Kenyan McDuffie is surrounded by supporters as he announces the suspension of his AG campaign.
Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie has switched from an AG bid to an at-large race. Credit: Alex Koma

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The bad news for Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie is that he has to start from scratch when fundraising for his new at-large bid, considering he’ll need to return all the public money he earned for his ill-fated attorney general campaign. The good news is he’s got at least one deep-pocketed, well-connected friend helping on that front.

Lobbyist David Carmen has been passing the hat, virtually, now that McDuffie has switched over to this independent bid, according to a July 15 email forwarded to Loose Lips. Under the ominous subject line “Urgent – Please read asap,” Carmen laments the “insane rules here in D.C.” forcing McDuffie to give back the roughly $845,000 in public funds he socked away for the AG bid under D.C.’s Fair Elections program. And Carmen urges his associates to start chipping in the maximum donation to the councilmember now that he’s no longer bound by the program’s contribution limits.

The email spends some time extolling McDuffie’s virtues as a lawmaker, noting his time chairing the Council’s economic development committee amid the disruptions of the pandemic as well as “his experience as a prosecutor in developing his tough on crime stances that contrast with his opponents.” But mostly, the missive stresses the urgency of donors lining up behind McDuffie right away: “No time for house parties!” Carmen writes. The plea for cash was so pressing that it came before McDuffie even officially set up his new campaign committee for his at-large bid—a spokesperson for the Office of Campaign Finance says that didn’t happen until July 22.

“I am EMPLORING [sic] you to go to the website and donate the maximum $1000 as I have done and get your spouses and friends to do the same thing and do it THIS WEEKEND so we can get Kenyan out of the blocks strong,” Carmen wrote. “Whether you live or work in DC, this is the best $1000 you will ever invest. Help get the Council back to business making our city safe, our schools thriving and our businesses hiring and serving its customers with excellence.”

Carmen confirms the email’s veracity to LL, saying he regrets he managed to misspell “implore” but otherwise stands by its contents. He notes in an email that he got to know McDuffie as a fellow parent of a Georgetown Day School student, and feels he has been a “terrific” councilmember so far, “balancing important diversity priorities with respect for the needs of employers and DC’s competitive challenges with surrounding jurisdictions.”

McDuffie himself wouldn’t discuss Carmen’s support specifically, noting that he has a “beautifully diverse coalition” of backers that extend beyond just big-time lobbyists. He cited Tony Lewis Jr., a prominent advocate for incarcerated people, and Angel Gregorio, the owner of the Spice Suite in Takoma, among other examples of his range of supporters. And he notes that he’d much rather be using public financing once again instead of relying on checks from people like Carmen, citing his long-standing support for Fair Elections.

“We’ve got to raise money the traditional way and we’ll do that to have the resources we need,” McDuffie tells LL. “We’ve done it before, and it hasn’t stopped me from authoring some of the most progressive legislation in the city during my tenure.”

It’s not exactly unusual that a lobbyist would want to raise money for a councilmember, particularly a lobbyist with so much business in D.C. Carmen’s firm, the Carmen Group, counts clients like the big-time builder Douglas Development, gas station magnate Joe Mamo’s Capitol Petroleum Group, the owners of Adams Morgan’s LINE DC hotel, and the developers of the Wharf, according to lobbying records. And Carmen has helped plenty of local politicians raise money before, from former Councilmember Vincent Orange to the mayor-for-life himself.

So, on the one hand, Carmen’s involvement in the race lends some credence to At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman’s claims that business interests close to Mayor Muriel Bowser are once again out to get her. Silverman declined to comment for this story, but she’s previously told LL that she fully expects to face a wave of “special interest money” in the race. (Technically, At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds is one of McDuffie’s opponents too, but she’s virtually a shoo-in after securing the Democratic nomination, leaving the real contest between the independents on the ballot).

Yet Carmen is more than just a run-of-the-mill lobbyist: He also happens to be a major Republican donor and political operative. And after questions about candidates’ ties to the GOP became an issue in both the Ward 1 and Ward 3 primary races, it’s fair to wonder whether McDuffie will face similar pushback for his association with Carmen.

Many lobbyists in the city have Republican leanings, but Carmen sure comes across as a true believer. His father was the head of the General Services Administration under President Ronald Reagan (and helped engineer Reagan’s crucial New Hampshire primary victory in 1980), and he helped Carmen join the family business. A 1988 Washington Post profile details Carmen’s rise through the ranks of the Republican National Committee and other GOP-affiliated groups before heading to K Street, describing him as a “right-wing conservative” who uniformly worked for “conservative causes,” GOP politicians, and big businesses.

He’s remained true to the party in the 40 years since that article ran, if his campaign contributions are any indication.

Campaign finance records show Carmen giving frequently to Republican senators and GOP campaign operations over the years, with a $2,800 check to former President Donald Trump and a $34,700 contribution to the RNC among his more recent gifts in September 2020. He wasn’t always on board the Trump train, it would seem. Carmen gave $2,700 each to Jeb Bush and then-House Speaker Paul Ryan at the height of the presidential primary in 2015. Carmen’s only donations to Democrats come in local politics, with Bowser, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray and former Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans benefiting from Carmen’s generosity over the years. Attorney General Karl Racine, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto, Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, and former Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd have also earned big checks from Carmen in recent years.

So Carmen seems like the sort of fellow that could earn McDuffie quite a bit of cash as his at-large campaign gets going, though it’ll be a few days before the exact benefits are clear. As a traditional fundraising candidate, McDuffie won’t need to report his finances until July 31. The other Fair Elections candidates in the race (Silverman, Bonds, and newcomers Graham McLaughlin and Karim Marshall) last filed reports on June 10 and won’t do so again until Aug. 10.

McDuffie’s facing down a much more important deadline in the meantime: It’s nearly time for him to pay back his public money.

Any candidate to lose certification as a Fair Elections candidate, as McDuffie did when the Board of Elections booted him from the AG ballot, has a 60-day window to return whatever public money they have left. McDuffie spent a bit of it, but he reported having just over $572,000 in the bank as of June 10, a good portion of which is likely public funding. OCF revoked his Fair Elections status on May 12, giving him until July 12 to pay the piper.

But OCF spokesperson Wesley Williams says McDuffie’s campaign sought and received a 15-day extension (D.C. law allows candidates to ask for up to 180 extra days to return the money, he notes). That puts McDuffie’s new deadline on Wednesday, when the campaign will need to file a report detailing how it plans to return the public funding and otherwise wind down its operations.

LL certainly will be curious to read it.

This story has been updated with additional contributions from Carmen.