There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Big donors have contributed $1,400,773 to the mayor’s campaign. Regular folk: $23,425.
Photographs by Charles Steck
Not so long ago, the Anthony A. Williams re-election campaign was sitting high above a $1.2 million pile of cash, what was left of two years’ and $1.4 million worth of fundraising. In the District, $1.4 million is enough to run two or three legitimate mayoral campaigns—so the Williams kitty scared other bona fide challengers out of the race. The field of no-name competitors for the Sept. 10 Democratic primary, in fact, had some Williams people talking about holding on to the cash until after the slam-dunk and using it to set up a charitable nonprofit.
A nice thought. Today, that frugal fantasy is dead, thanks to the colossal petition screw-up that kept the incumbent off the Democratic ballot. The mayor is now facing a write-in campaign that will leave little surplus for homeless groups or disadvantaged children. With the campaign in survival mode, the purse strings will loosen. Already, there have been lawyers hired and polls commissioned. The campaign will likely beef up the number of paid staffers from its four-person skeleton crew. And if they know what they’re doing, campaign strategists will spare no expense in using TV and radio to educate voters on how to correctly fill out the ballot and make their “Anthony Williams” count.
In other words, money matters again.
While Williams’ campaign finances may well propel his redemption, they also expose the very political frailties that lay at the root of the petition scandal. In remarks about the ballot crisis, for example, embattled petition circulator Scott Bishop Jr. recalled that many people in black neighborhoods simply refused to put their names on Board of Elections and Ethics documents. “We were told to go to the white areas, because the black people didn’t like [Williams] that much,” he said.
Bishop’s man-on-the-street accounts painted the mayor as an aloof politician who had lost touch with the people who once turned out for him. Lo and behold, the campaign’s donor lists tell essentially the same story. The latest set of disclosures, dated June 10, reveal that Williams’ financial supporters are perhaps the most elite crew of mayoral boosters in home-rule history. A few choice facts:
* Donations from local corporations dominate, to the exclusion of nearly all other contributions.
* With the exception of businesses and powerful civic figures, not a single resident living east of the Anacostia River is listed on the donor sheets. (See sidebar.)
* Only 55 percent of the donations originated in the District. Maryland and Virginia accounted for 35 percent of the checks, and 10 percent came from outside the region.
* The average donation has tripled since 1998. The first filing after the 1998 general election showed that the campaign had raised roughly $1.58 million from about 4,760 donations, an average of $333 per check. From 2000 to now, it took only 1,379 donations to reach roughly $1.42 million, an average of $1,033.
* The number of small donations is way down. In the first three months of the six-month 1998 campaign, more than $70,000 was raised from hundreds of donations of $200 or less. There were more than 800 donations of $100 or less, representing 60 percent of the total number of donations. Smaller checks represented about 16 percent of the total dollars raised up to that point. Yet in the past two years, the campaign has collected only $23,425 in small donations, $3,100 of that total coming in a stack from Latham & Watkins, a major international law firm. The amount raised from 227 small donations is a pittance, less than 2 percent of the total raised thus far.
Tracking down small donors who aren’t also attorneys or employees of large local nonprofits or, say, the director of procurement for the D.C. Lottery isn’t easy. Random calls to donors who listed occupations that were either unknown or strayed from the norm yielded some telling results. After we left a message with Mai Pham of Springfield, Va., to ask her about her $25 donation in April, we received a return call from developer Jim Abdo, who was vacationing on the Rappahannock River with his new wife, Mai Pham. He handed the phone to her when he realized it wasn’t with him we wanted to discuss the mayor. Pham says she contributed the $25 when she attended a fundraiser with her husband, who she says is a big fan of Williams. “Quite honestly, I don’t follow politics very much,” she says. “From what I know of him, he’s doing a great job for the city.”
Some have more transparent interests. The watershed event in the current Williams campaign fund drive was its unofficial kickoff: a glitzy fundraiser held at the house of Ron and Beth Dozoretz in June 2000, headlined by then-President Bill Clinton and former Sen. Bob Dole. Those in attendance included executives from AOL, US Airways, Black Entertainment Television, PEPCO, Marriott, Bell Atlantic, Douglas Development, the Bernstein Cos., and Washington Gas. Among the many law firms represented were Patton Boggs, Verner Liipfert (Bob Dole’s firm), and Manatt, Phelps & Phillips. The July 2000 campaign finance statement reported that $554,416 was raised to that point, with the Dozoretz event the source for most of it.
It’s tempting to say corporate Washington is looking to buy its way into the mayor’s suite. In many cases, the business interests of major donors in the District are obvious. For instance, Arizona-based Doctors Community Health Care and its friends contributed nearly $100,000. The company was awarded the lucrative contract to run Greater Southeast Community Hospital after the mayor privatized health-care services for the poor.
However, the bottom line doesn’t explain all the giving to Williams by elites. Corporate folk are just so jazzed by having a non-Marion Barry mayor in charge that much of the money they give can be written off as genuine civic enthusiasm rather than naked influence-peddling. And even though we can call them interested parties, including some very interested parties, many aren’t that interested in local politics, if at all, and can’t really say why it is they support the guy. For many, giving is a reflexive action, as natural as renewing a club membership, cheaper than whatever else they might do that night.
But if corporate donors have trouble articulating their passions for the mayor, just survey some of the regular people on his contribution lists. (For the purposes of this article, regular people donate no more than $200, don’t work in the higher rungs of a business, and don’t occupy some important government or civic position.) These folks have trouble naming a single civic improvement achieved by Williams. Many of them gave money to the campaign for the same reason they drank their first beer: peer pressure. Their donations often came from company-sponsored fundraisers where everyone was urged to chip in.
Or they gave because, invited to a neighbor’s party, they thought it would be rude not to attend. And when given a chance to talk to the mayor, they often passed. They left early. They support the mayor, they guess.
Maybe it’s the fate of every incumbent, but Williams has generated no spontaneous excitement, not this time. And as he gears up his sure-thing campaign, hoping to erase his recent embarrassment, he has a favorable popularity poll in his pocket but no compelling way to show his bond with voters. A diversified donor list would have helped. So would 10,000 signatures on his petitions. If only they hadn’t proved so elusive.
Herewith a highly unrepresentative survey of mayoral patrons:
Profile: Big Donors
Donation amount: $1,400,773
Agenda: Making friends
Just like diner patrons, D.C. businesses have some unpredictable tipping habits when it comes to public-sector largess.
Consider the case of commercial-real-estate-services giant Trammell Crow. The company has gotten burned on contracting opportunities going back to the last Barry administration. Yet the company’s employees found it in their hearts to give $3,150 to the mayor this spring.
Hunton & Williams, by contrast, is excelling in its government-relations work. One of the largest bond-law firms in the country, Hunton & Williams gets a mighty share of the District’s bond work, serving as counsel to the District on over $653 million worth of general obligation bonds since 2000. And yet attorneys from Hunton & Williams are hardly represented at all on the contributor list. They gave a total of $1,379.
Big donors dominate the mayor’s field of contributors, accounting for over 98 percent of the campaign’s cash. They are developers, contractors, banks, hotels, utilities, and, above all, the law firms who represent them. They give in the tens of thousands, but it’s not always clear what they get in return, if anything.
Barry made Robert L. Johnson a very rich man in 1985 when he gave him the city’s cable contract, proof enough of what a good relationship with government may yield. Nor is Mayor Williams’ talk about public-private partnerships lost on Johnson, whose family of enterprises, including District-based Black Entertainment Television (since sold to Viacom) and D.C. Air, gave $18,000 to his campaign in this cycle.
Tax incentives worth up to $10 million a year kept media-industry newcomer (and BET partner) XM Satellite Radio in the District, but when it came time to give thanks, the company coughed up a very modest $2,000. The building that now houses XM is co-owned by the Bernstein Cos., whose executives gave the re-election campaign $18,000.
In December, the National Capital Revitalization Corp. (NCRC) awarded a group led by the Horning Bros. the right to develop the former National Wax Museum site near the new convention center. Members of the group have donated $8,000. A few years earlier, a Horning-led group was also awarded the right to develop the Tivoli Theatre site in Columbia Heights by the NCRC’s predecessor, the Redevelopment Land Agency. Executives of Cleveland-based Forest City Enterprises, a losing bidder, donated $8,000.
Attorneys are everywhere. Attorneys from Latham & Watkins, which represented the District in the MCI Center negotiations, gave $5,134. Attorneys from Patton Boggs, the lobbying and legal titan, gave $7,450, some of it at an April fundraiser organized by Patton Boggs attorney Michael A. Brown, vice chair of the D.C. Boxing Commission and a co-chair of the mayor’s 1998 transition team (Brown’s own contribution doesn’t appear on the donor list, but he says it probably will in the next report).
But the largest contributor among law firms appears to be Nixon Peabody. A May fundraiser at the firm’s offices collected $11,750 from Nixon Peabody attorneys for the mayor’s re-election, the largest single source of contributions during the most recent reporting period. Makes sense. The firm represented the Freedom Forum in its purchase of prime District-owned land for the Newseum and served as counsel to the underwriters on $1.5 billion worth of D.C. bonds since 1999. The firm also represents the Washington Convention Center Authority (WCCA) in its hotel-development plans. And the firm earned $550,000 as counsel to the WCCA when it floated $524 million worth of bonds in 1998 for construction of the new convention center.
Consistent with their business fortunes, local techies and telecoms whiffed on the donor front. An exception is faltering AOL, whose executives gave $14,000, even though there is very little Williams can do for them other than make Washington interesting enough to keep AOL employees from abandoning ship. Employees of Bell Atlantic gave all of $2,165. Meanwhile, cratering WorldCom, one of the area’s larger employers, made $887,000 worth of political contributions nationally since 2001, but gave exactly nothing to Williams.
Profile: Louise Meyer
Profession: Solar-power advocate
Donation amount: $20
Agenda: Thanks for the party
Marguerite Quoton has the distinction of having made the smallest donation to the Williams re-election fund—$10. But she wouldn’t talk to us, so we moved on to second-place finisher Louise Meyer, who in April dug deep in her pockets and came up with $20.
Meyer is more active in Third World problems than she is in D.C. politics. Her nonprofit, Solar Household Energy, encourages the use of solar ovens that require no more energy than what sunlight provides, perfect for areas of the world where people spend more on cooking fuel than they do on food. This is the second time her thrift has made her famous: In 1997, the Washington Post named Meyer “Penny Pincher of the Year,” commending her for her solar cookouts on the roof of her Mount Pleasant building.
Meyer gave so little, she says, because she doesn’t really care about the mayor’s re-election. She went to an April fundraiser at the home of Shaw activist Beth Solomon, with whom she has a common friend. “I was at a party, and people were asked to contribute,” says Meyer. “There was nothing deep about it. I was just thanking [Solomon] for having the party.”
Profile: Ina Ginsburg
Donation amount: $500
Agenda: Rubbing elbows
Ina Ginsburg’s slight acquaintance with Williams began before he was mayor. She doesn’t normally get involved in local politics, but the veteran socialite—now more often a partygoer than a hostess—went to a meet-and-greet in 1998 with then-candidate Williams at the home of a friend of hers, an arts consultant. Her motive was to promote civic support for the arts. Easily identifiable by her white sunglasses, Ginsburg was once Washington editor of Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine; currently she’s a trustee of the American Film Institute and a longtime member of the board of the Washington Opera. She’s an all-around advocate for that general public good known as “the arts” and was hoping to bend this potential mayor’s ear.
Ginsburg was satisfied by the mayor’s promises of strong support, although she says she never really followed up to see if he fulfilled his pledge. “It’s rare that you have someone who is going to be a politician who is really interested in the arts,” she says. “He grew up listening to opera because of his mother. He was Yale-educated, and he sounded like someone we should support.”
Sometime after the election, Ginsburg was asked to attend a luncheon for people who were being asked to raise $10,000 each for the mayor’s re-election campaign. Ginsburg recalls someone invoking the threat of another Marion Barry candidacy, sending a chill through the crowd. Guess it worked: The organizing luncheon would eventually result in that momentous fundraiser at the Dozoretz mansion.
At the Dozoretz party, Ginsburg didn’t speak with the mayor. But she had a chance to thank President Bill Clinton for talking to German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder on behalf of a friend of hers, the wife of the British ambassador, whose German ex-husband was using the strange laws of his native country to maintain custody of her children.
“Everybody is always saying the mayor is only a budding politician, which I rather like,” says Ginsburg of Williams, whom she heartily supports for re-election. But: “I admire the savvy politicians in this town, and in practical terms he would probably be better off if he were one of them.”
Profile: Chuck DiGiacomantonio
Profession: Historical researcher
Donation amount: $25
DiGiacomantonio is a researcher helping compile a documentary history of the first U.S. Congress, work that immerses him in District voting-rights issues. Last summer, along with his neighbors on French Street, in Shaw, DiGiacomantonio received a flier in his mailbox inviting him to a fundraiser at the home of Bernard Demczuk, head of government relations for George Washington University and a former adviser to Marion Barry. Not giving it too much thought, DiGiacomantonio wrote out a $25 check and attended the event, which was all the way across the street. Perhaps the host had set a bad example: Demczuk, whose name was once floated as a potential Williams chief of staff, contributed only $25 himself, although he coughed up another $25 a few months later.
Like Demczuk, DiGiacomantonio works at George Washington, but he says they hardly know each other. He “vaguely” supports the mayor and in principle believes Williams deserves a second go, because no one can accomplish much given just one term.
Once at the fundraiser, DiGiacomantonio says, he felt no strong need to meet the mayor just because he had the chance. “I’m not particularly cynical, but there’s nothing I could ask or he could answer that would be particularly enlightening,” he says. “I think 99 percent of his job is just showing up.”
Profile: Johnny Yataco
Profession: Newspaper publisher
Donation amount: $750
Agenda: Editorial integrity
This February, Johnny Yataco, who owns the Washington Hispanic, one of the three major Spanish-language papers distributed in the Washington area, anted up $750 at a mayoral fundraiser held at the Governor’s House Hotel. It was a gathering of the local Hispanic elite, including host Jay Haddock Ortiz, president of the company that owns the hotel ($1,000); Antonio Tijerino, Hispanic Heritage Awards Foundation executive director ($250); and Frank Yurrita, associate executive director of Whitman Walker Clinic ($100).
While most newspapermen this side of Richard Mellon Scaife tend to avoid overt political entanglements, Yataco says he has no problem giving. His paper supports the Williams administration—”Not much more to it”—even if he concedes that many times it seems the mayor isn’t “sensitive to the needs of the Hispanic community.” The paper gets a smattering of advertising from city agencies, and he hopes for more, but Yataco denies there’s any conflict. “I don’t think it has anything to do with editorial integrity,” he says. “If we are going to do an article criticizing the mayor, we’re going to do it. We never compromise our editorial integrity. That’s not negotiable. No way.”
Profile: Vivian Wilds
Profession: College administrator
Donation amount: $375
Vivian Wilds, a staffer in Trinity College’s job-placement office, is the wife of Franklin Wilds, the Democratic activist and Williams supporter who found himself subpoenaed by the Board of Elections and Ethics three weeks ago. There to answer questions about his role in the mayor’s petition debacle, Franklin Wilds said that there were petitions circulated with his name penned in as sworn witness that he hadn’t actually circulated and hadn’t actually signed.
Vivian Wilds isn’t as active in politics as her husband, although she frequently attends fundraisers with him. She gave $375 at a mayoral fundraiser this May.
Why does she support Williams? That’s an easy one: “I support him in a way because I’m connected to the D.C. Democratic Party.” Her husband is chair of the Ward 5 Democrats. “I do have some faith in [the mayor],” she said in an interview shortly before the petition fiasco went from hot to boiling.
“I do have confidence in the mayor,” Wilds later clarified, now more assured in her response. (Later, she would politely request that all her comments be scratched.)
“He’s someone who has the ability to be mayor. I’m judging him on…charismatic—do I think he has character and the ability to make some sound judgments about things? Sometimes it’s lifestyle, the way he carries himself.”
At the May fundraiser, when she saw the mayor, what did she say to him? “Hi, Mr. Mayor. How are you?”
Profile: Bennie Lee Nash
Profession: Supermarket lot attendant
Donation amount: $25
Agenda: Hometown loyalty
Bennie Lee Nash hasn’t lived in the District since he was a kid—he lives in Largo, Md. But he works here, attending to the shopping carts outside the 24-hour Giant on O Street. A good friend of his—he’s uncomfortable revealing who—invited him to the fundraiser at Bernard Demczuk’s house in Shaw last September. “We’re always talking politics, and he said he’d like for me to attend, and I said yes,” he says.
Nash doesn’t keep up on the local political scene and has no special affection for the mayor. “I just thought that because I was brought up in Washington—even though I don’t live in Washington—I would just contribute.”
When he met the mayor, there was “not much that I could say, me living in Maryland. I basically listened and let people in D.C. raise the questions.”
Profile: Joe Grano
Profession: Voting-rights activist
Donation amount: $100
When lightheartedly asked what he wanted from the mayor for his $100 donation, Joe Grano, a currently unemployed attorney, showed serious concern about the charge of bribery. There was absolutely no quid pro quo involved, he said. With that disclaimer out of the way, he began to outline the small consideration he wants from the mayor: $38,000.
A resident of McLean Gardens, Grano is president of the Rhodes Tavern-D.C. Heritage Society and one of the District’s persistent voting-rights advocates. About a year and a half ago, he started collecting signatures for a petition demanding voting rights from Congress. The mayor was thoughtful enough to sign first; Grano says that’s what helped him get the signatures of such prominent Washingtonians as Strobe Talbott, Vernon Jordan, and Jack Valenti. This June 14, D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton presented the petition, with its hundreds of signatures, to Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert. The Earth rotated on its axis and continued on its stubborn course around the sun, but other than that nothing happened.
While he was preparing the petition for delivery to Congress, Grano had another brainstorm: He would publish the petition as a full-page ad in the New York Times. With the Post ignoring his efforts, Grano figured he would try for a nationwide audience. He learned an ad would cost only about $38,000—as long as he wasn’t particular about when it ran—and he had a good idea about where to find funding: the mayor’s bulging campaign chest. The cost of the ad would amount to about 2.5 percent of what the mayor had raised at the time. “It’s been very hard to raise money,” says Grano. “My idea was, The mayor has no opposition, he has $1.4 million, why not?”
Grano obtained an interpretive opinion from the Board of Elections and Ethics that stated that such a contribution by a campaign was kosher. Then he asked the mayor and other candidates if they could part with 2.5 percent of their funds to help further the cause.
Initially, the mayor was supportive. At the Kennedys-King dinner at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel this June, and again three weeks ago, the mayor told Grano he would help him out with “some money.” But Grano has been unable to get a commitment from the campaign since then.
Williams thinks it’s a “worthwhile effort,” says campaign spokesperson Ann Walker Marchant, but the mayor doesn’t think it’s “appropriate” to spend campaign funds on an advertisement in an out-of-town newspaper.
Most other candidates have been just as stingy. Making the commitment are D.C. Shadow Sen. Paul Strauss and Shadow Rep. Ray Browne, but based on their latest filings, the total would be about $500. (At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson has said he will give Grano something, too.)
“I like him,” says Grano of the mayor. “I personally like him. I think he wants the best for the District of Columbia. He’s someone we can look up to and be proud of. And I’m genuinely grateful that he was the first to sign. He came out of his sickbed to do it. He was not well. He could easily have not shown up.” But on the ad promise, he’s disappointed. “You give somebody the opportunity to be a leader, and they just hold back. He’s said our lack of voting rights may be the largest civil-rights violation of the 20th century, so if it is, what would you do to stop this civil-rights violation?” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Charles Steck.