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Incumbent councilmembers like nothing less than having to sweat tough re-election campaigns in D.C.’s trying summer months. Who, after all, wants to slug it out with pesky challengers at
overcrowded, overheated candidate forums? And who wants to go door to door in late August in search of the 10 D.C. voters who haven’t skipped town for vacation?
One of the most effective ways of keeping challengers out of your campaign is to scare them off with cash. In this September’s Democratic primary, at-large incumbent Harold Brazil has no competition in part because of the bottom line on his June 10 campaign finance disclosure: $142,000. Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, another incumbent, has raised $204,000—good enough to scare off all but two dark-horse opponents who entered the race late.
Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen, however, apparently doesn’t care much for green-machine politics. Her June 10 disclosure form turns up $4,218. No, LL didn’t misplace the comma or miss a digit.
Four thousand dollars. On a good day in D.C., that’ll buy your campaign one of the following:
* Three hours of political consultation by ultra-active, superbusy Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr.
* About half of the seafood platter at any one of Evans’ plush campaign receptions/fundraisers.
* Four-fifths of a first-time home-buyer tax credit.
* Two tanks of gas for the black Lincoln Navigator that ferries Mayor Anthony A. Williams from event to event.
* A 20-minute ceremonial ride in the sweet convertible of boxing promoter/D.C. political heavyweight Rock Newman.
Granted, Allen may not need much firepower to level challenger Sandra Seegars, who didn’t even carry Ward 8 in her 1998 run for an at-large seat on the council. And the quixotic Seegars, who would run against God himself, isn’t the type to be intimidated by well-financed incumbents, anyhow.
Most campaigns would proffer 4,000 excuses for such a shallow bank account. But Allen campaign manager Bob Bethea likes the message that $4,218 sends to his target audience. “Politics in Ward 8 are different from Ward 3, 4, and 5,” says Bethea. “This campaign is not going to be motivated by dollars but by what Sandy can do for her community. She is well-liked in the community.”
In one respect, at least, Bethea’s spin aligns pretty well with reality: Allen is a tireless presence in Ward 8. One of the most common sights in Ward 8 politics, in fact, is Allen standing up at a community gathering to put in some face time with her constituents.
But the depiction of Allen as a shoe-leather politician chomping on grass roots all day is a bit too much for LL to handle. Her ubiquity at community confabs notwithstanding, Allen has more in common with big-money pols like Evans, Brazil, and Williams than she’d like her constituents to know. And she’s determined that they not find out.
Early this year, Allen’s people set up an exploratory committee to evaluate the candidate’s prospects at the 2000 polls. For a candidate looking to shield ties with business, the exploratory committee is the optimal vehicle. It can accept unlimited contributions and doesn’t have to report any of the money to the city’s Office of Campaign Finance. The committee, however, isn’t supposed to do any political promotion for the candidate.
“I usually find exploratory committees to be sham operations,” says Phil Pannell, chair of the Ward 8 Democrats. “They’re basically a method of circumventing campaign-finance reporting requirements.”
Correct. And that’s why Allen’s exploratory committee enlisted high-end D.C. fundraiser Kerry Pearson to round up a bunch of richies at Georgia Brown’s restaurant. “It was the standard Kerry Pearson list,” says a local politico who attended the December event. “Developers, lawyers, those folks.” In other words, the very same individuals who chipped in nearly $1 million toward Evans’ failed 1998 mayoral campaign. In yet other words, the people who pull out their road maps every time they cross the Anacostia River.
Bethea says the exploratory committee’s intake was “about $50,000.” In addition to a healthy share from the Pearson set, the committee no doubt raked in some donations from private hospitals and their allies. As chair of the council’s Committee on Human Services, Allen has repeatedly fought to preserve longstanding District payments to private hospitals. Under the status quo that Allen has defended, the hospitals receive millions of dollars each year in “disproportionate share” payments for treating indigent and uninsured patients.
In 1999, Williams proposed shrinking those payments—as well as the city’s subsidy to D.C. General Hospital—and using the proceeds to extend health insurance to the 80,000 uninsured District residents. Arguing that the plan would kill D.C. General, an institution traditionally identified with the city’s needy, Allen torpedoed the Williams proposal, saving for at least a few more years the generous subsidy to D.C. General and payments to private hospitals. That bit of statecraft enabled her to pull off every politician’s dream—namely, positioning herself as the common man’s champion while earning the gratitude of moneyed interests.
Just how much that gratitude has yielded for Allen’s cause is beyond public view. When asked if he’d disclose the exploratory committee’s
contribution log, Bethea demurred. “The
committee expressly told me when we started that they didn’t want the records open, and we don’t have to open them. And that’s what they told the people they raised the money from,” he said.
In the coming weeks, the campaign will have to embrace the public’s right to know—an imperative it has ignored thus far. In its June 10 disclosure, for instance, the campaign neglected to list any expenditures for the hundreds of posters and campaign fliers that it has distributed everywhere in Ward 8—an omission that raises questions as to whether the exploratory committee footed the bill.
“That was an oversight,” says Bethea. “Our treasurer says [those expenditures] will be in the next report.”
CHECK IT OUT
Sometimes LL gets the sense that people in this city are battling one another to prove who’s the most inept.
In December 1997, the Fannie Mae Foundation issued a $10,000 grant to the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly (SWNA) toward the purchase and redevelopment of the shuttered Syphax Elementary School. Although the neighborhood association itself was not purchasing the building, it was acting as an agent for the project’s developer, low-income-housing provider Manna Inc. In that capacity, the association promptly wrote a $10,000 check payable to the D.C. Public Schools for “Syphax School Purchase.”
The school system gladly accepted the check and placed it in a file. And never pulled it out. For more than two years. “It just sat there,” says former SWNA President Marc Weiss. Meantime, the title transfer proceeded apace. Weiss says Manna has spent the past two years lining up construction permits and will be able to break ground soon.
By the time school system officials realized that money goes in a different pile from leases and property records, the $10,000 check was stale-dated. So in a March letter, school system Chief Financial Officer Donald L. Rickford kindly asked current SWNA President the Rev. George Holmes to send a replacement check for $10,000. Fannie Mae, in turn, ordered Holmes to either pay the school system or refund the full amount. “Please be reminded that the Fannie Mae Foundation funds were given to your organization for the sole purpose of acquiring the Syphax School and cannot be used for any other use without the written permission of the Fannie Mae Foundation,” wrote Olive I. Akhigbe, a program officer with the foundation.
Cheryl Edwards, a spokesperson with the city’s Office of the Chief Financial Officer, says the schools have yet to receive a new check from the association.
When asked why the association hadn’t simply complied with the requests, Holmes pointed to a disagreement on the group’s board of directors. “The board has not unanimously agreed to [the requests],” says Holmes. “They still have reservations for that money to be sent back to the schools.”
When asked who chairs the board, Holmes replied, “Oh, that’s me. But I can’t make a decision by myself.” He then referred all questions to the association treasurer, Ellen Winship, who said, “At the moment I don’t have anything to say.”
When asked whether the association still has the $10,000 in the bank to pay the school system for the already-purchased building, Winship replied, “Why, certainly.”
POSTER TRAUMATIC STRESS
* With a few weeks to go before the candidate debates for the 2000 elections begin, rivals in this summer’s D.C. Council races have to find something to fight about. In Ward 8, the campaign issue of the moment is a classic point of contention: posters. Upstart candidate Seegars reports mysterious poster disappearances at key sites on the ward’s political topography. To wit: Seegars recently hung a poster from the door of Martin’s Cafe at 2765 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave.; she later returned to find that a poster for Allen had replaced hers. “Mine was down, and Sandy’s was up,” says Seegars.
Cafe proprietor Ho Kang distances himself from any poster-switching scandal. “We work on the inside,” says Kang.
Meanwhile, Southern Avenue resident Don Matthews says two of Seegars’ posters recently vacated a lamppost outside of his building—a turn of events for which he pointedly holds harmless a rash of June thunderstorms. “I worked with some of [Allen’s] people on the last campaign. I know some of their dirty tricks,” says Matthews.
Allen campaign spokesperson Bethea scoffs at any such conspiracy. “If the allegations are that we’re doing it, they’re very wrong,” says Bethea. “We’re not involved in those shenanigans.”
BRAZIL’S PARADE ROUT
The Palisades July Fourth Parade, which showcases D.C. dance teams, church groups, and urban rednecks with nice cars, is a rare sort of event in the District—a festival that proves there’s actually a community in this town. But, as in any parade worthy of street closings and media coverage, the temptation to rank entrants on presentation and originality must be indulged. Herewith LL’s ratings—on a scale of 0 to 100—of key District political figures who strutted their stuff Tuesday morning:
D.C. Shadow Sen. Paul Strauss
Mode: LL can’t remember.
Entourage: Who’s gonna walk in the shadow of the shadow senator?
Skinny: Parade organizers are reconsidering open-entry policy.
Future School Board candidate Hugh Allen
Mode: Riding in boat, urging crowd to “get on board.”
Entourage: Hugh Allen devotees.
Skinny: Watercraft-owning white guy could split historically divided school board along racial and class lines.
Mayor Anthony A. Williams
Mode: Seated in black convertible
Entourage: Mayoral staffers, hangers-on, wonky types
Skinny: Festive holiday mood hampered by mayoral security, who kept within 2-foot radius of Williams on Palisades softball field—where the last attack of any kind on any person was an overzealous high-five.
D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton
Mode: Walking, fronted by four-man banner with her name on it.
Entourage: Four guys holding banner.
Skinny: Without patriotic props, handouts, or a shiny vehicle, Norton was left with nothing but her mouth. Maybe that’s enough.
Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis
Mode: Waving from convertible.
Entourage: Her campaign posters.
Skinny: Jarvis connected with all those Ward 4 voters on MacArthur Boulevard.
Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans
Entourage: Triplet children, other white people.
Skinny: Evans machine was tossing out candy by the double-fistfuls—$204,000 can buy a lot of Smarties.
At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil
Mode: Walking, fronted by well-decorated ’73 Chevy Caprice convertible.
Entourage: Miss District of Columbia Rashida Jolley and other riffraff not wearing tiaras.
Skinny: Brazil often appears lost on the council dais, but he loves a parade. The councilmember was a glad-handing madman, out-hustling all his peers on the route, as if he had worthy opposition in this summer’s re-election campaign.
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