Cash Bar How a nightlife mogul throws his political weight around

Patrónage Politics: Brown is a recent beneficiary of Barnes’ campaign largesse.
Darrow Montgomery

For his re-election campaign this year, At-Large Councilmember Kwame R. Brown has thus far raised some $575,000 for a race in which he has virtually no opposition. Here’s how he earned at least $2,000 of that:

On the afternoon of July 28, Leigh Kirchner, general manager of downtown club the Park at 14th, sent an e-mail to about 50 employees of that establishment and sister nightspot Love. “Per Marc: Everyone needs to bring a $50 check made out to ‘Re-Elect Kwame Brown’ to support his re-election by Tuesday,” Kirchner wrote, adding a link to Brown’s campaign Web site. On Aug. 15, Kirchner followed up, writing, “I need all of your $50 checks made payable to Re-Elect Kwame Brown by the close of business tonight. Managers—you are accountable for collecting the checks from your specific departments.”

“Marc,” of course, refers to Marc Barnes, the impresario who has ruled upscale nightlife in this town for a decade, first at Republic Gardens on U Street NW, then at buppie haven Dream in Ivy City (which became Love in 2005). In the last year, he’s made a big play for the downtown professional set with the Park, a sleek, glass-fronted, four-level superclub on Franklin Square.

Operating such businesses with Barnes’ level of success requires a certain relationship with local governmental authorities. You’ve got to keep the liquor enforcers happy. You’ve got to be on good terms with the cops. You have to satisfy various city inspectors that everything’s on the up and up. In other words, it’s helpful to be in the good graces of local elected officials, who can vouch for your upstanding character.

Conversely, an ambitious citywide politician like Brown has a need for loads of cash to fund yard signs, mailers, newspaper ads, and other ways to keep “Kwame Brown” on the minds of eight wards’ worth of voters for another four years—challenger or not. (LL is writing a lame-duck column here—by the time you read this, Brown will have cruised to a primary victory.) As chair of the city’s economic development committee, Brown has plenty of options for filling his campaign coffers—moguls in the local real estate and construction businesses, for starters.

Oh, how the twain shall meet!

On Brown’s most recent campaign finance report, filed last week, at least 15 Barnes employees or associates donated $50 or more, including Kirchner and longtime Barnes partner Tesfa “Taz” Wube, who threw in $500. The Park’s corporate entity, Park Place Inc., was responsible for a $1,000 donation, the maximum allowed to at-large council candidates.

Tapping your employees and colleagues for political contributions is by no means a rare practice—remember all those “Pioneers” George W. Bush relied on to take the White House? And Barnes’ bundling is by no means the most outstanding example locally. This campaign season, incumbent councilmembers Yvette Alexander, Marion Barry, Muriel Bowser, and Jack Evans have all taken bundles of donations from colleagues at the same business concern or in the same industry—some extending well into the tens of thousands of dollars.

What makes Barnes’ push noteworthy is, for one, his enduring popularity among the local political class. This year, Alexander and Barry, plus independent at-large hopefuls Adam Clampitt (since withdrawn) and Dee Hunter, have hosted events at the Park. In February, the Greater Washington Fashion Chamber of Commerce feted Brown there as part of a “Men’s Style Lounge” event.

And then there’s the propriety of telling an employee he “needs to bring” a check for a candidate they may or may not support—and, in most cases, doesn’t even represent them. (Of the contributors in the Barnes bundle, only three list District addresses.) If Brown were running for Congress, Barnes would be running afoul of federal election regulations, which prohibit “coercive” corporate electioneering, but the D.C. campaign finance office takes no issue with a private employer soliciting donations of his employees.

Coercive language aside, Barnes says there was nothing mandatory about his solicitation of his employees. “They weren’t required,” he says. “They were asked.” He insists there was no retaliation for not donating.

One of his former employees puts it this way: “Just looking at the e-mails, there didn’t seem like there was much of an option.”

Brown says he had no inkling of any arrangement between Barnes and his employees. “Some people get their families to make contributions, some people get their friends to get contributions,” he says. “I had no idea that he asked [his employees].”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, he says: “I’d imagine if you had a small company, you would say, ‘Hey, anybody want to make contribution to the Kwame Brown campaign, or the Adrian Fenty campaign, or the Jack Evans campaign, or the Obama campaign,’ then people would kind of just do it—if they felt the candidate is worthy. That’s pretty standard.”

According to LL’s examination of campaign finance records, no other local politico has gotten a Barnes bundle this year. The club owner explains his munificence toward Brown in the terms of a job well-done: “I think he’s a good councilmember; he’s done a lot for the city, and I really think he’s helped the city move forward, especially from the entertainment side.”

LL’s gotta ask: Has Marc Barnes found his new V.O.?

For years, Barnes’ best buddy in the local political scene was former Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent B. Orange Sr., in whose erstwhile bailiwick Love is located. Orange, an old friend and collaborator of Barnes’, enjoyed numerous parties and fundraisers held at the club during his time on the council. Since Orange left the council after his unsuccessful 2006 mayoral run, Barnes has been in need of a signature political patron. He’s donated big bucks to Ward 1’s Jim Graham, who oversees the city liquor authorities, but Graham likes to keep club owners at arm’s length (while sucking up all their campaign money).

Brown says he and Barnes “don’t have a personal relationship” and that Barnes has never lobbied him for any particular legislative maneuvers. “He’s a guy who I respect,” he says. “He owns two clubs. That building [the Park] used to be a disaster; now it’s vibrant.…Marc is not a legislative guy. He’s not a lobbyist or anything. The guy’s a party guy. He’s always throwing parties and stuff like that. He’s always saying, ‘Come by.’”

LL is told that having local politicos “come by” is treated as a matter of policy with Barnes. A second source who worked for him says, “Whenever we had any councilmembers who came in, I was told that their bills are to be taken care of,” the person says. “What I was told in the beginning is that they helped us to get our licenses and permitting straight.”

Now, comping drinks isn’t out of the ordinary in the nightclub business; the smart manager does what he needs to do to build customer loyalty. Of course, you want to build customer loyalty in the expectation that at some point, the customer will start to pay. Councilmembers, the source says, had no such expectations: “It was just carte blanche. It wasn’t anything that was scheduled ahead of time. If he just happens to show up, he’s taken care of.”

Says Barnes, “I mean, I comp drinks for friends of mine. I’m sure I’ve bought somebody a drink or two. But do we do tables and things like that? No, no.…I’m in the business to make money, and I believe in that, but there’s no such thing as a councilmember gets in, ‘Oh, take care of them!’”

The club source recalls seeing Brown come in to the Park for happy hours with two or three companions. “They’ll hang out, have a couple drinks, some food; that’s basically it,” the person says. Brown says he’s only been to the Park or to Love a handful of times and only for special events—once to take his nephew to Gilbert Arenas’ legendary 2007 birthday party. “I don’t drink anymore, that’s the first thing,” he says. “I don’t get the VIP treatment. Maybe someone’s getting the VIP treatment I don’t know about. I’m pretty low-key. Anybody who knows me knows that’s not me.”

Fair enough—Brown is a family man—but what’s easier to believe is that some things never change: Now a Pepco lobbyist, Orange, according to the source, remains a fixture at Barnes’ establishments. As does his retinue: “There were always people that would come to the door and say, ‘I’m V.O.’s boy! I’m with V.O.! Take care of us!’” the source says. “It was the sort of situation where if he was there, of course I would take care of his guests, but if he wasn’t there, I would have no clue who some of these people are.”

Orange says he doesn’t frequent Barnes’ clubs on a regular basis; he only attends special events and hosts the occasional party—such as an April birthday bash, complete with “lavish dinner,” at Love. And the only special treatment, he says, is that Barnes “makes sure we get invitations so we don’t have to stand in line.”

As for his alleged entourage, Orange says, “People use my name for a lot of stuff that I have no idea that it’s taking place.”

Brown has now raised nearly twice as much as he needed to beat incumbent Harold Brazil four years ago. Though little challenge awaits the Democratic primary winner, the Brown campaign’s fundraising was as brisk as any during the last reporting period. The candidate says that’s just a function of his political success—not a personal thirst for campaign cash.

“Most people give me money because they didn’t give me money before. They gave Harold a million dollars!” he says. “So, of course, you’re a business guy, and you bet on the wrong horse, then you’re probably going to make a contribution. That’s the nature of what it is. We’ve sent some checks back, so people who say, ‘Oh, I just made a contribution because of X,’ we say we don’t want your money.”

A check of campaign finance records reveals that Brown has thus far returned three $1,000 donations from last September, from outfits called Accord Ink, D&S Auto Body, and HWC LLC. The Brown campaign did not provide any information on those companies by press time.

One way to read Brown’s fundraising acumen is that he’s building a donor base for a possible run for mayor down the road, whether in two years or six or more. Brown denies it heartily: “I have no interest in running for mayor!” he tells LL. “Can you put that in the paper? Quote-unquote: ‘Kwame Brown is not running for mayor.’ Put it to bed!”

Pannell Quits LL

Late last Wednesday, LL’s endorsements for the Sept. 9 primary were posted on the City Paper Web site. In them, regarding the Democratic shadow senator race, he gave a chilly endorsement to incumbent Paul Strauss, declining to endorse challenger Philip

Pannell due to “his record of quitting in a huff every organization he’s ever joined.”

That was an exaggeration and a reference to Pannell’s oft-deployed sense of outrage, which has led in recent years to his separation from groups including D.C. Vote (over Eugene Dewitt Kinlow’s decision to depart the shadow race), D.C. for Democracy (over a lack of Ward 7 representation among Barack Obama delegates), and the D.C. Democratic State Committee (leading to claims that he was “riding into the sunset” and “done with local politics”). Those are all groups that a shadow senator needs to have effective working relationships with.

Early Thursday morning, while LL was sleeping, Pannell called and left a voice mail. In the morning, when LL listened to the message, he heard Pannell in full bloom of outrage, saying he would cease any further communications with LL or City Paper.

LL tried to mend fences with an e-mail, but he received in reply, “What you did goes beyond politics and is nothing more than the destruction of my reputation. You publicly degraded me. Please, please cease any further communication with me.”

As easy as it would be to ascribe such a reaction to that oft-deployed sense of outrage, Pannell has a point.

Pannell has earned better than the one-sentence slam LL dished out. Here’s a guy who has labored tirelessly for decades advocating for east-of-the-river causes, the gay community, and good governance among dysfunctional local Democrats. He’s attended innumerable neighborhood meetings, shown up at just about every political event, and organized countless protests, all with little remuneration. That deserves more respect than what he got from LL this week.

LL isn’t going to change his recommendation—he still thinks Kinlow, with his unmatched record on voting-rights advocacy, would have been the best choice for the job.

But Pannell’s record isn’t something to be mocked; he has done too much good and has been a pain in the asses of too many people who deserve it. Pannell needs to keep doing what he does—cataloging those east-of-the-river snubs and hammering the Nationals on their gay-rights record, for instance—but the shadow senator seat is not the place for him to do it.

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Our Readers Say

its about time someone pulled back the curtain and shined a little light on the cities "prince of darkness"
Bravo Loose Lips! Your self-criticism about Phil Pannell was , in this observer's view, one of the finer moments in Washington journalism, where we'd generally rather waffle and indulge in circumlocution than admit straight up that we've been unfair. You've probably earned the respect of a few more readers.
Hey Phil..give Loose Lips a shout out!

(Please do not disclose my email address).
I agree with Kojo...that was a good journalistic move on your part. Phil fights the good fight for a lot of people in this city who otherwise have few people in their corner. Glad to see you acknowledge that in the follow up column.
Seriously, Mike was that really Kojo? Cuase it's freaking cool if it was.

As for your article, I've got loads of questions on how these things connect to the anti-labor stances championed by Orange and clearly by many of his current and previous supporters. Hell, even I put up a post on Orange's lit having no union-bug, but is there a connection between what you're talking about here with Orange, Barnes and Brown and the current climate of anti-unionsim in town? Or am I thinking to much and drinking to little?

As for Phil, I'm glad you did write up some of the amazing things he's done.
I agree with Kojo as well.

Not all of us always agree with Phil but then no good politician like Phil has people agreeing with them all the time or they wouldn't be effective. And Philip Pannell has been an effective advocate for all people who don't always have the ear of power.

I have been proud over many years to have joined with Phil as he has led on so many causes and hope to do so in the future.
Maybe LL and other journalists in this town will be as considerate to other community advocates as well.
I like Kwame Brown and what he is doing for the city, but there is an old adage and Bible scripture that talks about not doing things that give the APPEARANCE of Evil. Marc Barnes may be a nice guy as well, but telling/suggesting that your employees give an unsolicited donation to a DC Political candidate speaks to what is often wrong with politics. Why is this illegal in Federal Elections but perfectly legal in DC campaigning remains to be seen.

As for Pannell's anti-retraction, LL's excellent follow-up does nothing to fix the damage caused by the initial recommendation. I read LL's recommendations and the lack of candor or snide-cynical-commentary passing as candor does nothing to inform the viewers. Most, if not all was venom that people should have already known about. I could go on and on about what was wrong with that issue but it is not worth giving LL more press. In the days of Mark Plotkin, such recommendations would be vetted and more descriptive, not one liners intended to titilate a declining voting public. PLEASE FOR NOVEMBER 4TH, STICK TO THE ISSUES and lay off the one-, two-, or three-liners intended to "inform" the so-called public. I used to rely on City Paper for its lack of partisanship and telling it like it is. The latest LL predictions were a descent from all the good I could remember in the past.

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