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Just how deep did Mayor Muriel Bowser step in it with FreshPAC, the political fund designed to take in unlimited contributions and point them at D.C. Council races next year?
Seven councilmembers signed on to a bill aimed at trying to stop political action committees from taking in unfettered donations. One of them, Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, turned a hearing on development deals into an interrogation of a FreshPAC donor. (The situation turned stranger still when the donor couldn’t remember who hit him up for the $10,000 contribution.)
The Washington Post editorial board, usually supportive of Bowser’s Green Team, has run multiple editorials urging her to shut it down for her own sake. Post op-ed writer Colby King, meanwhile, fretted in print that the mayor was being mislead by her FreshPAC associates.
District attorney general and occasional Bowser rival Karl Racine, who began working on some anti-FreshPAC legislation of his own, says he’s been deluged with complaints about the PAC.
“What they’re concerned about is the return of flagrant pay-to-play politics,” Racine said last week in a radio interview.
In the face of mounting opposition, Bowser ally and FreshPAC treasurer Ben Soto announced Tuesday night that they were shutting the operation down. It just wasn’t worth the “distraction.” Bowser didn’t comment.
When LL asked Bowser last week what she made of FreshPAC, she would only say that it was operating legally. That may have been true, but as the mayor jetted off to China with some of its donors while her administration payed out millions of dollars in contracting money to others, that official legality was kind of beside the point.
Indeed, Bowser’s attitude toward the creation of a mega-fund with her name on it by her associates shouldn’t be surprising: FreshPAC simply offered Bowser too much power in future Council races.
For LL readers who haven’t been following the closest thing Bowser’s administration has to a scandal, FreshPAC worried the mayor’s opponents on the Council because it could take in unlimited donations in years when it doesn’t support candidates. Since it didn’t exist in time to participate in April’s special elections, that meant FreshPAC operators were cashing huge checks.
One FreshPAC donor gave $20,000 in one contribution. The PAC raised more than $300,000, with plans to hit $1 million by New Year’s Day.
“They seem to be gleeful and very pleased with themselves that they’ve come up with this scheme,” Cheh says.
To get an idea of how much $1 million could do in next year’s Council elections, look at April’s special elections for the Ward 4 and 8 Council seats: Bowser favorite Brandon Todd won handily in Ward 4 after spending more than $300,000; LaRuby May spent nearly as much (albeit winning by fewer than 200 votes). A $1 million war chest in 2016 could have allowed the Green Team to drop $300,000 in PAC money on a single race, in addition to whatever the candidates’ own campaigns (remember those?) spent.
Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who hasn’t signed on to the bill aimed at closing FreshPAC’s funding loophole, seems unlikely to attract a Green Team-funded challenger. Todd and May are both up for re-election, though, and Ward 7’s Yvette Alexander is cozying up to the Green Team as she faces a potential challenge from former Mayor Vince Gray.
Meanwhile, Bowser has all but anointed At-Large Councilmember Vincent Orange, who has moved closer to the Green Team in the face of primary challengers. At a press conference last week, Bowser declared Orange “our friend on the Council.” (LL figures saying Orange is in “this thing of ours” would be too obvious.)
The lure of FreshPAC also offered Bowser an unprecedented mayoral weapon against recalcitrant councilmembers, like At-Large Councilmember David Grosso, up for re-election next November and one of the administration’s most vocal critics. Grosso co-introduced the bill to kill unlimited donations.
And FreshPAC’s influence wasn’t designed to just affect councilmembers running again next year. A host of potential Bowser targets will be up for re-election in 2018, from Cheh to Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie. Every FreshPAC Office of Campaign Finance filing would have been an implicit warning for those councilmembers: Go with the mayor on some critical votes, or we’ll start looking for your replacement.
Before a dollar of the money could be spent in a race, Cheh says there’s already a mood in the Wilson Building that FreshPAC raised the price for opposing Bowser on legislation.
“There’s something psychological going on up here,” Cheh says. “It’s soft, but I seem to detect it.”
When pushed, FreshPAC supporters and donors say vaguely that it’s aimed at helping the mayor’s “agenda.” When LL asked Bowser if she’s building this money machine to oust councilmembers, Bowser responded curiously.
“I’ve always supported sitting councilmembers,” Bowser said.
What Bowser wouldn’t say, though, is whether she plans to change her position next year.
The obvious side-step of the question reminds LL of Vince Gray at the height of the federal investigation into his mayoral campaign. But Bowser’s indifference to FreshPAC and other machinations from her Green Team pals recalls another mayor who didn’t care what people thought of him: Adrian Fenty.
In 2010, Fenty lost the mayoralty to Gray after irking practically every low-number license plate holder in town (and a whole lot of other people, too). This was a guy who wouldn’t spend an hour with Maya Angelou to come off like a nice guy.
Bowser lacks her mentor’s triathlon bike and pounding head vein, but she apparently shares the brutal political instincts of a man who booted Marion Barry’s wife out of her tennis center over a political dispute.
And the Council was getting ready to fire back. With the size of contributions in District politics more significant than ever, Mendelson asked participants at a recent hearing on development to come prepared with lists of candidates to whom they made donations.
FreshPAC quickly became part of a bizarre nest between FreshPAC officials, Bowser staffers, and big money donors. Two FreshPAC donors are on Bowser’s current trip to China, including Buwa Binitie, the developer who told Cheh he couldn’t remember who asked him for a $10,000 contribution. The Post ties FreshPAC donors to $70 million worth of city contracts.
WAMU reports that Soto sold a house to City Administrator Rashad Young when Young moved to the District. Then, a bank connected to Soto gave Young the loans he used to buy it. That means there’s close monetary ties between a guy who takes money from city contractors and the guy who oversees big city projects. What could go wrong?
In 2014, Bowser campaigned on a “Fresh Start” after Gray. But in her attempt to take over the Council, Bowser risked opportunities for Gray administration-style shenanigans.
Much of FreshPAC’s money will likely return in the form of regular contributions to Bowser-approved candidates. But Bowser’s willingness to play hardball at the Wilson Building, even if it means outraging allies and critics alike, remains.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery