The District’s political process is locked in the clutches of well-connected elected officials. Unless the money-flooded system is reformed, running for office in this city will remain a fool’s errand.
The problem centers on campaign contribution limits and the way they get skirted. On their face, contribution limits are straightforward: no person can contribute more than $2,000 in the race for mayor; $1,500 for D.C. Council chair; $1,000 for an at-large council seat; and $500 for a ward council seat. The contribution maximum applies to the primary and general elections combined.
But D.C. campaign finance laws differ sharply from federal election laws in two critical respects. The District allows contributions from corporations; federal law does not. (The Citizens United decision allowed corporations to spend on political campaigns but did not address the ban on contributing directly to candidates’ campaign funds.)
What’s more, federal law prohibits individuals or businesses that have U.S. government contracts from contributing to federal elections. In contrast, D.C. law allows contributions from individuals or companies doing business with the city government.
Such practices in D.C. politics, while lawful, emits strong odors.
Take Evans 2012, the political campaign committee of Ward 2 council member Jack Evans (D).
An audit by the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance shows that six checks in the amount of $500, each dated July 6, 2011, were written payable to Evans 2012. The contributors were 1699 31st LC, 3140 Dumbarton LC, Cecchi Investments Washington LC, IDI Residential LC, IDI Washington Holdings LC, and N Street Development LC.
The six companies have the same address and suite number of the IDI Group Cos., a major area builder and developer, located in Rosslyn. The president and chief executive of IDI Group , Giuseppe Cecchi, was not in when I visited the offices this week. I left copies of the checks along with a request to speak with him or another company official about the contributions.
In response, John Heller, an IDI consultant and self-described “gatekeeper” for contributions, said in a phone interview that the checks were written by managers of legally separate IDI projects. Heller said that IDI has done business in the District for years and has long been a supporter of Evans. I saw a plaque on the wall during my visit to IDI’s offices from then-Mayor Marion Barry citing Cecchi’s contribution to the city’s development.
The upshot? Suite 2020 sends $3,000 to Jack Evans’s campaign committee.
In a phone interview about the IDI contributions, Evans said that strict disclosure rules about contributors, which he carefully follows, are preferable to arbitrarily low contribution limits that only encourage efforts to circumvent the law.
Contributions from different entities using the same address is common in D.C. campaigns.
This week I also stopped by 2701 Tower Oaks Blvd. in Rockville. Suite 200 houses the Cohen Cos., a major player in the area’s commercial real estate industry.
Twenty-six corporate and individual contributors with the Suite 200 address contributed to the “Kwame for Chair” and “Re-Elect Kwame R. Brown” campaign committees between January 2008 and June 2010, according to a report I received from a campaign finance watchdog who requested anonymity. The total contribution from Suite 200: $24,000.
Ronald Cohen, president of the Cohen Cos., was not in, but on Wednesday I left a list of the contributions with his assistant, along with a request to speak with him. I’m still waiting to hear back.
Sure, running for office costs money. Signs, campaign literature and mailings aren’t free. Seeking contributions comes with the territory.
That said, it’s awfully hard to launch a serious challenge against an incumbent who has access to deep-pocketed contributors. Less-well-known, underfunded candidates are at a disadvantage.
But they aren’t the only ones hurt. The small contributor’s voice is drowned out, too, marginalized in our political system.
Incumbents follow the letter of city law while drawing disproportionately large donations from a few contributors — which leaves the playing field uneven.
It also works to the advantage of big contributors, some of whom may expect the kindness of their donations to be repaid. Corruption, anyone?
This week, Kwame Brown told me that he had reviewed his list of campaign contributions with lawyers and that they concluded everything was legal. Brown said that he wants campaign finance laws reformed and is exploring how to go about it.
There’s no mystery about what needs doing.
Lower contribution limits, so more people can participate as candidates and smaller donors’ contributions will have impact.
Prohibit corporations from contributing to city political candidates, and follow federal practice in barring individuals and companies that do business with the government from contributing to campaigns.
Those steps will help level the playing field. They also may help put some career politicians out to pasture.