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Mayor Vince Gray is seeking changes to the District’s campaign finance law that would, if enacted, dramatically change the way D.C. pols raise money for their campaigns.
At a D.C. Council committee hearing going on right now, Attorney General Irv Nathan outlined new proposals from the mayor that Nathan said will be part of legislation introduced next month.
The biggest shocker: Gray’s looking to reduce how much money city contractors, would-be city contractors, and large grant seekers can give to local pols who “could be involved in the local contract approval process.” Nathan didn’t offer specifics in his opening testimony, but said that individuals linked to corporations doing business with the city would have their giving totals set “far below the current maximums.” Since the entire council has to approve city contracts over $1 million, and since businesses that give to councilmembers tend to have or want city contracts, that proposal could put a serious dent in how some councilmembers raise dough.
“Serious concerns have been raised about some past government contracting practices in the District, and we believe it is imperative to protect the contracting process from undue political influence or even the appearance of such influence,” Nathan said in a statement.
Nathan says Gray also wants to require corporations that donate to local campaigns to disclose “all subsidiaries, affiliates, and controlling shareholders,” which Nathan said would “identify the real donors, who have until now concealed their identities behind a corporate veil.” It’s not uncommon for businesses to use subsidiary LLCs to make multiple donations to a politician, which in local campaign speak is called “bundling.” Nathan says this new proposed disclosure requirement is better than an outright ban on corporate donations, an idea which a group of motivated good-government advocates are trying to put before the voters in a ballot initative. Nathan says such a ban would be overly broad and an unsophisticated “meat axe” approach.*
Also in Gray’s plan: banning lobbyists from collecting checks from multiple parties and handing them over to a pol. This practice, which is what federal political operatives call bundling, can create “at least the appearance that access is being exchanged for contributions,” says Nathan. Both kinds of bundling would be affected the law.
Gray also wants to treat money orders donations like cash donations, limiting them to $25.
So, how serious is the mayor, who is under federal investigation for how his campaign raised and spent money, about these far-reaching proposals? He did roll out these proposals while visiting China, so make of that what you will. He’s also appears to have sprung this on the council with little forewarning or advanced lobbying. Ward 6 Councilmartyr Saint Tommy Wells, the most outspoken supporter of dramatic campaign finance overhauls, says he would be “stunned” if the council approved Gray’s plan as is: It would be “gutted” first.
*Correction: An earlier version of this post said Nathan suggested a ban on corporate giving would be unconstitutional. He did not suggest that.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery