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Paying people to collect petition signatures can get candidates in trouble in D.C. politics: just ask Tony Williams or S. Kathryn Allen. Luckily, when you’re the head of city government, it sure is easy to find volunteers.
Gathering signatures to get on the ballot is a tedious, yet necessary, task for candidates ahead of the June 21 primary, but it’s always a bit easier with some helping hands. How do you find volunteers willing to sacrifice their nights and weekends for such a task? Just glance through Mayor Muriel Bowser’s petitions (all 411 pages of them) and a common theme emerges among the 70 people listed as her signature gatherers.
By Loose Lips’ count, 31 of those petition circulators are currently employed by the D.C. government. They range from some of Bowser’s closest advisers (such as John Falcicchio, her chief of staff and deputy mayor for planning and economic development) to mid-level agency executives. A half-dozen more are former city employees of various stripes.
That’s all perfectly legal, of course. D.C.’s government ethics rules bar city workers from fundraising for local politicians or engaging in such political activities on the District’s dime, but so long as they’re on their own time, there’s nothing wrong with District employees helping the mayor out with a few signatures.
What would be illegal, however, is if Bowser’s deputies chose to “coerce, explicitly or implicitly, any subordinate employee to engage in political activity,” per the D.C. Code. And that’s where this signature-gathering issue falls into a bit of a legal gray area.
LL is sure that the Bowser campaign would insist that they haven’t forced anyone to do anything (campaign manager Malik Williams didn’t respond to a request for comment). These employees could simply be enamored with the mayor’s leadership, after all—or perhaps they just don’t want losing their jobs in a different administration.
But seeing this many city employees pounding the pavement for their boss creates the distinct impression that, at the very least, Bowser has fostered a culture where it’s expected that city workers pitch in if they hope to stay in the mayor’s good graces. It’s one thing when senior members of Bowser’s team are helping out (such as Falcicchio, Department of Parks and Recreation Director Delano Hunter, and Bowser adviser Rich Harrington) but seeing so many workers further down the food chain circulating petitions only helps fuel this perception.
And having such a full roster of volunteers can make a big difference for a campaign. Bowser has plenty of money (with a campaign war chest that dwarfs the fundraising efforts of both At-Large Councilmember Robert White and Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White), but she doesn’t seem to have spent any of that on consultants who are paid by the signature, per her latest campaign fundraising filing. Neither Robert White nor Trayon White seem to have spent much on the practice either, relying on a more standard mix of political activists to get their signatures.
Robert White has, however, challenged the validity of Trayon White’s signatures in an effort to keep the Ward 8 rep off the ballot. Robert White announced the challenge in a press release Monday, saying his campaign found “significant discrepancies” in Trayon White’s petitions. The Board of Elections will make a ruling within 20 days.
Beyond Bowser’s helping hands in city government—including other notable names such as Zoning Commission Chair Anthony Hood and People’s Counsel Sandra Mattavous-Frye—she was able to rely on some friends with long (and sometimes checkered) histories in D.C. politics. There’s her brother, Marvin Bowser, as well as Josh Lopez, David Jannarone, Courtney Snowden, and former Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd (plus his mom, Karen).
Bowser even got help from Jason Turner, a local businessman who got his 15 minutes of fame after appearing on Bravo’s Real Housewives of D.C. It’s been a few years since he accompanied Bowser as her date to a variety of social functions around the city, but, plainly, the two are still close.