On Wednesday, Aug. 2, one of the city’s tenant-advocacy groups was scheduled to hand out endorsements for the Sept. 12 primary election. It seemed like an occasion perfectly tailored for the PR machine of Ward 4 councilmember and mayoral frontrunner Adrian Fenty, perhaps the council’s most populist rep.
During his seven-year tenure on the council, after all, Fenty has been a reliable friend of renters. And given the big-biz credentials of his main opponent in the mayoral race, where else can a tenant group turn?
To no one. At press time, the D.C. Tenants’ Advocacy Coalition was leaning toward issuing no mayoral endorsement. Prior to the meeting, the group attacked Fenty, a councilmember and mayoral hopeful who has but one pockmark on his tenant-protection record. At issue was a March 16 committee vote, when Fenty backed a rent-control bill favored by the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington (AOBA).
The AOBA bill never made it into law—a more tenant-friendly piece of legislation eventually passed the council, with Fenty’s support.
Yet the Tenants’ Advocacy Coalition is apparently taking the cooties approach to endorsements—one embrace of AOBA, and you’re infected. Another D.C. renters’ advocacy group, Tenant Action Network, doesn’t endorse candidates.
So much for Fenty’s history with rent protections: Legislation co-introduced by the councilmember closed the famous “95/5” loophole, through which developers bought a majority share of an apartment building without allowing tenants their statutory right to purchase. He pushed for more money for an affordable-housing fund. He also backed efforts to restrict the ability of landlords to evict residents from dilapidated buildings so the owners could sell out to condo developers.
It’s not as if Fenty’s rival, D.C. Council Chairman Linda Cropp, gets any love from tenant groups. After all, she won AOBA’s endorsement. But Fenty’s alleged turn against the renters was accompanied by some disquieting information, according to tenant groups. Big real-estate interests tossed a boatload of cash into Fenty’s campaign coffers just before and after his votes on the legislation.
At some point, the word went out to the big landlord community that Fenty was OK, despite his tenant-advocate past.
Several companies and individuals involved in the building-management business came through for Fenty around the time the council was considering rent-control reforms. Conrad Cafritz of property-development firm Cafritz Interests came up with $2,000 on June 9, three days after the final council vote on the legislation. The Lenkin Company was in for $2,000 on March 24. Company Vice President Edward Lenkin is a former AOBA board president. Carmel Partners and its affiliated apartment-management companies became the single largest contributor to the Fenty cause with a June 6 $24,000 dump. Carmel was involved in one of the biggest efforts to buy D.C. apartment buildings using the 95/5 loophole. In fact, the company’s successful purchase helped propel the council to end 95/5 transactions. Tenants give Carmel low marks for the management of those properties.
Real estate attorney Richard Luchs joined the June 6 crowd with a $500 payment. That contribution supplemented the $500 he gave on March 5. Luchs was the go-to guy for big developers looking to snag an apartment building from underneath tenants. He couldn’t have been too pleased when Fenty co-introduced the bill that closed the 95/5 loophole, but he found some reason to give. Luchs was on vacation and unavailable for comment.
It wasn’t just the big landlords who puffed up the Fenty coffers. Michael Sims, president of the D.C. Small Apartment Owners Association, kicked in $350 in the spring. He worked councilmembers at the John A. Wilson Building alongside AOBA’s top lobbyist Shaun Pharr as the rent-control-reform debate raged. Sims says his gift to the Fenty campaign wasn’t tied to any vote. “The idea was to hedge my bets,” says Sims, who has also contributed to Cropp. “I still think Fenty is a tenant’s advocate.”
At least one AOBA member referred LL to the proper authority on the Fenty contribution question. When LL asked Michael Hull, past-president of AOBA and a vice president at Cafritz Company, why he personally coughed up $100 for Fenty on June 9, he replied: “You need to talk to Shaun Pharr. We try to provide housing. When it comes to the other stuff, that’s what the trade association does.”
Fenty argues that the influence of campaign cash on his positions is overstated. “I think contributions are like yard signs, they are like endorsements, like a button or sticker,” he says. “It’s a way to show support. I don’t think there’s anything more to it than that.”
STAKING A DISCLAIMER
There’s nothing like a few glowing testimonials from high-profile friends to boost a political neophyte’s credibility. If you’re lucky, you might even be able to tack a few recognizable names or organizations onto your campaign lit.
Ward 3 council hopeful Mary Cheh has some sweet endorsements on her literature and a mailing that she figures ended up in the hands of about 15,000 residents.
Nan Aron, executive director of the Alliance for Justice, says she admires Cheh’s “fierce dedication to fairness, equal rights, and civil liberties.” Cheh is called “a phenomenal friend of animals and all who love and care for them,” by Washington Humane Society Executive Director Howard Nelson. Renee DeVigne, one of the deans of George Washington University Law School, where Cheh teaches, says that “[s]tudents love professor Cheh…because she inspires them to care about their community.”
These community leaders have something in common beyond their praise for Cheh: They all work for nonprofit organizations barred by the Internal Revenue Service from involvement in partisan political activities.
Cheh appears to have overlooked that part of the IRS code. She not only included approved accolades from friends on her mailing but also listed their titles and organizations. Her lit did not include a disclaimer distancing those quoted from their organizations.
Nelson, who says he hasn’t seen the literature, calls the naming of his organization an error. “It certainly was not authorized.” He characterized his endorsement as “a personal quote. It actually has nothing to do with the Washington Humane Society or my role at WHS.” Nelson seems to have a good grasp of the IRS code. “We are a 501(c)(3), and we never participate in any political campaigns.” He’s e-mailed Cheh asking her to “remove the quote or subtext it, like on her Web site.”
It’s a little too late for adding disclaimers, unless he expects Cheh to go rooting through every mailbox from Cleveland Park to Palisades.
It’s not as if Cheh didn’t know that the use of the quotes with organizations needed to be explained to protect her friends from IRS scrutiny. All the statements were approved, but below all the quotes on her Web site, Cheh gives the reader this message: “(*Affiliations are listed for informational purposes only.)”
Cheh would have been wise to take a peak at the Alliance for Justice Web site. The group’s nonprofit advocacy project is designed to give tax-exempt organizations “a better understanding of the laws that govern their participation in the policy process.” It even includes a little fact sheet. Check item No. 1 under how an organization can protect itself from violating the laws governing political activity: “Requir[e] officers…acting as individuals engaged in partisan political activity to clearly state that they are acting in their individual capacity, not on behalf of the organization…”
After the Cheh campaign was contacted by the Washington City Paper, this message was posted on her Web site:
“A recent mailing from my campaign included quotes from people who were identified with their institutional affiliations. There was no attempt to suggest that these were endorsements from the institutions themselves. But since there was no specific disclaimer, the reference to designations could have left that impression with someone. I regret that, although, again, this was not the intent nor do I think anyone would reasonably believe that the designations were anything more than information identifying who was making the statement. To avoid even possible ambiguity, all future mailings will have specific disclaimers.”
Cheh might have been surprised that any reasonable person might see the endorsements as, well, endorsements, but she was quick to lay blame on her own campaign. “I screwed up, what can I say?”
•Ward 3 contender Sam Brooks is all about being different. He’s young, new to the ward, full of new ideas, and now certainly a new kind of Democrat who doesn’t mind pissing off the unions. Brooks is the first candidate in the race to benefit from an independent expenditure from a political action committee openly hostile to labor. Red, white, and blue fliers that look strangely similar to Brooks’ own campaign lit have been distributed around the ward carrying the disclaimer: “Paid for by Citizens for Empowerment PAC.”
The PAC is funded by gigantic concrete maker Miller & Long and electrical contractor MC Dean. Both companies are open shops and help fund the political opposition to the city’s stadium-project labor agreement, which gave preference for construction contracts to union companies.
The flier is pretty standard fare and carries Brooks’ signature “new” ideas of creating a commission on school closings and splitting Emergency Medical Services from the fire department. But a new bullet point is tacked onto the end: “Fair and Open Bidding: allowing union and nonunion companies the same rights to compete for construction work.”
Brooks says he had no idea the mailing was about to hit the streets. He did meet with the PAC board along with several other Ward 3 candidates.
•The fiction of Ward 5 council candidate Harry Thomas Jr.’s field-leading campaign war chest has been exposed in a July 26 response to an inquiry from the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance (OCF). On paper, Thomas is the Ward 5 fundraising champ. According to his June 10 report, he raised $49,545 and had $42,052 in cash on hand. Thomas appeared to be leaving his rivals in the dust.
In a July 12 letter to Thomas’ campaign treasurer and wife, Diane Romo Thomas, the OCF asked her to provide a little more information about the June 10 filing. “You report several in-kind contributions, but you failed to report these as expenditures,” the office wrote, reminding the campaign that all in-kind contributions must be itemized on the spending side of the ledger. By “several” the OCF meant a total of $22,350 of Thomas’ receipts were of the in-kind variety—including $10,000 in-kind from himself.
The July 26 amended report provides a leaner bottom line for Team Thomas. His total remains the same, but once the sketchy in-kind contributions are subtracted as campaign expenditures, his cash balance shrinks to $18,787.
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