There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
No matter who wins the D.C. Democratic mayoral primary Sept. 15, there will be at least four “victory” parties that night.
One of them, of course, will live up to its billing. There will be a giddy victor, a beaming family, cheering volunteers, crazed supporters. The music will be upbeat, and the confetti will fly. Attendees will wave placards. They’ll raise their we’re-No.-1 fingers and pump their you-the-man fists. The reporters, in turn, will proclaim that “pandemonium” has erupted inside the hall.
The other three will be more subdued affairs. You know the story: forlorn faces, tired excuses, empty good feelings. They’ll congratulate the winner. They’ll thank the volunteers. They’ll say they fought the good fight. They’ll vow to keep up the good work. And, eventually, the assembled true believers will slide off, heading home, maybe, to tune in to coverage of the real victory party.
If they do, they’ll probably notice some familiar faces on the tube. “That night, I’ll have an itinerary,” says one local lobbyist with more than two decades of experience in the District. “There will be maybe 10 parties [including those for D.C. Council candidates]. I’ll hit them all….I’ll stand in the line, meet the candidate, and say: ‘You need any help getting your campaign debt retired?’ That’s it. That’s all I need to say.”
Even though it will be documented just like all campaign gifts, you probably won’t notice the post-electoral money chase. News of campaign money comes in fits and startsand always before the elections. Bimonthly funding disclosures spike public attention, garnering stories on who’s up and who’s down in the fight for dollars. But money, like ambition and greed, is perpetual. Even as campaigns wind down, the hunt goes on.
The lobbyist won’t be alone on Election Night. Along with the standard array of political junkie well-wishers, every wannabe power donor in town will be making the rounds at the victory parties. Within days, things will get into gear. An event will be organized. Checks will be cut. A victorious candidate will have his importance reaffirmed. A vanquished politico will get a bunch of pats on the back. A little more money will course through the city’s political arteries.
And so, a few thousand well-invested bucks lighter, the real victors will walk out of all 10 parties secure in the knowledge that they’ve got legs up on the ordinary folks who simply voted in what may be the most expensive mayoral election in D.C. history. To people in politics, that’s just the way things work. To good-government advocates, it’s further proof that our government is bought and paid for: If it’s all just about electing the guy you admire, why grease the rails after the election?
And to folks who have counted out D.C.’s politicians, it’s a sign that reports of local government’s death are vastly exaggerated. Hemmed in by Congress and the control board, the city government remains worthy of a million-dollar corporate investment.
Just watch this summer’s mayoral race. The money is the talk of the town. On Monday, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans announced that he had raised $643,748.28 for his mayoral effort. But Anthony Williams, who quit his job as chief financial officer to run for mayor in June, was gaining fast, having pulled in $427,513.79 in just two months. Councilmembers Kevin Chavous and Harold Brazil had padded their own primary campaigns to $377,679.34 and $260,869.67, respectively.
All told, these four Democrats have convinced Washingtonand those with an interest in its governanceto open their wallets to the tune of $1,709,811.08. And there are still four weeks to go before those victory parties.
On the 12th floor of a downtown D.C. office building, a roomful of lawyers is cross-examining a beggar.
Starch-shirted and campaign-stickered, D.C. mayoral candidate and Ward 2 Councilmember Evans is standing, making his pitch on a late-May evening. As he talks, he bends slightly at the waist, pulling back as he builds his case and then leaning forward as he reaches his conclusion. He moves his arms out to the side, bending them at the elbow to swing his hands into two parallel ovals, as symmetrical as a factory-made puppet’s. They come together, and each finger touches its analogue at the tip. And that’s the way he stands after every point he makes: hands together, not out.
The question-and-answer section is also choreographed. Evans says exactly what he should when a man steps forward to ask about a proposed new tax on law firms. Calm nods greet his response to an inquiry about workers’ compensation. He draws almost no reaction when he elaborates on a question about D.C.’s regulatory climate.
The audience, of course, hasn’t really come to learn about the candidate.
That’s because the candidate has spent seven years on the D.C. Council laying bare his loyalties on local issues. His voting record reads like a download of the Chamber of Commerce wish list: Evans led local politicos in pushing for the new convention center at Mount Vernon Square in Ward 2, voted for major development projects like the MCI Center, shepherded legislation creating business improvement districts, killed a parking initiative in Georgetown opposed by merchants, and cheer-led the birth of a new, business-friendly Washington.
With that record, Evans has no trouble filling up conference rooms along K Street. Certainly the big shots in attendance today haven’t come for the table full of cheese and veggies, or for the plastic cups of wine and soda. No one’s really picking up the array of campaign brochures and Xeroxed articles. Evans may be holding forth about cops and schools and economic growtha spiel he’d be just as willing to give to local PTA busybodiesbut in this well-heeled audience, the only sound that matters is the rattling of the councilmember’s tin cup. The handful of checks that get written are discretely collected, while all eyes in the room are focused on the candidate.
The focus on Evans will intensify two weeks later. When the candidate releases his campaign financing report June 10, he reports pulling in $540,148, twice the amount of his nearest rival, Ward 7’s Kevin Chavous. Two months later, after Williams shakes up the race, Evans still hasn’t budged from the top money spot.
“Money’s the blood and body of campaigns,” says Downtown Cluster of Congregations Executive Director Terry Lynch, a longtime campaign-money watcher who this year is supporting At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil. “The body can’t function without money. The body can’t move without money flowing.”
Before the last election, Lynch helped push an initiative to slash maximum individual campaign contributions from $2,000 to just $100. It passed nearly two to one. But in 1996in the face of evidence that 1994’s restrictions had led to all sorts of off-the-books money-raisingthe D.C. Council restored the old amounts.
Even before the opening of this year’s campaign, the old-fashioned money chase was on. By March 10, the first important financial-disclosure deadline of the electoral cycle and more than two months before the first debate, the weight of the papers documenting campaign donations was enough to crush a small animal. Pundits speculated that 1998 might see D.C.’s most expensive campaigns ever.
The numbers, considered in the context of the mayor’s limited portfolio, are amazingly high. Evans says he wants to pull in a million dollars. Chavous and Brazil are playing frantic catch-up. Meanwhile, Williams, whose campaign has so far leaned on small contributions, may be getting ready for the snowball effect as its momentum draws more givers into the fold. According to campaign manager Cheryl Benton, he has at least 60 people raising serious money for him as the campaign careens towards the finish.
Like everyone else, political newcomer Williams knows that in this election, money buys polls and ads, phones and flyers. Butespecially in this year of D.C.’s political changing of the guardsit buys something even more crucial: legitimacy.
In Williams’ case, the legitimacy comes from the givers. The ex-CFO pulled in 118 small-type pages of individual and corporate donations, which listed an astonishing 1,299 gifts, most of which came from small fry. That number is higher than the 1,248 gifts that built Evans’ larger total, according to papers filed by both campaigns. “[Williams is] tapping into their sense of cause, their sense of anger, their sense of we’re-not-going-to-take-this-anymore,” says Lynch. “That’s why he’s getting a lot of smaller donors.”
A broad base, to some, translates straight into votes. “We like to see people giving no matter what the amount,” says Richard Wolf, a Capitol Hill activist who’s working on the campaign of Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose. “It indicates a kind of loyalty check with votes….If you get from some of the big developers downtown a couple thousand, that is not as meaningful in terms of your vote-getting as a lot of these $100 donations. People who give the hundred are going to vote for you.”
But Evans’ money, from the get-go, has translated into another sort of legitimacy. Supporters concede that without the green head of steam, no one would be talking about a white councilmember from Ward 2even a well-regarded one like Evans. Whereas Chavous trades on a populist message, Williams on a number-crunching reputation, and Brazil on a combative image, Evans is the guy poised to leverage his treasury into signs, TV spots, and scads of campaign operatives. They turn him from just a competent councilmember into a competent councilmember with an army.
“People raise money to kind of show their plumage,” explains Wolf. “They want to show that they’re one of the kings of the hillto scare off other opponents, to make themselves more credible to other givers. If you’ve got a lot of money, you’ll get more.” Fund-raising dollars may not ensure a knockout, but they’ll sure get you a place in the ring.
Wait a minute. This is the D.C. mayor’s office we’re talking about. You knowthe post mocked by local media as a ceremonial perch for ribbon-cutting and photo ops with African ambassadors. The emasculation started in 1995 when the control board stripped Mayor Marion Barry of a politician’s favorite weapon for rewarding political patrons: contracting. Then it took away his authority over the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). Last summer, Congress completed the job, handing oversight of nine critical D.C. agencies to the control board. Today, the only real agencies officially controlled by Washington’s chief executive are the D.C. Public Library and the Department of Recreation and Parks.
Unless there are a lot of rich swim teams out there, you’d think the smart money wouldn’t bother with the mayor’s race.
Think again. Just as in any election before the control board came to town, most 1998 dollars aren’t from earnest citizens helping out their ideological soul mates. The big donors have economic interests that could use a little help from the government every now and then. A healthy number of them, in fact, are giving to more than one candidate. As campaign coffers fill up, people a lot brighter about money than you or I are betting that the winner will have some juice at One Judiciary Square.
“No matter what powers may have been stripped from the mayor, the mayor is still in control of economic development,” explains a longtime business lobbyist. “I’m speaking on behalf of business owners who would be giving: I don’t think you would see this much money having been poured into the race this far for a meaningless office. These people are not unenlightened and uninformed.”
And they know where they need friends. Take a major local project like the proposed downtown baseball stadium. Right now, the stadium is just a dream of some powerful local businessmen and the D.C. Sports Commission. If it gets built, the D.C. Council, the control board, and Congressall of which will step in at certain stageswill all get some credit. While citing everyone from local advisory neighborhood commissions to Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, Commission Marketing Director Neville Waters says that “a lot of it will begin with mayoral support.”
The first stepalready takenwas getting the Commission on board. All of its 11 members are mayoral appointees. If there’s any demolition involved, the next step might be the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board, whose 11 members are mayoral appointees. If there’s any question on their ruling, it can also be appealed to the mayor’s agent. Meanwhile, a project that big would likely pose the kind of long-term planning questions that would require a trip before the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC). NCPC is a regional body, but the mayor gets to appoint two members, and sits on the commission as well.
Next up is an obstacle that swallows scores of bright development projects: zoning. If the stadium is planned for a downtown area where there is a residential-housing requirement, stadium builders will either have to get the area rezonedvia the Zoning Commission, where three of five members are mayoral nomineesor get a zoning variance from the Board of Zoning Adjustment, where the mayor also has three of five appointments. “The development industry has to get zoning variations and special exemptions and all that kind of stuff,” says former Ward 3 Councilmember Jim Nathanson. “And they get those certifications from people appointed by the mayor still. The control board doesn’t appoint any of those positionsthe mayor does.”
Of course, a ball game is no good without beer. And you’d best not try selling beer in the District without permission from the Alcoholic Beverage Control board, whose five members are, you guessed it, appointed by the mayor.
If there’s ever another Opening Day in downtown D.C., the mayor should get to throw out the first ball.
“There’s a whole array of small things that he either influences or appoints people to,” says Lynch. “The zoning board, the Alcoholic Beverage Control board, the Redevelopment Land Agency….If a mayor wanted the baseball stadium not to happen, it wouldn’t happen. Without a doubt.”
Just who sits on the board that votes on your building addition or liquor license, says Nathanson, is more important than the ear of the guy who happens to boss D.C.’s Department of Public Works. “They in many ways play a more important role in the life of the city than the mayor himself,” he says.
And beyond all of this secondhand influence are the powers that could revert to the office should the control board be abolished during the next mayor’s term. “While the mayor temporarily doesn’t have a lot of control over a lot of the departments, who’s mayor will make a big difference in how and when we get full democracy back,” says former At-Large Councilmember Betty Ann Kane.
It’s a pretty good bet: Sure, your candidates don’t run the show for a couple years, but when they do, they’ll get to invent government as well as administer it. What’s more, the federal rescue packages and economic sweeteners in store for D.C. mean that local officials will have access to one of the largest caches around. So far, no one is quite sure how big the cash infusion will be or how it will workwhich makes it crucial who becomes mayor.
The proposed National Capital Revitalization Corp. (NCRC) could have the power of eminent domain and control up to $50 million in federal money (the NCRC’s status remains a subject of legislative wrangling); the mayor, under some proposals, would appoint several board members. The Tax Increment Financing program, which provides financial help for new private-sector urban development, likewise already turns locals on to public money in new ways.
“The election’s all about who gets to appoint members of the NCRC, who get to sets the policies,” says one campaign worker. “Without some leadership, what do you think is going to happen?…I think this election has to do with directing the biggest pot of money that’s been poured in D.C. since World War II.”
The last time the District elected a non-Barry mayor, Congress opened its wallet wide. After promising to clean out the remnants of Barry cronyism, Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon in 1991 pried a $200 million increase in the federal payment from Capitol Hill. “When Marion Barry leaves office, the whole psychology of dumping on the District will change,” Nathanson says.
Scan down a campaign-finance printout for too long and you could get dizzy. Just flip to a random page from one of the reportssay, Page 4 of Kevin Chavous’ March 10 disclosureand reel off the list of occupations: Real estate. Real estate. Investment group president. Attorney. Marketing. Attorney. Office manager. Attorney. Account executive. Attorney. Attorney. Law clerk.
These basic categories of donorsto say nothing of the weirder onesall raise the question of why. It’s one thing to say an office is powerful, another to figure out how to wriggle your way into its orbit.
“Let’s look at two different types of people,” says former D.C. Auditor Matthew Watson, who oversaw D.C.’s earliest campaign-finance operations. “There is the small contributor, who gives it out of a sense of patriotic duty and because they believe in good government. The others are largely making contributions for access.”
Access. It’s a nebulous term that comes up again and again when campaign money is discussed. It’s easy to say what it means. But a lot of people in politics get a lot more vague about what it does.
“What it also does is put you on the radar screen of an official,” says Nathanson. “So if an issue pops up that he knows you have an interest in, he may pick up the phone and call to have you ‘educate’ [him]….My experience was that it doesn’t necessarily buy you a position from an elected official. But it makes it easier to have that conversation.”
“Access means phone calls returned, meetings set up, favorable wording,” says Lynch. “It can be the difference in whether a bill goes forward or not, whether a bill gets introduced. When a nominee is up it means, ‘Oh, you have an idea?’” It’s not quid pro quo so much as quid pro quip.
Although donors can win access through contributions, they can also lose access by snubbing candidatesa huge consideration in a mayoral race featuring four councilmembers. Three of those will remain councilmembers for at least two more years, voting on all kinds of development and regulatory matters. Hence the smartest money hedges its betsanother way the access-minded differ from the true believers. Jack Olender, D.C.’s leading medical malpractice attorney, gave $1,500 to Chavous, $1,000 to Evans, and $500 to Brazil.
Councilmembers can move legislation or scotch it, fight for issues or ignore them. Which may explain why Council Chairman Linda Cropp had raised $92,859 for her re-election effort as of Aug. 10, getting donations from people like powerful downtown land-use attorney Whayne Quin, Olender, Bell Atlantic, and the D.C. Chartered Health Plan. None of those donors are contributing just to keep Cropp in office: She’s running virtually unopposed.
And when deep-pocketed donors play rainmaker for a candidate, they’re sure to have business in the council chambers and the mayor’s office. Six people named Cohen with the same Potomac address as developer Richard S. Cohen have donated a total of $11,400 to Evans’ mayoral effort.
Evans, however, insists that aggressive fund-raising shields him from the allure of special interests. “We have raised over $600,000,” says Evans. “The fact that somebody may have been able to marshal $20,000 through self and relatives or companies is a small amount in a very large amount that we have raised. It does not in any way, shape, or form give anybody any undue influence.”
Multiple contributions from the same address crowd campaign-finance records. Chavous picked up thousand-dollar contributions from Fashion Center Associates, Potomac Mills III LP, Germantown Development Associates, Gurnee Mills LP, and Washington Outlet Mall LP, all listed at 2620 P St. NW. Twenty-one attorneys from the law firm Winston & Strawn18 of them listing a Maryland or Virginia mailing addressgave to Evans on April 15 and 27. How do you think the councilmember lines up on new taxes for law firms?
Not only did Olender contribute $1,500 to Chavous’ campaign, but so did his wife, and, at different giving levels, five other associates at Olender’s firm. As a malpractice attorney, Olender has a financial interest in averting tort reform. The District has no cap on damages awarded for pain and suffering in malpractice casesit’s a plaintiff lawyer’s paradise that the medical lobby is constantly trying to ruin. In dollar figures, the unlimited damages statute is the difference between jury awards of $1 million and $20 million.
So Olender’s contributions are like a low-priced insurance policy. “He’s getting a hell of a return on his investment,” says a business lobbyist. “One case where we don’t have tort reform covers that.” As a donor, he hasfor at least as long as it takes to write a checkthe ear of folks who might make decisions on tort reform.
Williams’ campaign coffer, meanwhile, isn’t as grass-roots as some might think. Included amidst the much-hyped citizen groundswell are such regulars as the John Akridge Co. and local developer Joseph Gildenhorn, both of whom contributed $1,000. Former Williams employees have also kicked in money to their old boss. That’s not unusual, except that $2,000 donor Abdusalam Omer, D.C.’s budget director, and $500 contributor Natwar Gandhi, the deputy CFO, are senior government employees who’ll have to work with whoever gets elected mayor.
Big-time donors, of course, don’t care to discuss just how their contributions work for them. No one talks about those things on the record; everyone in the pool has an interest in keeping it murky. Even though a new generation of pols is running for mayor in 1998, the same interests are underwriting their campaigns. “The people who were big contributors are still big contributors,” says Hotel & Restaurant Workers Union official Rick Powell. “They rarely get out of the game. They may switch horses, but they rarely get out of the game.”
D.C.’s uncertain government setuprather than stopping the search for accesshas in fact made it foggier. According to one lobbyist, local access-seekers have gone so far as to try to figure out where appointed Chief Management Officer Camille Cates Barnett vacations in order to get close to her. Unlike donations on paper, schmoozing at the beach isn’t subject to public disclosure.
The post-Barry era seemed a long way off in early December 1997. The mayor wasn’t tipping his hand, and the smart money said he’d be running strong for a fifth term come fall. Perhaps that belief lent a sense of urgency to the 20 or so folks who sat down to lunch on two days in the conference room of D.C.’s Franklin National Bank.
The list of invitees to those luncheons featured a few local activists, who are long on issues and short on dough. Developers like John Akridge and Jon Gerstenfeld were well-represented, but heavies from all kinds of professions showed up. It was a soft sell: Diners were briefed on how Jack Evans could win the election. And, of course, about how they could help.
“Everybody agreed to do something,” says someone who was in the room. “When Jack is in a small room with you and tells you how he’s going to win the election, it’s difficult to say no.”
Even before he got around to those power lunches, Evans was telling people just how he could win. While his current rivals were forming exploratory committees and waiting for the word on Marion Barry’s future, Evans was out raising money, buttonholing friends, and drumming up enthusiasm. Between pulling in dollars from hometown or college friends and lining up support from longtime Ward 2 constituents, Evans jumped out front early in the money chase, and he stayed there. By mid-August, he’d hit at least 50 fund-raisers, according to a campaign-finance official, not including the informal meet-and-greets that also generate donations.
The pattern in Evans’ campaign is a classic. With the exception of self-funded campaigns like restauranteur and longshot mayoral candidate Jeffrey Gildenhorn’s, every campaign structures its finances like a tree, with branches and leaves. Leaves simply give money; branches both give money andmore importantlysprout leaves among their friends and contacts. With a history of support for business, a downtown ward that houses much of D.C.’s wealthy development and legal communities, and a record of superior legwork in reaching out for donors, Evans is best positioned to turn his campaign-finance apparatus into a greenhouse.
Fifty or 60 people have become active fund-raisers for Evans’ mayoral run. Some campaigns centralize such principals into finance committees, but Evans’ has used a more fluid strategy: Count on the candidate’s friends to rally their friends, and wager that money will bring in more money.
D.C. power lawyer Brendan Sullivan, who according to an Evans staffer originally knew Evans through work with the Washington Opera, did more than just plop a sign on his Rockwood Parkway NW front lawn. He filled out his part of the tree by organizing an event that brought 100 potential donors to a campaign meet-and-greet, according to the staffer. (Not that he was afraid to spread the wealth: Sullivan also kicked $500 into Brazil’s campaign.)
Other friends avoided inviting people to genteel addresses like Spring Valley and instead gathered supporters at downtown cigar bars like Ozio, where attorney James Calomiris staged an Evans event. Law firms like Patton, Boggs & Blow and Arnold & Porter came through with their own gatherings.
“The reason Jack has so much money is that Jack has been the most aggressive,” says a longtime D.C. lobbyist. “In this race, it wasn’t clear who was going to win. Jack went out and asked for money.”
The big-money wiring diagrams for Evans’ opponents, however, are pretty much the same. All have lawyers. All have developers. Sure, the percentages are a bit differentChavous hurt himself with many in the development and hospitality industries by opposing the new convention centerbut ultimately every D.C. candidate fishes in roughly the same pond.
“When I’ve looked at the list, I’ve seen some fairly strong patterns of it being spread around,” says former Councilmember Kane. “I think Jack Evans, clearly because he’s been out there the longest, has had the strongest business supportthat’s his ward; those are his constituents. Harold Brazil and Kevin Chavous have both also gotten funds from the business community and the professional community.”
And some of the fish Evans has asked aren’t that big. Much ink will be spilled over Williams’ small-fry support, but a senior Evans fund-raiser estimates that 20 percent of Evans’ contributions have come from small donors convinced by the candidate to pull their checkbooks out of their purses. Chavous and Brazil both also managed to corral money from smaller donors. Nonetheless, Evanswho has so many whales in his netcould just as easily have forsaken the plankton.
Wealth, ultimately, is the only game in town, in terms of individual as well as corporate contributors. Nationwide, according to the nonprofit campaign-finance watchdog Public Campaign, 81 percent of political contributions come from those making at least $100,000 a yeara group that makes up just 5 percent of the population. To judge from the large numbers of Upper Northwest addresses and professional titles gracing D.C.’s campaign disclosure forms, it’s no different here.
And, one way or the other, the identity of just who’s paying for your microphone will affect what you’re willing to say into it. If you’re trying to raise a million dollars from dedicated community activists, you’ll be out of luck.
The ghost of John Ray hovers over D.C. campaign money. In 1990 and 1994, the well-connected former councilmember ran for mayor with scads of money and all of the attendant hype. Both times, he lost out to campaigns that were ultimately able to muster more enthusiasm. It’s almost a cliché in District politicsparticularly if you’re behind in the money chaseto say that if dollars were all that mattered, Ray would be mayor today.
Evans, for his part, wants to use money to go beyond simply honing retail politics and enter the carpet-bombing world of televised advertisements. “My sense is, because of the fact that the candidates in this election are relatively unknown, TV can play an important role in getting out your name and message,” he says. “Network TV is the most widely viewed of the media. People view TV more than they do any of the media. To the extent that you can get on and reach a certain saturation level, you can have a real effect.”
Evans says no D.C. mayoral candidate has gone on television since Ray in 1990. A serious run of television ads can cost about $350,000. And unlike slower-moving direct-mail or posturing tactics, ads can be tweaked up to the 11th houra crucial advantage as campaigns shift gears in their frenetic final days. And TV can catch that elusive majority of D.C. voters who never attend candidate debates, endorsement forums, or any other remotely political event. Polls conducted by the Washington Post show that all of the candidates in the upcoming Democratic primary have name-recognition problems.
TV aside, Evans and his opponents leverage their dollars into a lot of things no one ever sees, like consultants, polls, and skilled operatives. Knowledgeable organizers with local experience don’t come cheap. Costly polls can help candidates figure out where to campaign.
“You simply cannot run a campaign without money,” says Councilmember Ambrose. “Even a ward race. There are 50,000-some households in Ward 6. I cannot knock on every door in an election. And even if you knock on every door, [if you don’t] have money to Xerox a piece of paper, you’re not going to make much of an impression. It is a very expensive proposition….Unless the media get much more focused on issues, the candidate who can manage to present himself to the voter in any sort of substantive way will have an edge.”
And the next four weeks will determine whether money can buy that substance. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.