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Every incumbent enjoys the advantage of being able to raise campaign cash in a hurry. And though that ability is hard to resist, it comes at the risk of being branded an instrument of developers, corporations, and lobbyists.
Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau has assumed that liability and then some, raking in roughly a third of her $190,000 in contributions from such monied interests since February while advocating for campaign finance reform.
Nadeau has received a maximum $500 contribution from dozens of D.C. developers and lobbyists and from corporations seeking to obtain or retain a toe-hold in D.C. In some cases, power brokers have bundled maximum contributions from wives, secretaries, and consultants.
Conventional wisdom is that the candidate who raises the most money is most likely to win the election, particularly as an incumbent. But Ward 1 is one of the most diverse and vibrant parts of the city, with constituents who have come to expect a high level of attentiveness to their everyday needs and also hold larger policy concerns about affordable housing, schools, and healthcare. And whether her supporters like it or not, Nadeau has yet to distinguish herself on the council in any significant way.
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Sensing an appetite for change, three distinctly different challengers have emerged: a political newcomer who has worked in all three branches of government; a veteran advisory neighborhood commissioner and representative of the LGBTQ community; and an insurgent who, with an abundance of life experience and hutzpah, subjects Nadeau to withering criticism.
The one thing these candidates share is a belief that Nadeau, having herself unseated an incumbent—the powerful but flawed late Councilmember Jim Graham—has done little to advance Ward 1’s interests and instead has fallen comfortably into the lap of wealthy patrons. Which is an image she might find hard to shake.
Nadeau, whose 2014 campaign was the subject of a 2016 campaign finance audit that identified a laundry list of both minor and significant violations, didn’s respond by press time.
After defeating Graham in the 2014 Democratic primary, Nadeau emerged as an outspoken proponent of campaign finance reform. “Democracy is about everyone having a voice in government, not just special interests with deep pockets,” she said in December 2015, as she co-introduced the D.C. Fair Elections Act. (The public financing bill would match small campaign contributions to candidates who accept lower maximum contribution limits.) “This legislation will allow District residents to rise above big-money special interests in politics. I support this bill because matching small donations with public funds helps give more power and influence to the people.”
But those special interests are well-represented in her recent filing with the Office of Campaign Finance, which includes dozens of maximum $500 contributions from well-connected local and national business interests, often matched by contributions from family members, associates, and related entities.
In all, Nadeau pulled in more than $50,000 from developers, lawyers, lobbyists, and corporations such as AT&T, General Electric, and the National Association of Chain Drug Stores.
By contrast, former D.C. Superior Court magistrate judge Lori Parker has raised just $15,000— from individual donors—and Ward 1 ANC Member Kent Boese, Nadeau’s most well-known challenger, has raised slightly more than $12,000, $10,000 of which came out of his own pocket.
“Councilmember Nadeau portrays herself as a champion of campaign finance reform,” says Boese. “Yet when one examines her past and current fundraising activities, the excessive levels of corporate and out-of-state contributions demonstrate that her words often do not match her actions.”
Adds Parker: “Elections should not be won or lost based on who raises the most money from big corporations or special interests. That is not what public service is about. I’m proud that my money is coming from people who know me and believe in my ability to bring strong leadership to the Ward.”
The most radical contrast with Nadeau is independent candidate Greg Boyd, a longtime Ward 1 resident and property owner, a former vocational and educational director with Second Genesis rehab facilities, a former DCPS teacher, a former stockbroker, and a former Marine who prides himself as a maverick who refuses to accept the status quo.
Boyd, who tweets prolifically as “Beltway Greg,” possesses a flair for critiquing D.C.’s pay-to-play culture, wasteful spending, and overall lack of financial sophistication. He describes Nadeau as “a show pony, a scripted, sculpted, focus-group-tested politico” who is bought and sold by corporations and lobbyists. “It’s essentially legal bribery,” he says of the incumbent’s campaign fundraising activities. “They contribute, she allows them to rob, cheat, and steal from D.C. taxpayers. The worst part is I don’t even think she knows what’s occurring. Is she a hypocrite or is she ignorant? It’s a trick question, as the end result is the same either way.”