To knock off an incumbent councilmember in this town, it helps to be hardworking, a little bit crazy, and to raise enough money to buy a gently-used Bentley.
Many challengers this election season have the first two qualities covered. The third part is proving tougher. None of the challengers for the six council seats up for re-election has raised enough to stand much of a chance.
The incumbents, on the other hand, are pulling in donations at a steady clip. Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who doesn’t even have an opponent, has raised $313,000.
So much for the council’s dismal approval ratings: This state of affairs suggests that the home team could win a clean sweep.
Money alone doesn’t guarantee success. But successful past challengers prove that it helps. Kwame “Fully Loaded” Brown was outspent four to one when he beat at-large incumbent Harold Brazil in 2004. But Brown had still raised $130,000 by election day. By contrast, none of the current wannabes had raised even $50,000 by the Jan. 31st filing deadline.
“Everyone says it’s real dry out there for challengers,” says former council candidate Bryan Weaver. “It’s a little bit of a mystery.”
What’s holding donors back? It could be that the current challengers just aren’t that inspiring, no matter how unpopular the council may be. Or perhaps the year’s ethics scandals, with attendant media stories featuring words like “subpoena” and “bank records,” have scared donors away in general.
The challengers, though, have another theory: They think the system is rigged.
Weaver, who’s not running this time, is pushing for a November referendum asking voters to ban corporate political giving. The change, he says, would wind up “lowering the threshold” for challengers.
At the very least, it might shrink the incumbents’ coffers. A review by WAMU last year found that the amount of donations from corporations had risen to 45 percent of all campaign giving. LL’s review of campaign finances shows that incumbents rely almost exclusively on donors who give the maximum permitted amount. Challengers, by contrast, are more likely to be funded by small donations from nobodies.
To good-government types, these patterns demonstrate a local “pay-to-play culture” that unduly rewards those with current legislative power. Under D.C. law, councilmembers can put the brakes on contracts of $1 million or more. That gives them the power to make life miserable for any contractor who had the temerity to fund a councilmember’s opponent.
The safe bet? Go with whomever is in office. “A lot of people out there are quite frankly afraid to go against incumbents,” says Sekou Biddle, who is running for the at-large seat currently held by Vincent Orange.
Biddle’s is a good example of just what a difference incumbency makes. A year ago, after all, he was an incumbent, albeit an unusual one who’d been appointed to his seat thanks to a predecessor’s resignation. But the mere fact that he had the word “councilmember” before his name was what mattered.
The little-known Biddle had scarcely taken his seat when well-known power-brokers started cutting checks. A fundraiser at Ben’s Chili Bowl was co-hosted by the mayor’s campaign chairwoman and the D.C. Council chairman’s father. Another event at Smith Commons, the trendy H Street NE restaurant, was co-hosted by Mayor Vince Gray himself, along with superlobbyist David Wilmot. By the end of his first month in office, Biddle had raised more than $50,000. He would raise $200,000 in less than six months. (He wound up losing to Orange, an ex-councilmember whose campaign was also nicely funded.)
That was then. Nowadays, Biddle’s trying to wrest the seat back as a private citizen. He had raised only $47,000 as of the Jan. 31 campaign finance filing.
The idea that councilmembers are liable to punish contractors who fund rivals has been playing out lately on the Washington Post editorial page, which has launched something of a jihad against Ward 1’s Jim Graham.
In January, the Post published emails between Graham and the lobbyist for Warren Williams, who was seeking a lottery contract. The email shows the lobbyist trying to mollify Graham’s concerns. Those concerns, the email implies, had something to with a past donation to one of Graham’s opponents.
“The Williams family confirmed with me again that no family member ever made a contribution to the campaign of Chad Williams, who challenged your seat,” lobbyist Jim Link wrote in the suck-up email published by the Post. Graham declined to answer LL’s questions about the exchange.
To counter their money disadvantage, some challengers have tried to make incumbents’ fundraising a liability. Max Skolnik, who is challenging Ward 4’s Muriel Bowser, has needled Bowser for taking 38 percent of her donations from corporations. (Bowser defended herself on the Kojo Nnamdi Show, saying she’s proud to receive money from local businesses.) And David Grosso, who hopes to unseat at-large Councilmember Michael Brown in November’s general election, issued a challenge to every candidate to go beyond the District’s paltry disclosure rules and disclose the connections donors have with city contractors.
Amazingly, no incumbents have taken him up on his offer. CP
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Photograph by Darrow Montgomery