Loose Lips

Where’s the Money?: Council Challengers Aren’t Finding Much Green. They Say it’s the System’s Fault.

To knock off an incumbent councilmember in this town, it helps to be hardworking, a little bit crazy, and to raise enough money to buy a gently-used Bentley.

Many challengers this election season have the first two qualities covered. The third part is proving tougher. None of the challengers for the six council seats up for re-election has raised enough to stand much of a chance.

The incumbents, on the other hand, are pulling in donations at a steady clip. Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who doesn’t even have an opponent, has raised $313,000.

So much for the council’s dismal approval ratings: This state of affairs suggests that the home team could win a clean sweep.

Money alone doesn’t guarantee success. But successful past challengers prove that it helps. Kwame “Fully Loaded” Brown was outspent four to one when he beat at-large incumbent Harold Brazil in 2004. But Brown had still raised $130,000 by election day. By contrast, none of the current wannabes had raised even $50,000 by the Jan. 31st filing deadline.

“Everyone says it’s real dry out there for challengers,” says former council candidate Bryan Weaver. “It’s a little bit of a mystery.”

What’s holding donors back? It could be that  the current challengers just aren’t that inspiring, no matter how unpopular the council may be. Or perhaps the year’s ethics scandals, with attendant media stories featuring words like “subpoena” and “bank records,” have scared donors away in general.

The challengers, though, have another theory: They think the system is rigged.

Weaver, who’s not running this time, is pushing for a November referendum asking voters to ban corporate political giving. The change, he says, would wind up “lowering the threshold” for challengers.

At the very least, it might shrink the incumbents’ coffers. A review by WAMU last year found that the amount of donations from corporations had risen to 45 percent of all campaign giving. LL’s review of campaign finances shows that incumbents rely almost exclusively on donors who give the maximum permitted amount. Challengers, by contrast, are more likely to be funded by small donations from nobodies.

To good-government types, these patterns demonstrate a local “pay-to-play culture” that unduly rewards those with current legislative power. Under D.C. law, councilmembers can put the brakes on contracts of $1 million or more. That  gives them the power to make life miserable for any contractor who had the temerity to fund a councilmember’s opponent.

The safe bet? Go with whomever is in office. “A lot of people out there are quite frankly afraid to go against incumbents,” says Sekou Biddle, who is running for the at-large seat currently held by Vincent Orange.

Biddle’s is a good example of just what a difference incumbency makes. A year ago, after all, he was an incumbent, albeit an unusual one who’d been appointed to his seat thanks to a predecessor’s resignation. But the mere fact that he had the word “councilmember” before his name was what mattered.

The little-known Biddle had scarcely taken his seat when well-known power-brokers started cutting checks. A fundraiser at Ben’s Chili Bowl was co-hosted by the mayor’s campaign chairwoman and the D.C. Council chairman’s father. Another event at Smith Commons, the trendy H Street NE restaurant, was co-hosted by Mayor Vince Gray himself, along with superlobbyist David Wilmot. By the end of his first month in office, Biddle had raised more than $50,000. He would raise $200,000 in less than six months. (He wound up losing to Orange, an ex-councilmember whose campaign was also nicely funded.)

That was then. Nowadays, Biddle’s trying to wrest the seat back as a private citizen. He had raised only $47,000 as of the Jan. 31 campaign finance filing.

The idea that councilmembers are liable to punish contractors who fund rivals has been playing out lately on the Washington Post editorial page, which has launched something of a jihad against Ward 1’s Jim Graham.

In January, the Post published emails between Graham and the lobbyist for Warren Williams, who was seeking a lottery contract. The email shows the lobbyist trying to mollify Graham’s concerns. Those concerns, the email implies, had something to with a past donation to one of Graham’s opponents.

“The Williams family confirmed with me again that no family member ever made a contribution to the campaign of Chad Williams, who challenged your seat,” lobbyist Jim Link wrote in the suck-up email published by the Post. Graham declined to answer LL’s questions about the exchange.

To counter their money disadvantage, some challengers have tried to make incumbents’ fundraising a liability. Max Skolnik, who is challenging Ward 4’s Muriel Bowser, has needled Bowser for taking 38 percent of her donations from corporations. (Bowser defended herself on the Kojo Nnamdi Show, saying she’s proud to receive money from local businesses.) And David Grosso, who hopes to unseat at-large Councilmember Michael Brown in November’s general election, issued a challenge to every candidate to go beyond the District’s paltry disclosure rules and disclose the connections donors have with city contractors.

Amazingly, no incumbents have taken him up on his offer. CP

Got a tip for LL? Send suggestions to lips@washingtoncitypaper.com Or call (202) 650-6951, 24 hours a day.

Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

  • Pingback: David Grosso for D.C. City Council 2012 » Where’s the Money?: Council Challengers Aren’t Finding Much Green. They Say it’s the System’s Fault.

  • Alicia T

    I'm a registered D.C. voter and every D.C. resident should read this article. Out of curiosity I Googled Grosso's transparency challenge and it's a good start towards much broader reforms. Every incumbent and challenger should be on this list...where's Jack Evans, Vincent Orange, Bowser??? Here's the the link for Grosso's challenge: http://grossoatlarge.com/transparency-challenge

  • 8709ham

    Hmmmm--Maybe, just maybe the reason why the challengers can't raise any money is because they have no one supporting them. DC is full of political wannabees that have no chance of winning dog catcher let alone a serious office jumping into every election. To solve the problem we should have public financing and require The City Paper and the Washington Post to give out FREE advertising for candidates . . . since money is such a bad thing!

  • http://twitter.com/kcivey KCIvey

    If you're interested in helping pass a ballot initiative to ban corporate (and partnership and LLC) contributions to DC local politicians, come to our Leap Day happy hour at Lola's, 711 8th St SE, Wed, Feb 29, 6-8pm.

    It's the first step in putting an end to "pay-to-play" and making our local officials more responsive to DC residents rather than corporate influence.

  • Truth hurts

    This is news only to simpletons who know nothing about how DC players play. Nothing will change unless DC legislators ban govt contractors, lobbyists, and business bundlers from buying elected pols. Or the voters demand these reforms. Not holding my breath.

  • Stephen Gorman

    The good news about all this is that the debate is FINALLY shifting away from the failed "DC For Democracy" losing campaigns against Virginia GOP incumbents to Democracy IN DC. Its about time.

    The unfortunate news is that this frustration is going to endure until enough people realize the solution to the "rigged" state of affairs will only come about by shrinking the size of individual voting pools necessary to make each races competitive. I am not suggesting disenfranchising voters by any means, but rather, slightly increase the size of the council and the size of the council and convert the at-large seats into ward seats. This will reduce the size of each ward and give ambitious challengers a much better opportunity at replacement of "corrupt" incumbents. That's really the issue isn't it? Replacement?

    I understand that many people believe because we're born Americans, "ethical" democracy is supposed to be part of our collective DNA, but the real learning curve comes from on hands practicing of it, not campaign claims of "I am more ethical than thou". You will never get away from bad politicians. Ever. But they usually don't last long. Our American history shows that there are always good politicians who get re-elected because they earned the public trust by their performance. And if DC's political class on both sides of this issue learn to trust the DC voters (which they do not),then the voters will learn to keep the good, and sooner or later, throw the bums out.

    The pathway to the solution is to resume and complete the unfinished business of the City Wide Charter Convention of 1981. If that meeting should ever happen, the new charter will no doubt include adjustments that will expand democratic practices such as a "people's veto referendum".

  • Skipper

    The reason no one's giving money to the challengers is quite simple: They're going to lose. They've been running pathetic campaigns, have gotten minimal traction, and have no chance of displacing the incumbents.

    Best example: The at-large race with Vincent "Rent Me!" Orange. You've got two pathetic candidates trying to unseat the Great Citrus: Sekou "Who?" Biddle and the guy who used to be a P.G. County Councilmember. Of course Orange will coast to victory when his opponents are Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum!

    Other example: The failed challenger lady to Jack "A.D.D. Man Child" Evans. Her campaign was created by a couple of wanna-be political playas (Lissy, Chucky, Dilbert, and the G'town guy w/a trolley fetish)and it imploded in spectacular fashion mere days after it launched.

    We have a shitty policial system because we have shitty candidates trying to overthrow shitty career politicians. We have no bench of potential candidates. Instead, we have a shitty ANC system comprised of a large number of lil' fascists who want to control their SMD fiefdom and have delusions of importance and relevance. Once in a while a good ANC rep makes the jump to the big time. But most fail trying b/c they're not ready for the medium time, let alone the big time.

    Another example: Yvette Alexander. The woman has absolutely no legislative accomplishments that she actually undertook (introducing a bill someone else wrote for you doesn't count). And yet she will coast to victory b/c she faces no real opposition. Where are the Ward 7 ANC and community leaders who talk a big game on Twitter and yet won't put their money where their mouths are and actually run in a campaign?

    That's why we have a shitty system.

  • skinsfan83

    If people believe in what your saying, they will donate, point blank.

    Why donate to someone who you honestly dont think will win?

  • Tom

    @Skipper, you are 100% correct. Incumbents do have advantages but challengers need to accept their portion of the blame. With the Sekou Biddle example, it would be obvious why his fundraising number is down.... he already lost this race once!

    Overall money is important but at the end of the day, you only need enough to get elected. Eventually diminishing returns hits (ala Adrian Fenty)

  • Typical DC BS

    @Skipper: Awesome.

  • RealDC

    Well said Skipper!

    Watch the Ward 4 race. This will change DC politics as we come to know it. The ineffective incumbent will get trounced by..... "a movement".

  • skinsfan83

    @RealDC lets get serious, the Ward 4 Race will be like other races. Although Bowser is lame, she will prevail