The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Who’s against limiting money’s power in D.C. politics? Perhaps the Democratic mayor.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has either opposed or been silent on recent proposals to change the District’s campaign-finance and election laws. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Dogged for much of its five-decade history by political scandal, the D.C. government is forging ahead with ambitious changes to its election laws and campaign finance regulations.

But one elected official is conspicuously absent among those pushing against the status quo: Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), whose stance toward bills designed to reduce the influence of money in politics has ranged in recent months from silence to open opposition.

The position Bowser has staked out is surprising for the leader of a progressive city — all the more so because the campaign finance rules advanced by the D.C. Council have been widely adopted elsewhere.

Her approach highlights both the mayor's individual view of the role money plays in politics and her freedom to express that view as she seeks reelection, with no serious challengers yet to emerge and the Democratic primary in this overwhelmingly Democratic city only five months away.

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"She normally walks a pretty good line between the traditional Democratic base of the city and the progressive wing of Democrats," said Bryan Weaver, a neighborhood activist and former council candidate from Adams Morgan. "But she just does not remotely seem interested in these issues, and personally, as someone who really likes her, it's a bad blind spot for her."

At issue are two new policies being debated by the council this year. One is a system for publicly financing local elections while further limiting the size of contributions participating candidates can accept. The D.C. Council approved that proposal unanimously earlier this month, though the mayor has said she would not fund the program.

The council is also expected to take up a ban or restriction on campaign contributions by businesses that seek contracts with the District government, a regulation aimed at addressing allegations of "pay-to-play" arrangements, in which contractors underwrite the campaigns of elected officials who steer city business toward them.

Both rules have been widely adopted in other left-leaning cities, such as New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, said Paul Seamus Ryan, vice president of policy and litigation at Common Cause, which advocates for accountable government.

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"By enacting a public financing program and government contractor contribution restrictions, D.C. would simply be catching up with America's greatest, biggest cities," Ryan said. "D.C. would be catching up, not breaking ground."

Craig Holman of the advocacy group Public Citizen said restrictions on contractors' contributions would be particularly appropriate in the District, where in the past five years, five council members — none of whom is still in office — were ensnared in ethical lapses, from taking bribes from investigators posing as contractors to violating campaign finance laws.

"This is a remedy for what really ails D.C.," Holman said.

Bowser has said little about her reasons for opposing changes to election and campaign finance laws. Through a spokeswoman, she declined to be interviewed.

Earlier this month, a mayoral spokeswoman said the public-finance system approved by the council is a waste of money that could be better used on city services.

The program would cost $3.8 million in 2020, the first year in which publicly financed elections would take place, ramping up to $7.9 million in 2021.

Bowser administration officials have declined to express a position on limits to contractor donations, saying the mayor would wait to see the final form of the legislation before the council.

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However, in a radio interview this month on WAMU-FM (88.5), Bowser said she thought the District's existing campaign finance regulations are adequate and transparency is the answer to policing the role of money in politics.

"I think we have some of the strictest campaign restrictions that exist," she said. "We have very stringent disclosure requirements as well. . . . I think that everything that we should do around campaigning and fundraising is to make sure that voters have the best information in the most digestible format as quickly as possible."

Bowser has proved herself a prodigious fundraiser, bringing in approximately $3.6 million for her 2014 mayoral campaign. In December, she reported that she had collected $1.4 million during the first 80 days of her reelection campaign.

The mayor has also faced persistent concerns during her first term about donors' influence at City Hall.

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A political action committee promoting her agenda, FreshPAC, was shut down after questions arose about contributions from businesses seeking contracts with the city. Last year, an investigation led by D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) found that a top member of Bowser's cabinet had tried to steer a contract for road demolition work toward a company that had made campaign contributions.

Also last year, the D.C. Council cut short a no-bid contract awarded to a consulting firm, Veritas of Washington, for the management of D.C.'s public hospital. The firm's executive chairman, along with his relatives and companies, made more than $35,000 in political contributions to Bowser in 2014.

A Washington Post poll in June found that 48 percent of District residents rated Bowser negatively for her efforts to curb the influence of wealthy political donors, compared with 31 percent who rated her positively.

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D.C. Council member and Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who is drafting the campaign finance law that will likely include some restrictions on contractor donations, said he hoped to have further conversations with the mayor about the regulations on the table.

"I'm not going to go into it assuming that she has drawn a line in the sand," he said.

However, Allen said he would not support an approach that simply preserves the status quo.

"I disagree with a comment that says that we have the strictest campaign finance laws around — because we don't," he said. "We can look at plenty of other jurisdictions that have taken these steps."