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2015 was the year the new mayor moved the city past the Vince Gray investigation and the rest of its issues, from an ailing fire department to an affordable housing crisis. Just kidding, all that old stuff is still knocking around, but now there’s a new person in charge of the mess. And what a mess it is!
The Worst Good Idea Award: FreshPAC
Muriel Bowser mostly avoided the kind of shenanigans that hamstrung predecessor Vince Gray’s first year in office. Thanks to her short time in office, Bowser could (rightly) put most of the blame for bad news on the people who went before her in the mayoral suite, whether the problem was with school renovation cost overruns or crummy ambulance service.
And then there was FreshPAC. Using a loophole, two Bowser devotees organized a political action committee that could take unlimited contributions in off-year elections. That meant mammoth amounts.
As realpolitik, FreshPAC was a great idea. Mayors can already use their influence to raise huge amounts for their favored candidates; why should that power be limited to contributions to actual campaign committees? FreshPAC promised to give Bowser the power to pick and choose her councilmembers with what organizers hoped would be a whopping $1 million fund by the end of this year.
As mayoral policy, though, FreshPAC was a disaster. After helping the PAC raise funds, Bowser found herself answering questions about it on a near-daily basis. The fact that FreshPAC’s donors were tied to tens of millions of dollars in city contracts didn’t help. Neither did the news, broken after the PAC was shut down for being a “distraction,” that FreshPAC’s chairman had lobbied the mayor on the Exelon-Pepco merger. In the end, FreshPAC had to go because it made the usual sleazy (but legal) connections between business people and politicians too obvious to ignore.
The Upstanding Citizen Award: Muriel Bowser’s Standing Staffers
LL can’t blame District government workers for wanting to kiss up to the mayor. With no governor or state legislature to deal with, what Bowser says goes (pending congressional approval, of course). Still, LL was surprised to find a February email from a Bowser administration official telling staffers that they actually have to stand when Bowser enters their office.
Stranger still, LL’s story on the email only seems to have made people more likely to treat Bowser like a judge coming into court. Since it ran, LL has noticed more staffers—and even a couple of reporters!—standing up for the mayor when she enters a room.
The Call It a Comeback Award: Vince Gray
On Jan. 2, Gray handed the city over to Bowser and became an ex-mayor. But in practice, Gray’s mayoralty had been over for nearly a year after his 2014 primary loss to Bowser. Gray’s administration had already been operating in a lame duck twilight; handing over the city seal just made it official.
Gray’s post-mayoral life was just as gloomy for most of 2015, as the federal investigation into his 2010 campaign kept him from any of the cushy jobs ex-mayors are usually handed on their way out of the mayoral suite.
But then, a new U.S. attorney shut down the investigation, meaning there wouldn’t be any charges against Gray (or his unnamed relative and friend, both of whom purportedly benefited illegally from businessman Jeff Thompson’s largesse). Within days, Gray was transformed from a former politician who haunts community meetings into a serious contender for 2016 D.C. Council races.
The C’mon, Man Award: Ron Machen
The flip side of Gray’s comeback is what it means for Ron Machen, the former U.S. attorney who hounded Gray and his associates. The investigation’s fizzling end doesn’t matter much personally for Machen, who can still collect hefty checks from his white-shoe law firm. But it does mean a lot for the District, where prosecutors will likely be warier of launching drawn-out public corruption cases.
The Water Park Award for Achievements in Vincent Orange Thinking: Vincent Orange’s Tiny Houses
At-Large Councilmember Vincent Orange faces a tough re-election campaign in 2016, but this year proved why Orange is on the Council in the first place: to come up with totally crazy projects (and also help his buddies in the business community at the same time).
The foundational kooky Orange idea was his 2013 plan to replace the land around RFK Stadium with an elaborate water park entertainment and hotel complex that Orange had already specified down to its number of wine bars. That plan never came to fruition, and LL worried the councilmember was coming back to Earth.
Hardly! In November, Orange proposed building 1,000 “tiny houses” for low-income residents and millennials in a city-funded program that conveniently would benefit Orange’s business community backers. That age restriction means it almost certainly violates fair housing laws, but who cares? The point of Orange projects isn’t that they happen, it’s that someone thought of them at all.
The Winning by Losing Award: Mayoral, Council Race Losers
2015 was the year failed politicians still managed to get jobs in the District government—albeit not the way they were planning when they launched their campaigns. Bowser picked up former attorney general candidate Edward “Smitty” Smith and Ward 8 race loser Eugene Kinlow. Attorney General Karl Racine hired one of his former AG rivals, Lateefah Williams, along with ex-Council candidates Trayon White and Robert White. Coincidentally or not, both Whites are well-positioned to run against candidates backed by Bowser, Racine’s frequent foe in tussles over his office’s power.
The Best Thorn in the Mayor’s Side Award: Kenyan McDuffie
Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie could afford to take it easy in 2015. He has years until he has to make a decision about running for mayor (or attorney general, or Council chairman). Instead of keeping things low-pro, though, McDuffie has used his position on the Council’s judiciary committee to needle the mayor on a series of wonky good-government issues, from police body camera transparency to the power of the attorney general’s office.
The Mr. Congeniality Award: Karl Racine
The District’s attorneys general have traditionally not been guys you’d want to have a beer with. And why should they be? They didn’t have to deal with elections or mayors eager to chop up their office. That’s changed with Racine, the District’s first elected attorney general, who has launched his office’s PR operation into the stratosphere. Judging by his calendar, Racine has been everywhere this year, from community meetings to chatting with reporters before turning his own appearance for jury duty into a media event.
The Hands-Down Best Moment of the Year Award: Brandon Todd’s Debate Performance
With Bowser’s endorsement, Brandon Todd managed to whack the rest of the Ward 4 field looking to fill the mayor’s old Council spot. Despite beating his rivals by double digits, though, Todd struggled with claims that he was just a seat-filler for the mayor’s agenda. Todd’s lightweight image wasn’t helped when, asked in a debate who his favorite historical figure was, Todd googled “historical figure” and went with the first answer he found.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery