When Muriel E. Bowser was running for mayor last year, her competitors questioned whether the two-term council member had the experience to lead the nation’s capital. Bowser said she did, and for what she might lack, she would surround herself with wise counsel.
Bowser (D) already had in mind the person to make good on that promise: Beverly L. Perry, a former lobbyist the mayor likens to her own, personal “Valerie Jarrett,” President Obama’s White House confidante.
As an executive for Pepco, the electric utility that serves the city, Perry had stood out to Bowser for her Rolodex filled with Washington power brokers and as a woman who had gained entry to the corporate boardroom. She also had become a mentor to some of the District’s fastest-rising African American women — a voice of calm, experience and, when needed, restraint. The latter, Bowser knew, was an element that had been lacking from the inner circle of her mentors. And without such a throttle, voters had soured on Adrian M. Fenty (D) as too brash to be reelected mayor.
“I was very — how should I say? — fixed on recruiting Beverly to our administration,” said Bowser, who has created the new position of senior adviser for Perry. “Her contacts and her entrees . . . have been very helpful to our administration.”
But nearing the one-year mark of Bowser’s term, Perry is facing a major test of whether her position of influence, meant to help Bowser, could also hurt, adding to a perception that the mayor’s office is too cozy with monied interests.
Under pressure last month, the mayor and her allies abandoned a political action committee that was raising unlimited donations from companies with business before the city, after the District’s attorney general and others said it created a perception of pay-to-play politics. Now, Perry has become a public lightning rod in the proposed takeover of her former employer by Chicago-based nuclear energy giant Exelon.
District regulators rejected the $6.4 billion merger in August, saying the deal that would create the nation’s largest electric-utility holding company would be bad for D.C. customers and for the city’s goal of encouraging development of renewable energy sources.
Bowser supported the decision to halt the deal but then faced pressure from the utility companies to keep it alive. Her administration got involved and privately negotiated a new package of concessions from the companies. At the urging of the mayor’s office, the District’s Public Service Commission has reopened the case and is fast-tracking a new review.
Some D.C. Council members, environmentalists and good-government advocates have publicly questioned whether Perry nudged Bowser to do the about-face that has revived the merger and that would provide a windfall to shareholders of Pepco — as well as to Perry herself.
Perry said in interviews that she recused herself from the deliberations as Bowser’s office took up the merger talks. Bowser’s city administrator, her director of energy and environment, and senior members of Bowser’s office of legal counsel — who report to Perry — all said that Perry was walled off from discussions regarding Pepco and Exelon.
“I have stayed away from it; I have had absolutely nothing to do with it,” Perry said.
She also disputed any special financial incentive. “Anything that I would receive at this point from a merger, I would receive no matter if I worked for the mayor or for Wal-Mart,” she said.
Perry owned 47,600 shares of Pepco stock and had an interest in tens of thousands of additional shares through long-term incentive programs when, in 2013, she stepped down from her role as senior vice president of Pepco, according to federal records reviewed by The Washington Post. Perry, in fact, is potentially one of the largest individual beneficiaries of the merger.
In a series of interviews, Perry declined to provide more detailed information about her stake in the company but said she still owned “about” what was publicly disclosed before she retired.
If that’s the case, the value of Perry’s stock would now be about $1.2 million, an increase of about $300,000, over its pre-merger-announcement price. It would also rise by about $75,000 more when a deal is finalized. Exelon has agreed to pay a price per share about $1.58 above where Pepco stock closed Monday, according to federal filings by the companies.
Critics see the proximity of a former Pepco executive to the government officials in Bowser’s office working to finish the deal as nothing short of nefarious.
“Pepco and Exelon have always been very confident — overly confident — in their dealings with D.C. on this merger, and we’ve heard it’s because they believed they had an inside track, someone on the inside. We always believed that was Beverly Perry,” said Anya Schoolman, director of the nonprofit Community Power Network, at a recent news conference of environmentalists who oppose the merger.
For that, Perry faces a perception battle in seeking to not further erode a troubling spot in Bowser’s recent 58 percent approval rating. According to a recent Post poll, D.C. residents give Bowser negative marks for coziness with corporate interests, saying her administration has not done a good job at reducing the influence of wealthy political donors on government decisions or to rid the city government of corruption.
The District’s Public Service Commission is scheduled to hear testimony from Bowser’s team Wednesday and plans to issue a final decision early next year.
The spotlight the Pepco deal has placed on Perry is one that she and her backers hope fades quickly and does not mar the reputation of a woman known widely in the District for her personal generosity — as well as wild success from humble beginnings.
Perry, 68, grew up on a tobacco farm in North Carolina, and despite objections from her parents, got married and moved to Washington shortly after high school. Later divorced, but with a young son, she worked her way through night school and then night law school, first at George Washington University and then Georgetown University, often bringing her son with her to the law library after class.After eight years of the routine, Perry had to ask her sister what one does with so much free time.
“I could not figure out what people do, I mean, after 6 o’clock, I couldn’t figure that out,” she said.
Perry never really did figure out how to stop working long hours.
During the day, she moved up the ranks as a lawyer at the Justice Department, then the Environmental Protection Agency and then the Interior Department. But at night and on weekends, her passion for politics emerged.
In 1990, a friend mentioned an opening for a lobbying job at Pepco, and after she got it, Perry finally had a day job that married her skills as a lawyer with her love for politics.
The position took Perry to Capitol Hill, where she lobbied for provisions in the Energy Policy Act — a precursor to deregulation. Perry was also in charge of government relations with the District as it spiraled toward bankruptcy in the mid-1990s, and Anthony A. Williams, who would become mayor, was hired to begin sorting out the District’s finances.
“Every community meeting I went to, there was this woman sitting in the back of the audience. I figured she must really be interested,” Williams said, adding that he soon learned Perry’s motivation: The District was millions of dollars past due in on its electric bill. “She wanted to get paid,” Williams said. Perry kept going to meetings, and Pepco’s spot in line on the District’s list of due creditors kept moving up. “Beverly is a tenacious person who does not give up easily,” he said.
Over the years, Perry presided over dozens of other battles, with federal regulators and with the District. And she often won by being the most prepared. Anyone working on her staff was required to have five members of Congress that they could call on for a favorable vote. At the end of the last decade, the nonprofit Public Citizen criticized Pepco, saying the company in some years spent more on lobbying than it paid in taxes.
Meanwhile, Perry learned to play golf at Hains Point so she could hobnob with Pepco’s chief executive.
Perry’s charmed career could easily be complete, and she could be relaxing in retirement. But the baby grand piano she rolled into a recently renovated room for a retirement hobby hasn’t been touched, and her condo in Florida — which Perry said she paid for with some of the $800,000 in Pepco stock she has cashed out during the last decade — sits dark, with a golf bag gathering dust. “Nobody is more surprised to find me where I am than I am,” she says.
After Bowser won the mayoral race, she asked Perry to consider being her chief of staff, according to three people with knowledge of Perry’s deliberations.
Perry declined, saying she didn’t want that much daily responsibility. But the position she accepted has afforded her almost as much power.
Most of the city’s lawyers in the executive branch report to her, as does the office that lobbies members of the D.C. Council, and agencies that deal with community relations. Perry has an office budget of $2 million and makes the same $200,000 as Bowser’s chief of staff, John Falcicchio.
One blind spot that Perry has had so far in protecting Bowser’s image involved FreshPAC, the political action committee set up by Bowser’s top campaign aides. Perry said that when she learned of the committee, after it was formed, it did not strike her as particularly unusual: “Every governor and almost every member of Congress” has one, Perry said. The committee was shut down last month, with Bowser acknowledging that it had become a distraction to her ability to govern.
But Mignon Clyburn, 53, a Federal Communications Commission member and daughter of Rep. James E. Clyburn, (D-S.C.), said that Perry looks out for Bowser’s reputation as much as anyone.She also counts Perry as a mentor.
“She is fiercely loyal,” Mignon Clyburn said. “But the advice doesn’t all come sugar-coated. . . . If she sees you heading to a place that’s undesirable, she will tell you.”
It may not be Perry’s last mentoring job, but her position as senior adviser in Bowser’s office will be the last one for which she’ll be paid for advice — or for anything, Perry says.
“This is my last job, the job I didn’t expect to have. I have nothing personal that I am trying to achieve, other than help her to work to her success.”