Won’t somebody think of the rich people?
The lobbyists, contractors, and developers who make up the District’s donor class spent last year opening their checkbooks for D.C. Council, mayor, and attorney general candidates. They didn’t just have to max out to mayoral frontrunners like Muriel Bowser and Vince Gray, either. Any savvy donor reserved at least a couple grand for vanity hopefuls like Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans or At-Large Councilmember Vincent Orange. Then they had to pitch in for the rare competitive mayoral general election.
For the District’s heavyweight bundlers, being hit up for maximum contributions didn’t even stop after November’s general elections. There was an inaugural ball to fund (LL’s favorite: a $1,320 in-kind donation from Moet Hennessy). Plus, thanks to a new wave of Bowser-endorsed candidates in the Ward 4 and Ward 8 special elections, donors have another reason to lighten their bank accounts (and ingratiate themselves with the new mayor along the way).
Some donors can’t even stop giving to campaigns that were supposed to have ended months ago, because Bowser and Attorney General Karl Racine are still taking checks. Since winning in November, both have kept on raising money for their otherwise long-finished campaigns. In Racine’s case, the money could eventually make its way into his own bank account.
That’s because the District’s first elected attorney general has a major creditor: himself. Racine also owes $7,385 to Apollo Political, the consulting firm that helped him win an abbreviated race against four other candidates. That debt is down from $34,770.30 following some post-election payments, but even then, Racine’s biggest creditor was still Karl Racine.
During the race, Racine, a former managing partner at white-shoe law firm Venable LLP, dipped into his personal fortune to loan himself $226,000. Office of the Attorney General spokesman Ted Gest tells LL that Racine’s fundraising is aimed at settling his campaign debts. So far, Racine’s campaign hasn’t paid him back any money yet, but he did make a $27,385.30 payment to his political consultants.
Racine isn’t alone. Bowser won the general election with a hefty cash advantage over rival David Catania, and her campaign doesn’t list any debts on its Office of Campaign Finance reports. But that didn’t stop her from bringing in $5,700 since the race ended, from usual suspects donors like Banneker Ventures, a prominent local developer and ally of Bowser mentor Adrian Fenty.
A person familiar with Bowser’s campaign operations says Bowser hasn’t done any fundraising herself, while her staff is only collecting on contributions that had been promised before the campaign ended. Bowser, who was a relatively low-paid (at least compared to a high-power lawyer) member of the Council before becoming mayor, didn’t loan her campaign money, so none of what she’s raising will go back to herself.
The Wilson Building crowd knows the benefits of the always-open campaign bank account. As of Jan. 31, Orange had four accounts open from previous runs, going back as far as his disastrous 2006 mayoral bid. Keeping the accounts open allowed Orange to slowly pay back his campaign’s debts to himself (currently at $162,500), which meant that donors eager to have a councilmember on their side had a chance to essentially fill Orange’s personal bank account.
According to the latest campaign finance reports, Orange’s campaigns haven’t paid him anything or raised money lately. But by 2013, Orange had taken in $5,000 in loan repayments from his unsuccessful 2010 bid for chairman.
What Orange did is legal, according to the Office of Campaign Finance. But that might be the problem! If you’re a city contractor looking to get in good with a councilmember—a type of character that the ongoing federal investigation into Gray and fundraiser Jeff Thompson shows the District doesn’t lack for—there are worse ways to butter up your target than effectively making a direct deposit in their bank account.
Like Orange, Racine’s contribution aren’t coming from the civic-minded double-digit individual donors that campaigns like to trumpet. Instead, they’re coming from the corporations and people in the District who have an interest in helping a “candidate” long after they’ve taken office.
In December, Racine got $1,500 from a PAC controlled by Reed Smith, the law firm affiliated with prominent Wilson Building lawyer A. Scott Bolden. Walmart gave $1,000, while Capital One gave $1,500. Employees from Carefirst BlueCross kicked in $1,100, and a lawyer for AT&T gave $500.
The business of each of those donors, whose money could head to Racine’s bank account, has a chance of ending up in front of the attorney general. Walmart found itself at the center of one of the District’s biggest political fights of 2013, while insurance regulators have pressured Carefirst to empty its sizable reserves.
So far, Racine has scrupulously recused himself from potential conflicts of interests. With Venable representing Chicago-based utility Exelon in its attempted takeover of District power company Pepco, Racine handed the legal issues associated with the merger off to a deputy, according to Gest.
But how many things can he recuse himself from? Asked about how Racine will handle contributors to his effort to pay off his campaign loans, Gest says Racine will “take appropriate action” to avoid a conflict of interest.
Last month, Racine introduced Chief Deputy AG Natalie Ludaway to the Council by noting that ditching her private law firm for the government amounted to a significant pay cut. Racine took a similar hit when he left Venable for the District government, but so far, there are a lot of people who seem to be willing to help him make that difference up.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery