ethics reform already, and I don’t think he wants to rock the boat,” Wells said.
This post has been updated since it was first published.