The D.C. Council returned to work Tuesday, setting out a good-government agenda that will force a quick decision on campaign finance reform in a city that has been plagued by pay-to-play politics.
Council members introduced more than a half-dozen bills to increase transparency in campaign fundraising and to limit the influence of big donors who do business with the city.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who has said she would run again for mayor in 2018, opposed such measures last year on the grounds that they might run afoul of the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case, which said the government cannot restrict independent political expenditures by companies, nonprofit groups, unions or associations.
If new limits are erected before the start of her reelection campaign, they could diminish any financial advantage that Bowser could reap as the incumbent.
The council does not have much time to work, however. Bowser announced her first run for mayor in March 2013, more than 18 months before Election Day. That means the council would have to pass legislation in less than two months if it wants to make sure candidates who declare early would not have a period with advantage before new restrictions kick in.
Former mayor Vincent C. Gray, back on the dais for his first council meeting since losing reelection to Bowser two years ago, said he would support quick action on fundraising restrictions. But he said it might already be too late to ensure a level playing field in 2018, when he has not ruled out a rematch against Bowser.
“Who knows when the campaign is kicked off,” Gray said. “Some people are already out raising money, I suspect.” The former mayor said he would add to the half-dozen bills introduced Tuesday on the topic, resubmitting a package of reforms he proposed as mayor, when he was mired in allegations that his own campaign had taken unreported cash from a city contractor. Most of Gray’s proposals were stifled at the time.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) sought to frame the session as one about campaign finance reform and ethics even before Tuesday’s meeting. He said that after last year’s fast-moving session, in which the council increased the minimum wage to $15 an hour and approved a new tax to fund paid family leave, the council should focus on keeping its own house in order.
“It’s time for real reform and to alleviate any perception of pay-to-play politics in District government,” said Mendelson, who introduced two measures that stalled last year. Those measures include a bill from D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D), a potential mayoral candidate, that aims to curb donor influence by limiting contributions from those who do “high-value business” with city government. Any such contractors who contribute to candidates, political action committees or accounts that politicians create to help constituents would be barred from competing for city business for two years afterward.
The bill is largely seen as a response to a PAC set up by Bowser associates after her 2014 mayoral win. Bowser’s backers solicited contributions of $10,000 or more from individuals and companies, including some seeking contracts with the city. Her former campaign finance chairman said the group aimed to raise $1 million in the mayor’s first year in office.
But Bowser’s supporters closed the PAC under pressure after developers and executives who had made donations later accompanied the mayor on a trip to China.
In a statement, Racine urged the council to listen to fed-up constituents.
“District residents have made it clear that they are sick and tired of the appearance of pay-to-play politics,” Racine said. “This proposal adds significant disclosure requirements and would make our campaign-finance laws among the strongest and most transparent in the nation.”
Mendelson said he was surprised so many other council members also proposed good-government measures.
Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) introduced the Clean Elections Amendment Act of 2017, a measure she said would tighten campaign finance laws in a post-Citizens United landscape. The bill would draw a “bright line” between campaigns and outside groups making independent expenditures, she said.
“If an outside group fundraises with a candidate, republishes their campaign materials, puts out mailers or ads after discussing them with the candidate, . . . the group clearly isn’t independent,” Silverman said.
Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), incoming chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which would hold hearings on the measures, introduced a bill to increase the frequency of disclosures by lobbyists. Currently, as much as six months can go by — and measures can be introduced and passed into law — before groups must disclose whether they were lobbying for or against bills.
Allen said he was disappointed that a provision similar to the one Racine introduced narrowly failed last year. He said he would begin studying the various proposals introduced Tuesday to determine whether any combination could be quickly brought up for a hearing and vote in time to become law for the 2018 election cycle.
Beyond campaign issues, David Grosso (I-At Large) introduced a measure to challenge the congressional prohibition against the District setting up a system to tax and regulate sales of marijuana.
Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) proposed a plan to work with the federal government to create a redevelopment district along Pennsylvania Avenue, from the White House to the U.S. Capitol, potentially creating new parks and pedestrian walkways and reducing cars along one of the city’s best-known streets.
Gray, seated at the end of the council dais, introduced measures to give seniors and emergency responders new tax breaks and to hire hundreds of new police officers.
He got through only half the bills he planned to introduce before his time expired. He said he would file more in coming days.
Gray seemed to relish his first day back, lingering in the council chambers, speaking with reporters and well-wishers until almost everyone had left. “It’s good to be here,” Gray said.
He repeatedly turned the conversation back to a recreation center recently completed in Ward 7, where he said the Bowser administration had allowed “just shoddy, shabby construction,” with uneven floors, poor lighting, and gas lines impeding a disabled entrance. “The people of Ward 7 deserve better,” he said.
Later in the day, Gray traveled to a federal courtroom to be on hand when a U.S. District judge vacated a landmark lawsuit brought against the D.C. government more than 40 years ago over its care of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Bowser, who initially did not have the event on her public schedule, changed her plans and also attended.