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Thanksgiving is a time when people pause to consider such blessings as good health and prosperity. Tradition dictates that the giving of thanks take place over a spread of turkey, stuffing, and various other seasonal indulgences.
In D.C. politics, by contrast, thanks get transmitted via check. And these days, many folks are giving thanks to their favorite politicians, for plenty of good reasons: The city is still undergoing a tremendous development boom, it’s building a brand-new baseball stadium in a forgotten pocket of Southeast, it’s essentially reinventing the entire Anacostia waterfront, and it’s filling its coffers with the surpluses of recent years.
The go-go economy means two things: There’s a lot of favor to be curried, and there’s a lot of money available to curry favor. Numbers from the Office of Campaign Finance concur. In the past two years, more than $2.6 million has passed from interest groups, individuals, and corporations to D.C. politicians’ campaign and exploratory committees. In keeping with the holiday spirit, LL pauses to recognize some of D.C. politics’ most committed givers and those who have benefited from the largess. (The figures come from the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance and cover contributions made during and since the 2004 election cycle.)
Whoever gave Vincent Orange $100,000
In 2004, Ward 5 councilmember and mayoral candidate Orange launched an exploratory committee for his mayoral bid. At the time he announced the committee, there was no limit to how much a single donor could give to an explorer. Also, fat-cat contributors could remain anonymous under D.C. law, a great perk for a group of people who thrive on secrecy. In this favorable giving climate, Orange rounded up a cool $240,565 for his exploration activities. Yet the public wanted accountability, and pressure mounted for Orange to produce his list of contributors. Orange complied, but refunded $100,000 to contributors—or one contributor—who didn’t want to have their names attached to the donation. LL can’t blame them. Who, after all, wants to go on record as taking Orange seriously as a mayoral hopeful?
Gambling promoter Shawn Scott
Scott and his U.S. Virgin Islands–based companies forked over $1,372,000 to a group called the Citizens Committee for Video Lottery Terminal Initiative. Scott and his civic-sounding organization were behind the failed 2004 effort to secure ballot status for an initiative to build a slots emporium in Northeast. To put the issue before the public, Scott showered cash on high rollers, grass-roots activists, and mercenary signature gatherers. Former Councilmember John Ray and the Manatt, Phelps & Phillips law firm billed $419,759; K Street law firm Sidley Austin, Brown & Wood, $350,285; PR maven Ann Walker Marchant, $62,028; and political consultant Vickey Wilcher, $21,653. Perhaps Scott & Co. should have spent a bit more on elections specialists, because their paperwork exhibited wanton disregard for city rules governing how to properly place an initiative on the ballot. When it reviewed the Scott docket, the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics was not amused. It held weeks of hearings and ruled that the committee demonstrated “clear indifference” to the election process and fined the committee’s chair, Pedro Alfonso, $622,880. That gave Mayor Anthony A. Williams a reason to be thankful. The slots fine eclipsed the previous record fine of $250,000 levied on Williams’ 2002 re-election campaign committee for its petition-signature-collection debacle.
Medical malpractice attorney Jack Olender, his wife, Lovell Olender, and D.C. Legal PAC
Olender and his trial attorney pals gave $40,900 in the hopes of maintaining the District’s great liberal tradition on matters of civil justice. Unlike many jurisdictions in both red and blue America, D.C. has resisted initiatives to water down jury awards for people injured by bad doctors and faulty products. The city’s heritage, however, came under siege this year, when Williams proposed legislation to set a $250,000 cap on jury awards for pain and suffering. Luckily for Olender & Co., Williams’ legislative agenda needs the consent of the trial-lawyer-friendly D.C. Council. The cap idea was toast before it ever left the mayor’s press briefing room, thanks to council veterans plus three newcomers to whom the trial lawyers had given generously.
Reed Smith law firm
This is the workplace of perennial power player wannabe A. Scott Bolden, whose last political moment came when he was ousted as the head of the Democratic State Committee. The folks at Reed Smith, though, are keeping the faith that Bolden could be mayor—or perhaps a councilmember. After Bolden set up his mayoral exploratory committee, the firm’s lawyers contributed $20,500 to their colleague and the company tossed in $25,000 more. A lot of Bolden’s co-workers seem awfully eager to see him spend less time in the office and more time at the John A. Wilson Building. After testing the local political market, Bolden dropped his name from the list of mayoral hopefuls and set his sights on an at-large council seat. Even so, it sure was nice to spend all that cash, get some media hype for a possible mayoral run, and then switch up and run for the seat now held by Phil Mendelson.
Parking-company owners and their family members
With donations totaling $30,775 to various heavy hitters, the parking folks are protecting their space on the civic agenda.
Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson’s recent proposal to boost the parking tax to fund school modernization never even got a vote.
Black Entertainment Television founder Robert Johnson
Mayoral candidate Michael Brown surely appreciates the $25,000 that Johnson gave to his mayoral exploratory committee. Johnson, though, backed up his contribution with an appearance at one of Brown’s mayoral events. The billionaire gave the affable Brown a big dose of credibility and showed that Michael’s late father, Ron Brown, still casts a long political shadow. Given Brown’s swagger on the campaign trail despite few signs of growing political support, Johnson still has a good eye for an entertaining act.
Maryland developer Carl D. Jones and his family
These folks gave $25,000 to the Orange mayoral exploratory committee. Jones’ latest business venture involved trying to buy the Rosecroft Raceway, but no one is quite sure why he took such an interest in Orange’s long-shot bid. The husband-and-wife team of John Ray and Sarah Ray also coughed up $15,000 for the Orange exploratory effort. D.C. political geeks should thank the big donors for building Orange’s confidence and keeping the stuntman in the game. The real contenders are way too serious.
This fundraiser extraordinaire has spread $13,100 around to various allies, although his personal and corporate contributions are minuscule in comparison with the cash his fundraising machine has delivered to D.C. pols over the years. In May, Pearson used his business-heavy donor list to raise $21,000 for Ward 8 Councilmember Marion S. Barry Jr. in a single night. The money flowed at a retire-the-debt party at Georgia Brown’s, even though Barry reported only $50 in debt on his post-campaign finance report. These guys will use any excuse to throw a party.
The generous people who feed the city might be feeling the tryptophan sag a bit more this year. Despite a very giving heart—and $10,930 in contributions—the restaurant lobby appears ready to take a beating from advocates who want to ban smoking in most D.C. bars and restaurants. The council will soon take up the ban bill, and prospects for passage look good. Here’s a counterpoint to the conventional wisdom that money rules politics: the No Smoke D.C. PAC gave just $1,600 during the 2004 election cycle.
Van Wagner Communications, LLC
This New York–based billboard company gave $10,000 to the D.C. Fund (formerly the Jack PAC). Why give a bunch of small contributions when one targeted whopper can get the job done? Here’s a company that must be thankful D.C. law places no cap on PAC contributions. Outside of the mayoral-exploratory fundraising spree, Van Wagner’s check to Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans’ now-defunct PAC was the biggest contribution to a group supporting a single politician. Van Wagner owns 15 of the 32 large billboards that are allowed in the District under a 2001 law Evans moved through the council. The company’s vice president, Ray Sipperley, calls the $10,000 contribution “a way to give back to the city.” Now that’s the holiday spirit. —James Jones
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Illustrations by Robert Ullman