City Paper is not for tourists
We have gone from #FreshStart to #FengShui.
In a little noticed change, Mayor Muriel Bowser has retooled a key part of her 2018 campaign structure.
Out is her long-time treasurer Ben Soto, the ultimate D.C. political insider for more than a decade. He helped create Bowser’s #FreshStart campaign for mayor in 2014 and later the disastrous FreshPAC, the short-lived political action committee Bowser abandoned amid complaints that its corporate and lobbyist donations reeked of pay-to-play politics.
In as treasurer is Jodi Elaine Ovca, a newcomer to city politics. And one with an unusual background.
Ovca is a conflict mediator and lawyer. She also runs a nonprofit, Access Youth, that focuses on conflict resolution, truancy, and behavioral relationships in city high schools. She practices mindfulness and yoga and is a devotee of Feng Shui, the belief in the interrelationship between your mental approach to life and the power of your physical surroundings.
Ovca holds a 1991 double degree from Wellesley College in Mandarin and French, and a 1995 Georgetown degree in law. She’s also a graduate of the Feng Shui Institute of America, “the oldest contemporary school of Feng Shui in America, founded by Nancilee Wyrdra, Feng Shui Master and Founder of the Pyramid philosophy of Feng Shui and the most-published American Feng Shui author.”
At 48, Ovca never has had a formal part in any political campaign.
“I am not political in any way,” she tells City Paper at her offices in Georgetown where she runs Access Youth. She says the nonprofit was created in 2009 “by me, myself, and I” on her living room couch. Of her new treasurers role, she says, “To me, this is about believing in the mayor.”
Aides to the mayor say Bowser asked Ovca to join the campaign late last summer when the embattled Soto was stepping away from the job. The switch from Soto to Ovca is part of Bowser’s effort to put a fresh face on her 2018 campaign, to downplay the pay-to-play aura that lingers still. Ovca was among six women Bowser honored at the Washington Women of Excellence Awards last March.
It also is a chance to create some separation from Soto and his ongoing legal entanglements with infamous D.C. landlord Sanford Capital and one of its primary lenders, EagleBank. Soto owns a title firm based in Columbia Heights and serves on EagleBank’s board of directors. As part of an investigation on the atrocious living conditions at Sanford’s buildings, City Paper found that Soto and employees of his title firm notarized mortgages for most of Sanford’s properties. That includes loans from EagleBank for a set of dilapidated properties around the Congress Heights Metro station that are slated for major redevelopment but are tied up in court because of a pending lawsuit over their conditions by D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine.
Racine recently requested authority from the court to “take depositions and request documents” from Sanford, EagleBank, Soto, and his title firm, among other parties. In addition, Soto owns a development firm called Paramount that has partnered on multiple projects with CityPartners, the development firm leading the contentious Congress Heights project.
On WAMU’s Jan. 5 broadcast of The Politics Hour, which your reporter co-hosts with Kojo Nnamdi, Bowser said Soto was taking “a break” from any official role, but added, “he is very much involved in our campaign.”
On the same program, Bowser praised Ovca for being a detail-oriented person and attorney who “helped bring in a team and an accounting firm to assist us with a lot of contributions.”
In short, Ovca is supposed to avoid incidents like the one last summer when the Office of Campaign Finance fined Bowser’s 2014 campaign $13,000 for accepting over-the-limit contributions. Bowser’s new 2018 campaign already has refunded $2,000 from prominent developer Herb Miller, who the campaign says mistakenly made two maximum amount donations.
Others associated with Bowser’s campaign insist Ovca is not just a fresh face to disguise an image problem with Soto. They say her reputation and attention to detail will help guide the campaign away from political pitfalls. Ovca said she took the job after consulting her own legal advisers.
Did Soto offer any advice? Yes, he did.
“I asked him what his hesitations for me would be,” Ovca told City Paper, “and he said, ‘You know it can take a lot of time and certainly won’t be the easiest job.’” She said Soto cautioned her about “being very careful in the way that we keep our records, the way we are doing our reporting.”
In a separate telephone interview, Soto was more blunt.
“The [Ovca] choice is perfect. She is from the nonprofit community. She’s a lawyer. She understands Washington. She’s not a political hack like some people call me.”
Ovca has lived in Washington for more than 25 years, but says she only met Bowser in 2013 when they both were in that year’s Leadership Greater Washington class. Since 1986 the group has promoted “communication and cooperation” among the area’s business and community leaders.
“As a group, we were part of a time in her life when she was making the decision to run [for mayor] and were sort of her earliest supporters from the outside. I already had a respect for her commitment to the city,” Ovca said.
Ovca says she got the idea for Access Youth when she was out of law school and working for an adult mediation firm in 2009. She says she asked herself, “Why can’t we do this for kids?”
Access Youth is now a million-dollar a year operation, with her first city contract dating back to 2011. She says city contracts—now about $40,000 a year—make up a small part of Access Youth’s budget. The majority of the funding comes from grants, private donors, foundations, and corporations. She has 15 full-time staffers and six part-time, and various volunteers who work in Ballou, Eastern, and Anacostia high schools, among other sites.
“We really work on keeping kids engaged and building a relationship of trust,” she says.
One of her full-time staff members is a yoga teacher. “It would amaze you to go over to Ballou, in a room with 16- and 17-year-old boys who sort of come in hot … and within three minutes she has them doing nostril breathing,” says Ovca. “They are calm. Mindfulness is an incredible tool for them.” She is troubled by the widening school attendance controversy now swirling around Bowser and Chancellor Antwan Wilson. But she says her counselors do make a difference.
Ovca is a divorced mother with a 2-year-old daughter, and the only child of her Chinese-American mother and her Eastern European-American father. Born in San Francisco, Ovca’s mother sent her to a Chinese Mandarin school in the first grade, even through her family did not speak it. “I was the only kid with brown hair, came home to a family that didn’t speak any Mandarin, and so you can imagine … that was challenging a little bit, and so I cried. This was really hard.”
But Ovca says she stuck with it and by the time she was 13, she decided Mandarin was “really cool.” The family was by then living in Connecticut where finding a tutor for classes was easy. Then her parents divorced and she found herself in Louisville, Kantucky where there was little access to the language, which was “certainly not offered at any of the schools.”
In addition to Mandarin, she regularly studied French, a more accessible language that later led to her double major at Wellesley. For her junior year, she spent much of the time in France where she says she lugged around dictionaries for both languages. “I had to translate from French to Chinese and back and forth. A great learning experience.”
Her mother introduced her to Feng Shui, which means wind and water. When Ovca was 16, her mother built a new house in Louisville. She called in a Feng Shui practitioner to guide the family on how to position the house on the lot for maximum chi (vital life force).
Ovca has practiced Feng Shui ever since. One tenet is that you don’t sit in a room with your back to the door, as it’s bad for your energy. “You never, ever sit with your back to the door,” Ovca says. “You want to see what’s coming at you.”
When we first entered the conference room at her Georgetown office, Ovca quickly took the table seat facing the door. (Your reporter wound up sitting with his back to the door, but was determined not to feel unempowered.)
Ovca also has her own Feng Shui business, Empowering Spaces, but says that company is inactive now. “I used to do private consultations for businesses and private clients and I was doing way too many things, so something had to give.”
Without announcing anything, Ovca says she has introduced a little Feng Shui into Bowser’s campaign. She arranges where people sit during campaign meetings. “I make sure that I sit everyone in a proper position.”
She says she’s aware that Mayor Bowser bought a new home in Upper Northwest and recently remodeled it. “She just redecorated her house,” Ovca says. She didn’t give the mayor guidance on the placement of mirrors, artwork, and furniture, but says, “I’d be happy to.”
She said the first thing she did to prepare for her new role is to take the required Office of Campaign Finance seminar on campaign financing. “I’m one of those people who gets really passionate about things. I’m a nerd. So I’m a learner. The joke in our family is that if I get excited about something, I get certified in it,” she says.
Her name is on Bowser’s December 10th finance report that showed $1.4 million raised and only about $68,000 spent spent so far. Her next report is due next week, January 31st.
Andrew Giambrone contributed reporting to this story.