The D.C. Council on Tuesday gave final approval to legislation authorizing publicly financed campaigns, clashing with Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who vowed she wouldn’t fund the program.
The bill sailed through passage without discussion or debate, as was expected after the council unanimously approved the measure in January. Under the voluntary system, qualified candidates would receive a base sum that varies by office, maxing out at $160,000 for the mayoral contest, along with a 5-to-1 match on small donations.
Advocates say such financing will open local politics to new candidates, increase the small donors’ power and reduce the sway of wealthy campaign contributors. But critics including Bowser say the program, projected to cost D.C. taxpayers $5 million a year, will waste valuable funds.
About 30 other jurisdictions — including Montgomery County, New York City and San Francisco — have publicly financed campaigns.
Activists wearing “people powered democracy” shirts cheered in the council chambers after lawmakers gave final approval to the public-financing bill, a progressive priority for years.
Their applause was interrupted by an outburst from the District’s shadow senator Michael Brown, who stood up and shouted at the council for not including the shadow congressional delegation in the financing program. The city’s two shadow senators and shadow representative are elected to unpaid roles to advocate statehood.
“We worked hard for you! It’s a shame you don’t support us,” Brown shouted.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) threatened to have him removed, and Brown left the chambers without further incident.
The program is expected to be in place for the 2020 election cycle.
While Bowser said she wouldn’t include money for the program in her budget, legislative sponsors say they could allocate money anyway.
Aides to the mayor did not answer questions about whether she would veto the bill or block its implementation, instead repeating an earlier statement that money spent on “attack ads and donor receptions” shouldn’t be diverted from “pressing needs for residents.”
Bowser has been skeptical of new campaign finance limits, unlike other executives of progressive cities who have worked to undo the influence of donors in recent years. A prolific fundraiser, Bowser has since taking office in 2015 faced repeated criticisms of being too cozy with campaign contributors.
A Washington Post poll last summer showed that District residents rated Bowser negatively concerning her efforts to curb the influence of wealthy political donors; 48 percent said she was doing a poor job whereas 31 percent said she was doing a good or excellent job.
The mayor, who is running for a second term this year and has no prominent challengers, has raised more than $2 million since announcing her reelection bid in late September. She is on track to meet or exceed her 2014 total of roughly $3.6 million in contributions.
Other action taken by the council Tuesday:
• The Northwest Washington street where the Russian Embassy is located will be renamed in honor of Boris Nemtsov, a critic of President Vladimir Putin who was assassinated in 2015. A similar attempt in Congress to do so stalled.
• The council cleared the way for the city’s three representatives to join a new Metro Safety Commission convening Wednesday. One of those nominees, Christopher Geldart, drew opposition from four members of the council as he faced questions over allegations of ethics violations during his tenure leading the District’s emergency management agency.
“He is eminently qualified to serve,” said council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), who joined Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), David Grosso (I-At Large) and Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) in opposing Geldart. “What is in question are ethics concerns that have been raised and substantiated.”
• The council passed permanent legislation to permit bars and restaurants with patios to allow dogs at their outdoor seating. The move came after health inspectors in the fall tried to ban the animals from restaurant patios.
• The council gave preliminary approval to a bill creating a committee to study the District’s high maternal mortality rate. The incidence of women dying before, during or shortly after childbirth in the District is more than twice the national average, according to Allen, the bill’s sponsor.