Close allies of D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) have begun amassing large sums of money that could have unprecedented sway over city politics.
They have created a political action committee similar to a federal super PAC, in that it can accept contributions of unlimited size, and are pushing to raise $1 million before the end of the year.
That would be enough to finance the bulk of a mayoral reelection bid three years early, but Ben Soto, treasurer of the PAC and former campaign treasurer for Bowser, says the money will probably be spent long before then, beginning with bolstering her D.C. Council allies on the ballot next year.
“We’re reaching out to folks who are happy with the mayor and who want to support her, and we’ve had a really good response,” Soto said. “We’re doing what we think is best to move the city forward, and it is independent of her.”
How the PAC is being funded, though, is beginning to draw intense criticism for a mayor who was elected by promising a fresh break from the campaign-finance scandal that clouded the tenure of her predecessor.
More than $300,000 has poured into the pro-Bowser PAC, mostly from corporations that either have business before the city or that are actively seeking it, according to campaign disclosures filed last week.
Multiple developers bidding for rights to parcels in the city’s $200 million revitalization of the Southwest Waterfront area, one of the nation’s largest public works projects, have each donated $10,000 or more. So has Phinis Jones, a longtime supporter of Bowser who stands to profit from a development near the mayor’s planned $55 million Washington Wizards’ practice facility in Southeast.
Three men that Bowser has appointed to powerful boards and commissions also have contributed $10,000 each before or after their position confirmations. A fourth has given $2,500, and a fifth is serving as the PAC’s attorney and is paid by the fund.
Health-care companies and their executives have been the most frequent and largest contributors.
Two — a Virginia company and a board member of a health-care nonprofit — have already contributed 10 times the limit allowed to a mayoral campaign of $2,000.
“It’s exceedingly troubling. This is nurturing a lack of reasonable regulation to keep companies from trying to buy government contracts,” said Craig Holman, who lobbies for stricter campaign-finance laws for the nonprofit Public Citizen. “I fully expect the city to run into similar scandals that we saw under the previous mayor: This is on the road to do so.”
Top aides to Bowser and the organizers of the PAC push back strongly on that suggestion, saying there are few similarities between the pro-Bowser PAC and the alleged “shadow campaign” conducted by city health-care contractor Jeffrey Thompson on behalf of the 2010 mayoral campaign of former mayor Vincent C. Gray (D).
“What people were upset about with Vince Gray was that money was given that was not reported,” said Bowser’s chief of staff, John Falcicchio, who is not affiliated with the PAC. “What you have here is an entity that was formed outside the government to promote and expand the mayor’s agenda, and everything they do is reported.”
Bowser cannot legally affect how the PAC spends its money, and it is not affiliated with her office. But she can fundraise for the PAC and has done so twice, appearing at a Dupont Circle steakhouse and an H Street NE restaurant where organizers were soliciting donations.
The PAC spent more than $30,000 on polling this year, Soto said, including questions to gauge the mayor’s popularity.
Under a quirk in a recently revised D.C. elections law, the pro-Bowser PAC can raise unlimited amounts from contributors in nonelection years. Unlike a federal super PAC, the source of all contributions must be publicly disclosed. The existence of the PAC was first reported by WAMU (88.5 FM).
Last week, Soto, the PAC’s treasurer, told The Washington Post that the mayor’s backers were embarking on a fundraising sprint to try to raise $1 million by the end of the year. After that, contributions to the PAC will be limited to $5,000 per person.
In a riff off her campaign slogan last year — a “fresh start” for all of the District’s eight political wards — Soto dubbed the group FreshPAC.
“If there are initiatives that she is taking on that we think are consistent with . . . bringing prosperity to all eight wards, then we’ll help in any way possible,” Soto said.
Among other local contests next year that the PAC could influence will be a race for a full, four-year term for the Ward 8 D.C. Council seat. LaRuby May, a Bowser campaign organizer, won the right to finish the term of the late Marion Barry there last year with the help of more than $100,000 in contributions from Bowser allies.
With the PAC money, May’s connection to Bowser could figure prominently again.
Even before next year, the PAC’s swelling coffers could affect the political dynamics on the council, especially if members think that their votes will be viewed negatively by the mayor and that the considerable resources of the PAC could be thrown behind a challenger.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who has sparred most with Bowser as she has attempted to consolidate power in her administration and away from the council and the city’s first elected attorney general, offered a terse response when asked about the PAC. “No comment,” he said.
Soto said it was too soon to disclose who of the six council members up for reelection next year the PAC would back.
But FreshPAC said it will support the “council members who think in the same way” as Bowser, he said. “Or if it’s inconsistent with moving all eight wards forward, their opponent may get our help.”
And there probably will be policy initiatives beyond next year’s council races in which the PAC may become involved, Soto said, including public-relations campaigns.
The concerted effort by Bowser allies to funnel money into the PAC is unique for a mayor in the 40-year history of home rule in the District and a rarity nationwide among big-city mayors.
In Los Angeles and Chicago, super PACs roiled recent mayoral elections with millions in outside spending. Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg also worked with federal PACs to further his efforts on gun-control legislation.
Holman, the Public Citizen lobbyist, said the pro-Bowser PAC is taking the city in the wrong direction, away from other notable big-city mayors who have recently sought to temper the influence of outside money, including Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter (D).
Linda Beebe, president of the League of Women Voters of D.C., said the organization has just begun to study FreshPAC and has a series of meetings planned next month about money and influence in D.C. politics. Of FreshPAC, she said, “I am sure this will be part of our discussion.”
Bowser appointees who have contributed $10,000 to the PAC include Frederick Hill, whose experience for a seat on the Board of Zoning Adjustments was questioned; Alan Bubes, a member of the Washington Convention and Sports Authority Board of Directors; and Buwa Binitie, a Housing Finance Agency board member. Messages left for the three were not immediately returned.
Binitie is also among a core group behind the PAC with close ties to former mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), including Jones, Bryan S. Irving, Earle C. Horton III and Soto, who also served as Fenty’s campaign treasurer.
Soto said that because the PAC’s internal polling is showing Bowser as popular in her first year, it was the perfect time to press for fundraising.
“D.C.,” he said, “to me, man, it’s always political season in D.C.”