Before long, the 2018 mayoral election will be here, and the residents of the District will have an important decision to make. In the 40 years of D.C. home rule there have been seven mayors, all Democrats, of the District, with major scandal surrounding two. Marion Barry’s transgressions led him to jail. A shadow campaign around Vincent C. Gray’s 2012 successful mayoral bid sent five people to jail.
And a minor scandal erupted when it was discovered that Muriel E. Bowser’s 2014 campaign accepted $11,000 in donations over the allowed limits.
It seems strange that mayoral and D.C. Council races would be the subject of campaign finance scandal, but the District is different from most municipalities. The mayor essentially acts as the governor, and the council is the main legislative body for more than 600,000 people. Because these elected officials protect the District from the whims of Congress, D.C. politics are extremely important. The influence that the mayor and council members wield creates a competitive atmosphere when it comes time to elect government officials. Candidates must raise significant amounts of money to be competitive.
But that doesn’t mean that candidates have to violate campaign finance laws.
Members of Gray’s 2010 campaign pleaded guilty to federal charges, and evidence suggests that Gray probably knew about his campaign’s misconduct. Recently, Gray used leftover funds from his successful 2016 D.C. Council campaign to pay off the $10,000 fine his mayoral campaign received. While that was legal, it seems improper.
Bowser’s campaign was caught taking campaign contributions that were over the $11,000 limit on individual contributions, and it had taken money from contractors that work with the city. The campaign of Ward 4 Council member Brandon T. Todd (D), Bowser’s handpicked replacement for her council seat, was fined for not providing sources for large amounts of campaign contributions and failure of the campaign to collect donor information. This month, Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) repaid $3,500 in excess donations from four donors to his 2014 campaign.
Now, signs that encourage Gray to run for mayor have been popping up around the District. The signs have been linked to Clinton LeSueur, who was an aide to former mayor Adrian Fenty and who was fined by the Federal Election Commission for questionable campaign finance activity in his congressional run in 2002.
All of this is to say that there might be a problem with campaign finance in the District. While other elected officials have played by the rules, the impropriety of a few elected officials may increase the cost of campaigns, forcing other candidates to find money any way they can.
The council recently held public hearings on bills intended to clean up the campaign finance system in the District. These bills are important if we want a clean and fair election next fall. When the council returns from its summer recess, it should give serious consideration to these bills. Constituents should tell their council members that they demand fair elections.
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