And then there was the event Mamo orchestrated to help Vincent Orange’s mayoral aspirations five years ago. Orange pumped gas for residents for a cut-rate $1.99 per gallon at a Shell station on Rhode Island Avenue NE. Residents lined up around the block in a spectacle Mamo at the time said had cost “about $10,000” (and didn’t help Orange win).
Mamo has been much more generous than rivals. Eastern’s chairman, J. Kent McNew, and other company executives have given a little less than $7,000 in the last decade, mostly to Maryland politicians; they’ve given zero to District candidates. Koo Yuen, who helms Lowest Price Gas, an independent label with several D.C. stations, has spent just $3,450 since 2001; not a cent went to local pols.
Mamo and Schaeffer say they’re not asking for special favors, just playing by the unofficial rules of D.C. politics. “If you want to participate, you’ve got to put in,” says Schaeffer, who has “put in” more than $15,000 in campaign contributions in the District since 2002, according to public records. “It’s good to be on good terms, at least talking terms with people. Sometimes they’ll return your calls,” he says with a wry smile.
Just what those returned phone calls might lead to is less clear.
Around the time Mamo needed city officials to wave lot size requirements for his plans to build a Shell station on Maryland Avenue NE in 2007, Mamo and his brother Tamrat donated $1,000 apiece to Kwame Brown’s campaign fund, the maximum allowed. Besides those contributions, seven of Mamo’s companies donated an additional $1,000 apiece. Total take for Brown: $9,000.
Mamo, with or without help from elected officials, got his way. Brown, now D.C. Council chairman, recalls meeting Mamo, but says he doesn’t recall the Maryland Avenue zoning controversy. Nevertheless, he says he stood with the small dealers against jobbers last year, when the council passed a measure giving dealers the right of first refusal to purchase their stations. “We must protect the local small business operations,” Brown says. “We did everything we could.”
On Dec. 8, 2008, Mamo, his brother, and four of Mamo’s companies each gave the maximum $2,000 contributions to the Fenty campaign. The total $12,000 contribution came as Mamo was battling the right of first refusal bill—and at a time when Fenty was considered a lock for re-election. In that case, the law was enacted, though it came too late to stop the wave of sales that put a majority of D.C. stations in the hands of Mamo and other jobbers.
Mamo’s contacts played a role in a more successful effort to fend off new regulations—particularly an extension of the city’s divorcement law. Starting after the oil shocks of the 1970s, D.C. and many states passed laws barring the refiners from operating stations. In 2004, the D.C. Council revamped the law to include jobbers, though it gave jobbers a grace period to get out of the gas-pumping business. But the measure never went into effect. The council reversed itself in 2007 with an amendment that removed all mention of the distributors, who, by then, owned more than two-thirds of D.C. gas stations.
At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson, who voted against the amendment, credits its passage to “heavy” lobbying orchestrated by Ray.
But Schaeffer insists it’s not the contributions that matter so much as having a chance and taking it.
“All educated people always say it’s better to be smart than lucky,” Schaeffer says. “But to me it’s better to be lucky. Luck is the most important thing—being at the right place at the right time. Joe was at the right place at the right time and he had the guts to take a chance.”
By the time Mamo made his big expansion, he’d also spent some time engaging a group even more powerful than politicians: Oil executives.
Way back around the time he built his first station, in Capitol Heights, Mamo met Michael D. Baskin, a former Mobil executive who had just launched a consulting business. Mamo hired Baskin to help negotiate a supply contract with Mobil for the new station. As Baskin recalls their first meeting, he drove over to the construction site. They signed his contract at the McDonald’s down the street. His first impression of Mamo: smart and confident, traits that seemed to bode well for his future.
Most gas station owners never gain more than a few stations. But a few years later, Baskin helped Mamo execute a gambit that set him apart from his competition.