The Loosies: The Best, Worst, and Weirdest in D.C. Politics in 2013
The District’s political world felt like it spent most of 2013 in the waiting room: waiting for U.S. Attorney Ron Machen to charge somebody, waiting for Mayor Vince Gray to announce whether he would run again, waiting for the wave of criminal councilmembers to subside (adios, Michael Brown!). 2013 was a two-hour movie trailer, 365 days of Act I.
So let’s get on to all the stories the year took so much time to set up. There’s just one more thing left to do before embracing the promise (and indictments?) of 2014: It’s time to hand out the Loosies.
The Crying Wolf Award: Keely Thompson
How bad does the FBI want Ward 1 councilmember Jim Graham? It convinced former chief of staff Ted Loza to try to bribe him; it commissioned a painting of Graham to win his trust. The bureau may have even funded a turkey giveaway for Graham in 2008, according to a recording of Loza. (Graham was never charged with any wrongdoing.) One thing it won’t do to get Graham, though, is deal with Keely Thompson.
Thompson, a former boxer, operated a gym for at-risk kids until investigators caught him embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars to finance a gambling habit. Thompson tried to avoid punishment by giving up dirt on Graham, but investigators didn’t find his story credible. Thompson’s chances for a lighter sentence took another hit when the one person who could corroborate his tales turned out to have a record as shady as Thompson did.
Apparently, even the Graham-hungry feds have standards. For finding that out, Thompson earns a Loosey… and 30 months in prison.
The Hanging Judge Award: Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly
Many of the henchmen in the haze of campaign malfeasance around Vince Gray’s 2010 effort likely won’t do any hard time, thanks either to their cooperation with the feds or their advanced age. (Or both: Shadow campaign operative Vernon Hawkins is 74!) So it’s nice to see that U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly still thinks breaking the law should sometimes mean seeing the inside of a jail cell.
In July, Kollar-Kotelly sentenced Gray chum Thomas Gore to prison for six months. Given Gore’s relatively minor role in the campaign scheming—he funneled cash to fringe candidate Sulaimon Brown, then destroyed a notebook documenting the payments—Kollar-Kotelly could have given him probation. Instead, she gave him time and some harsh words. Being a good friend to Gray, Kollar-Kotelly said, meant Gore should have been less likely to commit crimes on his behalf, not more.
The Loose Cannon Award: Anita Bonds
Every gang of lovable misfits needs a loose cannon, and the D.C. Council has its in Anita Bonds. Bonds cast two votes in favor of the Large Retailer Accountability Act—otherwise known as the Walmart bill (an explanation LL can’t wait to ditch in 2014). She even boasted in a press release that “it would have been against my very nature to not have supported the legislation.”
Apparently, Bonds is a shape-shifter. When the bill came back to the Council to override a mayoral veto, Bonds switched sides, voting against the override at the last minute. Without Bonds and with no new defectors from the other side, the Walmart bill went down two votes short of the nine it needed.
Politically, Bonds’ flip-flop makes no sense: Her seat is up for re-election in 2014, less than a year after she held onto it in a tight race she won with the support of labor. Even if Bonds was being sweated by Walmart supporters, her switch wasn’t necessary because the override would have failed by one vote anyway. But that’s just how it goes when you’re the wild card.
The Still Waters Run Deep Award: Vince Gray
Taking a cue from WarGames, Gray spent 2013 deciding that the only winning move is just not to play. He opted out of the public fight over the federal investigation into his 2010 campaign, staying quiet as pal Hawkins went down in federal court. He avoided taking a position on the Walmart bill until he had a chance to veto it, and he claimed to be indecisive about his own re-election plans for as long as he could afford to.
Eventually, Gray had to declare his 2014 bid or risk not qualifying for the ballot by the Jan. 2 deadline for petitions. But just to drag things out as long as possible, the mayor is waiting until 2014 to formally kick off his campaign. LL can’t blame him for sticking with what works.
The “Piece of the Piece” Award for Political Sliminess: Michael Brown
Between the lottery contract fight and legal spats over who paid what to alleged shadow campaign financier Jeff Thompson’s Medicaid firm, just understanding the District’s scandals can require a whiteboard and a graphing calculator. Sometimes, though, political skeeviness isn’t about contracting pass-throughs or even kickbacks. Sometimes, as in the case of now-disgraced ex-Councilmember Michael Brown, it’s about cash stuffed into a mug and text-messaged offers of political influence.
The Win One for the Gipper Award for Hopeless Causes: Pat Mara
Pity the D.C. Republicans. They’re tied to a radioactive national brand, and they haven’t had a member on the Council since Pat Mara knocked off Carol Schwartz in 2008. Worst of all, the set-aside Council seats that were once reserved for them are gone, spoiled by the now near-universal realization among Democratic candidates that they’re only a registration switch to “independent” away from competing for them.
Mara gamely tried to make the GOP relevant again in April’s special election, mounting his third citywide campaign. District wags figured he’d pull second place at worst. Instead, he placed a distant third in a campaign the District’s Republican boss would later say suffered “a total collapse.”
Mara left the race undecided on whether he’d tilt at windmills again in the service of the party of Abe Lincoln and Ted Cruz, leaving Republican stalwarts to wonder if they’ll ever do well enough to place third again.
The Most Enjoyable Meetings Award: Board of Ethics and Government Accountability
In a city where civic meetings either run long or are taken over by kooks, LL can find himself reflexively reaching for his QuizUp app. There’s just one hope for meeting sanity: the infant Board of Ethics and Government Accountability.
Its public meetings only take an hour, and there’s a good chance (25 percent, judging by this year’s performance) that a councilmember will get an ethical sanction by the end of it. Isn’t that a nice change?
The Indiana Jones Award for Political Adventuring: Vincent Orange
LL could fill a whole column with awards for D.C. Councilmember Vincent Orange, but he’s only got this space here. Most ridiculous city expense? Orange’s use of $2,500 in money on an Emancipation Day video that doubled as an Orange family homage reminiscent of North Korea’s Kim dynasty. Kookiest vendetta? Orange’s feud with NBC4’s Mark Segraves over Orange evading reporters through a Wilson Building side door, a spat that culminated in Orange demanding a Council investigation. Best fantasy mayoral campaign that actually happened? Orange 2014.
In the field of blatant fealty to campaign donors, Orange’s only competition is himself. His intervention on behalf of a rat-infested vegetable store would have won a Loosey—in any year that didn’t also include his December Wilson Building hustling on behalf of a $20,000 campaign bundler. Year after year, Orange proves that District politics is the best sport in town.