For proof of the deep-seated influence of development interests and organized labor in D.C. politics, just consult the campaign finances of At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds.
The most recent public records show that between Feb. 1 and March 10 she raised more than $51,000 for her re-election bid from only 78 donations. Almost half were for $1,000, the maximum legal amount in at-large races.
Most of these came from people and companies associated with D.C.’s booming building industry: contractors; roofers, plumbers, and painters unions; land-use lawyers at white-shoe firms; and prominent property owners.
The contributions, and the benefits of incumbency, are paving the path for Bonds’ expected win in the June Democratic primary.
“I believe that I’ve done a good job and, given my experience, I can do an even better job,” she says. “I now have a little bit of money. I try really hard not to be a big spender, and I try to make every dollar count.”
Citing the demands of simultaneously running a campaign and being a councilmember, Bonds admits that she hasn’t started distributing literature or posting signs, but she promises that residents will see them soon enough.
Bonds faces a trio of ambitious young challengers who will likely split the vote if no one drops out. None have elected experience.
All three are men in their late twenties or early thirties. They have campaigned since last year, attending public events to gain exposure and seeking to portray themselves as more in tune with D.C.’s challenges.
Bonds, who will turn 73 in April, was notably absent from a recent candidates forum in which her three challengers participated due to what she says was “a scheduling conflict.” She hasn’t met two of her opponents, but knows the third from past community work.
“It’s apparent that Anita has lost touch with the people,” says candidate Marcus Goodwin, a real estate associate who, like Bonds, has received financial support from developers. “As a result, she’s had to lean on the relationships she’s developed professionally in housing.”
The councilmember says “it’s easy to accuse an incumbent of being in the pocket of corporations,” but she stands for citizens. She cites her votes for issues like paid leave, a higher minimum wage, and publicly financed elections.
Bonds began fundraising in January. As of March 10, she had about $63,000 in cash, compared to Goodwin’s $32,000. This leaves her plenty of money for get-out-the-vote efforts in the weeks preceding the primary.
Bonds’ opponents raised much less money than she did over the latest reporting period. Lowery raised about $5,900, Goodwin $14,000, and Holmes $8,700. But Lowery’s and Goodwin’s campaigns received more individual donations than hers did. Lowery also got endorsements from left-wing groups like DC for Democracy and Run for Something.
The councilmember’s fundraising prowess is a testament to the clout she has built in a city that has undergone seismic changes over the past few decades. A longtime District political figure, Bonds worked behind the scenes as a campaign organizer for Marion Barry, then as a senior official for Mayors Barry, Sharon Pratt, and Anthony Williams.
She joined the Council in 2012, filling the seat Phil Mendelson vacated when he became Council chairman. Two years later, Mendelson created a new committee devoted to housing and made Bonds its chair.
She has led the committee ever since. It oversees the agencies responsible for investing in affordable housing, protecting the rights of tenants and seniors, and addressing the needs of the homeless.
Among Bonds’ legislative accomplishments are a landlord-friendly bill set for passage that exempts single-family homes from longtime protections for renters, and a tenant-friendly law that caps late fees for rent payments at 5 percent of the rent due. (Bonds says a Wilson Building staffer came up to her and thanked her for the latter.)
She has also proposed a bill that would guarantee a minimum amount of annual investment in D.C.’s main fund for affordable housing at a higher level. But the bill has stalled and, this month, a report from the DC Auditor alleged that the funds had been mismanaged.
To her critics, Bonds’ industry-heavy campaign support presents potential conflicts of interest, given her role as chair of the housing committee. Bonds sets the committee’s agenda, decides which measures to advance, and uses her pulpit to push for certain projects.
A tenant advocate who was not authorized to speak on the record criticized Bonds for not following through on proposals that would help low-income residents and for bowing to landlords. The advocate says Bonds suffers less from conflicts of interest than having sympathy for developers.
“This is another example of pay-to-play culture in D.C.,” says Lowery. “These organizations and corporations are looking to cash in after the election.”
Bonds’ $1,000 donors include Ward 8 politico and community developer Phinis Jones, William B. Alsup III of Hines, the real estate firm behind CityCenterDC, and a litany of construction and landscaping contractors.
Bonds also received $500 from Olympian-turned-developer Jair Lynch, developer Bryan “Scottie” Irving, who sits on the D.C. Housing Finance Agency board and whose company, Blue Skye Construction, often wins government projects, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s senior adviser Beverly Perry, and DC Chief Tenant Advocate Johanna Shreve, whose office her committee oversees.
Her strong ties to the region’s construction community go back to her days as the director of corporate relations for Fort Myer Construction, a favored firm that has earned hundreds of millions of dollars through D.C. contracts and drawn scrutiny over its political heft.
The company has not donated to Bonds’ current campaign, but it did donate to her 2014 campaign. On March 9, A. Scott Bolden, an attorney who represents Fort Myer and is linked with the Bowser/Adrian Fenty “Green Team,” gave Bonds’ campaign $1,000.
Meanwhile, Bonds remains the chair of the DC Democratic State Committee, the group that picks delegates to attend the Democratic National Convention in presidential election years and appointed her to the Council in 2012. But even by its members’ own admission, the group has been beset by dysfunction and miscommunications under Bonds.
Geographically, much of her support comes from Wards 5, 7, and 8, which contain the District’s African-American voting base. In the 2014 Democratic primary, she won more than half of the total votes, but more than two-thirds of the votes in those wards.
In a crowded field of more than a dozen candidates in the general election that year, she won more than 24 percent of the votes. Seniors are well represented at Bonds’ campaign events and turn out at the polls for her.
One Wilson Building observer believes Bonds relies more heavily on business donations than other councilmembers because the electorate that votes for her generally does not donate in large numbers to campaigns. “It would surprise me if anyone outside of the business community, labor, or Democratic State Committee threw her a meet and greet [or] fundraiser,” the observer says.
Bonds says she has “widespread support across the District, which will be reflected on June 19.” Whether her young challengers have a real shot at her seat will become clearer as election season kicks into high gear.
They might have luck if they bide their time. Bonds appears to want only one more term. “I’m not going to do this forever,” she says. “But I have a record that I’m proud to run on.”