A grass-roots effort to decriminalize D.C. sex work hit a major hurdle last fall, when the city council declined to vote on a bill that would make Washington the first U.S. city to eliminate penalties for prostitution.

Now a national group wants to help take the issue directly to voters, offering deep-pocketed donors and veteran strategists to build support for a ballot measure.

But the Campaign to Decriminalize Sex Work is facing intense opposition from an unlikely source: the local sex worker activists who were pushing for the bill in the first place.

They want nothing to do with the group because one of its founders was accused of sexual misconduct during his time as a marijuana advocate. The local activists also are suspicious of the predominantly white national organization, arguing that black, Latino and transgender women bear the brunt of anti-prostitution laws. And they worry a defeat at the ballot box could hurt their cause if local lawmakers see constituents rejecting decriminalization.

The concerns illustrate rifts in the nascent sex work movement as it tries to move from the fringe to the mainstream. And they arise as political leaders are grappling with whether the District is drifting too far to the left, especially with a congressional vote on statehood looming. Republicans in Congress have mocked the efforts to decriminalize sex work. And another group of activists is trying to qualify a ballot measure to restrict police from enforcing laws against the use of psychedelic mushrooms.

“Are we going to have a ballot with sex work and ’shrooms on it?” said Chuck Thies, a local political operative. “Some people would look at that and think, ‘What the heck is going on in D.C.?’ ”

The D.C.-based Sex Worker Advocates Coalition released a statement Thursday saying it would refuse to work with the Campaign to Decriminalize Sex Work, in part because it does not want to associate with Rob Kampia, the campaign’s political director.

Kampia lost positions in the marijuana advocacy field after there were complaints about him having relationships with female subordinates a decade ago and making lewd comments about women.

In an interview, Kampia said he feels bad his past misconduct is interfering with efforts to decriminalize sex work. He said he is no longer vulgar in the workplace and dismissed the complaints from local activists as typical infighting in liberal movements.

He also said he has paid for sex workers, in part because “it’s safer for me to do that, politically.” In the aftermath of the accusations against him, he said, he concluded sex workers would be less likely to be “babbling” about their encounters than those who are not paid for the intimate contact.

Melissa Sontag Broudo, the campaign’s general counsel, said the focus on Kampia loses sight of the women at the forefront of the organization. She also said Kampia’s fundraising savvy and relationships with donors are crucial for an underfunded movement.

“If we want to bring it to the next level of actually changing laws, we need those resources,” said Sontag Broudo, a longtime defense attorney and sex worker activist. “We need to put personal infighting aside for the larger goal, which is to not have people arrested for prostitution.”

Tamika Spellman, an advocate for D.C. sex workers, says she sees Kampia’s venture into sex work as an inappropriate attempt to “regain some legitimacy in the world of activism.”

“I want the money, don’t get me wrong,” Spellman said. “It could do some magnificent things for this movement. But so long as something is attached with Mr. Kampia, it’s going to be a no-go.”

From cannabis to sex work

Kampia, 51, co-founded the Marijuana Policy Project, which has led the charge for the legalization of medical and recreational cannabis.

He took a three-month leave from the organization in 2010 to undergo therapy after sleeping with a female subordinate.

The Washington City Paper, citing former employees, reported that year that Kampia frequently made lewd comments about women and dated a teenage intern. He stepped down from the organization in 2017 and was forced to leave the board of a cannabis trade association as the #MeToo movement intensified.

Kampia next set his sights on eliminating penalties for prostitution.

“I’m about the freedom of the mind and freedom of the body,” he said. “I am one of the only people in the U.S. who specializes in making illegal things legal.”

In the summer of 2018, he and three women launched the Decriminalize Sex Work organization. At a summit in San Francisco, Kampia brought together marijuana advocates, sex worker activists and libertarian angel investor Scott Banister to strategize about how to accomplish their goals.

Kampia said in his more than two decades as a marijuana activist, he has cultivated a donor network of rich libertarians whom he can ask to fund efforts to decriminalize sex work.

But resistance to his involvement grew over the next months.

A group of 23 sex worker advocacy groups from across the country signed a letter in March demanding that Kampia resign and “cease all involvement in any organizing spaces that are survivor-centered and led.”

“No one should have access and resources to leverage abusive power over a community he has sexually harmed,” the letter stated. “It is not his ‘right’ to organize alongside us in this movement, as a client, a funder, or from any other position he may claim.”

The campaign has partnered with sex worker activists on legislative and outreach efforts in six states and the District and released scorecards for Democratic presidential candidates on their prostitution policies. It is spearheading the effort for a D.C. ballot measure after it saw promising internal polling, said spokeswoman Kaytlin Bailey.

Kampia would not be directly involved in the ballot measure, Bailey said, and would not be in the same room as D.C. activists during meetings because he lives in Austin.

But D.C. activists rebuffed the group in initial meetings, citing Kampia’s involvement and objecting to a national organization proposing a ballot measure without their support.

“They aren’t even listening to the on-the-ground voices when there’s a very clear directive to step back,” said Kate D’Adamo, a D.C. advocate for sex worker rights.

Kampia said he was confident the ballot measure would succeed even without local activists as spokespeople.

“If you ask me to choose what’s more important for the electorate, the voters of D.C. or the activists who I’ve never met?” Kampia said. “I would choose the voters over activists I’ve never met.”

The issue of race

Je’Kendria Trahan, executive director of the local group Collective Action for Safe Spaces, said transgender women of color should be leading the charge because they are the community most marginalized by criminal penalties for sex work.

At least 26 transgender or gender-nonconforming people were killed in the United States last year, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Most of them were black transgender women, including two killed just outside the District. Both women had at some point in their lives turned to sex work to survive.

Some activists say they fear a repeat of the marijuana legalization movement, where those who won licenses to legally grow or sell marijuana have been largely white, while those punished for illegal use of the drug have been disproportionately black and Latino. The language of the proposed sex work initiative does not permit brothels and instead focuses on removing criminal penalties.

“As someone who has been in D.C. for 15 years, I have seen how organizations and movements can become destabilized by people who don’t have grass-roots connections [to] black trans women,” said Trahan, who identifies as black and non-binary.

Bailey said that concern is precisely why the Campaign for Decriminalization of Sex Work wants to team up with local transgender women of color. A January email she provided to The Washington Post shows her expressing concern to a local activist that documents filed to launch the ballot initiative would list white activists as the campaign representatives.

“I don’t want to put down two white people as placeholders because we couldn’t afford a delay,” Bailey wrote. “We would prefer to include community members rather than elevate the cis white people who are willing to work with us at this time.”

The organization listed a white libertarian activist treasurer and a female libertarian activist who is a person of color as campaign chair.

In an interview, Bailey said, “Obviously our efforts to collaborate are not going well. We cannot pass the mic to someone who won’t take it.”

“We are not trying to whitewash this movement,” Bailey said. “We are trying to bring resources to this fight.”

Ceyenne Doroshow, a black trans woman recently hired by the organization, said she was frustrated by the criticism of the group’s leadership.

“How many black conglomerates do you know dedicating their money for black trans women? . . . How many Fortune 500 companies are doing this? They’re not,” she said. “It’s about getting people out of jail.”

Other D.C. activists say they fear a defeat at the ballot box could undermine a years-long effort to decriminalize sex work, which continues to be a controversial issue in the District.

Opponents of the effort, including some anti-trafficking advocates and some District neighborhood commissioners, have argued eliminating criminal penalties for sex work would put more women at risk of exploitation and abuse and turn the nation’s capital into a hub for prostitution.

Members of the D.C. Council can also overturn ballot measures, as they did recently for an initiative to raise the minimum wage for tipped workers.

The D.C. Board of Elections has scheduled a March hearing on the sex work initiative to decide whether it meets the requirements for a ballot measure, such as not violating the Constitution and not appropriating city funds. Supporters would still need to collect enough qualifying signatures from voters.

Meanwhile, local advocates for sex workers say they are prepared to continue building public support for decriminalization.

“We had to fight just to be able to get condoms distributed,” Spellman said. “We have to fight for everything, and it’s not fair for someone who is so far removed to think that this is the shiny new thing that they want to be involved in, that they can just come in and throw some money in it.”