Direct mail can be an effective—if not expensive—way for D.C. councilmembers to reach their constituents with policy updates, their office hours schedule, and information on how to report problems with trash pickup, potholes, or broken street lights.
Several sitting councilmembers send mailers.
Loose Lips can see why political upstarts might regard an incumbent’s mail blitz as an unfair advantage, especially at a time when leveling the playing field and encouraging participation in the electoral process seems to be more lip service than reality.
So when a mailer distributed recently by the Ward 1 office of Councilmember Brianne Nadeau showed up last week, LL took note. Printed on both sides of poster stock paper, the legal pad-sized mailer provides her constituents with legislative and office updates, a back-to-school and District brief, along with contact information for those seeking assistance.
With Nadeau facing numerous challengers in the June Democratic primary, the timing seemed auspicious—for her. A call to her office yielded a swift response from Deputy Chief of Staff Tom Fazzini.
Over the past two-and-a-half years, Fazzini says, Nadeau has spent $56,000 on four mailers that have gone out to between 16,500 and 19,500 constituents per mailer—roughly 3 percent of the office’s total spending. (Nadeau does not maintain a constituent services fund, which allows office-holders to raise up to $40,000 per year to help residents with things like funeral arrangements, emergency housing, past due utility bills, and “informational services,” which could include mailers. The law disallows use of those funds for the primary purpose of promoting a candidate.)
“These are part of an overall program of engagement with constituents,” he says. “Our updates have been a regular part of our outreach over the course of the Councilmember’s term, because it’s important to us that all our constituents know how the Council is having a direct impact on their lives.”
For Ward 1 Council candidate Lori Parker, though, Nadeau’s three most recent mailers come too close to the announcement of her re-election bid. “I would not spend taxpayer dollars on such communications given the timing, whether allowable or not. As we continue to meet with and listen to our neighbors throughout the Ward, the timing and funding of these recent mailers—and not the content—is clearly on the mind of many neighbors,” she says.
Candidate Kent Boese, current chairman of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1A, says, “There’s not much new information [in the mailer]. It’s not much of an update. To anyone who looked at it, it looks like some kind of campaign material.”
Nadeau got on the phone with LL and described the mailers as a resource for school modernization and public safety updates. She explained that some constituents rely less on social media than others. “It’s nice to have on your fridge, to have in hand so you can refer to it,” she says.
She points to strict rules regarding content and a review by the Council’s Office of the General Counsel as assurances that members are not misusing Council resources. (There is a 90-day blackout period prior to an election during which incumbents cannot send mailers from their office.)
Besides, her campaign does not begin in earnest until February, she says, at which time she will begin tapping into a sizable war chest that she amassed a year ahead of the primary. (She attributes the advanced timing of her fundraising and delayed timing of her campaigning to her recent pregnancy.)
“I was an upstart three years ago,” says Nadeau. “You can be critical of the incumbent advantage, but I’m not an entrenched incumbent.”
Nadeau is not alone in her use of constituent mailers. Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen sends them out twice a year, typically in the spring and fall. His last mailing went out to 19,000 Ward 6 residents, with design, printing, and mailing costs of about $13,000, according to his communications director Erik Salmi. The four-page newsletter includes updates on legislation, ward news, contact information, and office hours, Salmi says. Like Nadeau, Allen does not have a constituent services fund, and pays for the mailers out of his office’s annual operating budget. (He does not accept PAC or corporate money.)
Others who reportedly send out mailers include Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie and At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds. McDuffie’s spokesman, Nolan Treadway, says the office has done one in the last year, a “5-year report.” He did not provide specifics. Bonds’ office did not respond to City Paper’s questions.
At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, who also does not accept corporate or PAC money, has never done a mailer, according to her legislative director, Sam Rosen-Amy.
This post has been updated to reflect that Charles Allen does not accept PAC and corporate money.