Mayor Muriel Bowser’s re-election was historic. In a city itching to bounce incumbent mayors from the executive’s office, Bowser was the first mayor to be re-elected since 2002, and the first woman ever to win re-election. She did it with 76 percent of the vote, no less.
That certainly calls for a celebration. And a whole bunch of the mayor’s deep-pocketed friends were happy to pitch in.
According to her report recently filed with the Office of Campaign Finance, Bowser’s inaugural committee, DC Proud 2019, took in $955,098 during the seven weeks before Jan. 31. Twenty-three of the contributions came in after Bowser’s Jan. 5 inaugural bash at The Anthem, including $150,000 that came directly from her own re-election campaign committee.
About $792,000 came from donors who, for the most part, are either lobbyists, developers, people who have contracts with the District government, or people seeking contracts. Sixty-eight donors shelled out the maximum amount of $10,000, which is five times the legal limit for campaign contributions.
Among them are: Dantes Partners, Deloitte, Blue Skye Construction, JBG Smith, MCN Build, Four Points, and Microsoft.
Following two days of inaugural events, including an annual 5k, an interfaith service, and a swearing-in ceremony, Bowser capped the whole thing off with a swanky black tie party at The Anthem on the waterfront. The celebration was free, but attendees had to RSVP.
The evening’s entertainment featured big names such as Ledisi, Mary McBride, and go-go favorites Anwan “Big G” Glover, Ms. Kim & Scooby, and E.U. featuring Sugar Bear.
LL was not able to attend, but a $200,000 catering bill and a reportedly open bar sounds like his kind of party. (It’s unclear from the committee’s finance report how much of that actually paid for food and drink at the Anthem party. The bill from RPM Italian was close to $20,000.)
Critics say inaugural committees are a prime example of D.C.’s “pay-to-play” culture, where political donors win lucrative contracts with the city—a practice the Council sought to eliminate last year.
In December, the Council passed the “Campaign Finance Reform Amendment Act of 2017,” which restricts corporations and their principles who hold contracts worth at least $250,000 from donating to political campaigns, including inaugural committees. The bill also reduces the maximum contribution to an inaugural committee from $10,000 to $4,000.
The lavish inaugural spending is reminding many of Bowser’s 2015 effort to create the political fund FreshPAC after her first election. The law then allowed her to raise unlimited funds. The criticism of the legal money grab—even from the usually friendly Washington Post editorial page—forced Bowser to abandon that effort.
The mayor did not sign the most recent curbs on political and inaugural contributions and spending. The new law and limits will go into effect without her signature after standard congressional review.
“These inaugurals are really just one big soiree designed to allow those who have a lot of money to ingratiate themselves with the mayor,” says Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen. “Almost always they want something in return. They’re not donating to improve the quality of our elections. They already found out who won. It’s like placing your bet on a sure thing.”
Bill Lightfoot, who chaired the mayor’s inaugural committee and her re-election committee, sees the nearly $1 million in contributions a different way.
“I think it’s important for people who do business in the city to give back to D.C.,” he says. “They’re paying for an inaugural for the city’s mayor, which was open to everyone. It was an effort to bring the city together. It didn’t matter who you supported during the campaign. It was quite a bash.”
Another question hanging over Bowser’s inaugural committee is how the money is being spent. According to her committee’s Jan. 31 report, Bowser spent only about two-thirds of her total haul, including about $127,000 in payments to The Anthem ($50,000 for rental fees and the remaining $77,000 for consulting), $20,000 on advertising, and $177,000 to other various consultants.
Last week, City Paper contributor Tom Sherwood reported that some D.C. residents found a political mailer from Bowser in their mailboxes. Bowser’s inaugural committee paid for the mailer, leading to questions about whether the funds were spent appropriately.
Additionally, there is no expenditure on the Jan. 31 report that describes a mailer. There is, however, a $48,000 payment to Hart Research Associates for a “polling/mailing list” and a $20,800 payment for “postage.”
William Sanford, general counsel in the Office of Campaign Finance, couldn’t comment on specific expenditures, but says all inaugural committees undergo an audit after they’re terminated. Bowser has 45 days from her inauguration to terminate the committee.
“This one will definitely be audited,” Sanford says. “Every single receipt and expenditure will be reviewed to determine whether it was appropriate.”
LL couldn’t possibly lay out all of Bowser’s 102 inauguration contributions. So here are a few interesting donations. There must be a typo in this first one:
- Smoot “Conatruction” donated $10,000 on Jan. 8, three days after the party at The Anthem. On Jan. 31, Bowser requested the company receive a $28 million contract. The Council approved the contract earlier this week. The company has won other contracts with the District government in previous years.
- Medical Transportation Management Inc (MTM) donated $10,000 on Jan. 8. The company secured $41.6 million in contracts in 2017 and 2018 at the mayor’s request.
- MidCity Financial donated $10,000 on Jan. 11. In October 2018, Bowser requested up to $56 million in tax increment financing (TIF) for a redevelopment project along Rhode Island Ave. NE. MidCity is the developer, and is facing resistance from the Brookland Manor tenants’ association.
- DC09 donated $10,000 on Jan. 11 and is the local minority partner (known as a Certified Business Enterprise, or CBE) running the DC Lottery with the Greek company Intralot. DC09/Intralot are currently awaiting a Council decision that would clear the way for them to secure a no-bid contract to continue running the lottery and the District’s new sports gambling operation.
Although DC09 is supposed to be the local CBE, the address listed on Bowser’s committee report is in Duluth, Georgia—the same address as the one listed for one of Intralot’s U.S. offices.
- Monica Ray donated $10,000 as an individual on Dec. 14, 2018. Ray is the executive director for Congress Heights Community Training & Development Corporation, a nonprofit started by her business partner and frequent political operator and fundraiser Phinis Jones. In 2016, Ray was paid $125,000 through the nonprofit, according to tax records.
Ray owns the property located at the address she lists for her contribution, 3215 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE. That address appears three more times on Bowser’s financial report: under a $5,000 donation from Independent Holding Corp. and a $10,000 donation from a company called “Jacobs.” Bowser’s committee also paid Capitol Services Management, which is located at that address, $1,500 for “advertising.”
- Kerry S. Pearson LLC donated $10,000 on Dec. 21, 2018. Pearson is a well known lobbyist, who in 2018 worked for PHI Service Company, a subsidiary of Pepco Holdings Inc. PHI also donated $10,000 as a corporation.
- Venable donated $10,000 on Jan. 4. The firm’s lobbyists have been involved in a number of issues in the District last year, including sports gambling, ride-hailing, and medical marijuana.