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Last summer, Council Chairman Kwame “Fully Loaded” Brown showed Ward 6 Councilmartyr Saint Tommy Wells who was boss by stripping Wells of his beloved transportation committee. A side effect of the move was a game of musical committee chairs that left Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser in charge of the government operations committee. And that meant Bowser was in charge of crafting the council’s recently passed ethics legislation.
Talk about lucky. That perch has allowed Bowser to be front and center on the most talked-about issue in city government, and in a good way. Bowser’s legislation, though far from perfect, gives her plenty of cover to escape much of the ethical taint currently attached to D.C. politics. That should serve Bowser well in her re-election bid this April and perhaps beyond. (Bowser is on some people’s short list of potential mayoral candidates for 2014.)
But being the face of the ethics legislation also puts a target on your back. The not-so-subtle subtext of the recently launched ballot initiative to ban corporate donations to political campaigns is that Bowser failed to clean up the perceived—or real?—culture of pay-to play in D.C.
“There is never the moment when the council will step forward,” says Bryan Weaver, one of the leaders of the initiative effort.
And Max Skolnik, who is challenging Bowser for the Ward 4 seat, recently put out a press release charging that 37.5 percent of Bowser’s total donations since 2006 have come from “big-time developers, corporate bundlers and high-powered lobbyists.” Skolnik also accused Bowser of being “willing to auction off our government to the highest bidder.” LL doesn’t know about that last part, but Bowser’s campaign finance reports certainly show that, like most incumbents, she doesn’t have problems raising money (almost $220,000, at last count), mostly from the usual deep-pocketed donors who routinely give to local political campaigns.
Bowser says she’s still working on ethics reform, and tackling problems associated with campaign finance is next on her list. But today on the Kojo Nnamdi Show she made clear that she’s not a fan of banning corporate donations, arguing that it would make it harder to keep track of where campaign money is coming from.
“It’s really antithetical to what we want to do,” Bowser said, noting that the ban on corporate giving at the federal level hasn’t worked so well. LL is skeptical of the idea that allowing shell corporations to donate money serves a good-government interest. But LL is equally skeptical that a ban on corporate donations would even put a dent in how much the District’s monied interests put into political campaigns, since family members or employees could give the money instead of LLCs.
Bowser also gave a strong defense of her own fundraising prowess, saying she’s “very proud” to raise money from her constituents, both individuals and corporations alike, and makes “no apologies” for raising huge gobs of dough. She also said, for the record, that donations don’t buy her vote.
LL’s hunch is that most of the rest of the council, save Wells, will likely be sharing Bowser’s opposition to banning corporate donors. After all, where else would the money come from?
Photo by Darrow Montgomery