Trayon White
Trayon White Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White’s mayoral bid wasn’t exactly a rousing electoral success. But at least he can say that his campaign managed a feat so novel that the drafters of the city’s Fair Elections law didn’t predict it.

White’s campaign committee achieved the ignominious feat of finishing nearly $59,000 in the red, according to a campaign finance report submitted last month, wracking up those debts with more than $150,000 in billings over the final weeks of the primary race. That’s small potatoes compared to the outlays from his competitors (Mayor Muriel Bowser reported spending more than $1.2 million in the primary’s closing days) but it was still enough to break the bank after White’s fundraising slowed to a crawl.

As near as Loose Lips can tell, White is the first candidate to accept public financing and finish his race in debt since the Fair Elections program got rolling two years ago. It sure seems like the sort of behavior that cuts against the law’s spirit, if not its letter (and it’s worth remembering that White only qualified for the program under some unusual circumstances). But it’s not really clear what happens now, and White did not respond to requests for comment.

The section of the D.C. code standing up the program is silent on how to resolve this particular dilemma. There are all sorts of provisions governing how Fair Elections candidates should wind down their campaigns and return any public money they have left in their accounts. But it seems the program’s founders didn’t consider a world where White would spend more than the $401,000 he received in matching funds.

The rules for candidates using traditional fundraising methods are more clear. If a campaign finishes in debt, then that campaign account stays open until the candidate can pay their bills (just ask former Councilmember Vincent Orange, who still owes tens of thousands across his five open campaign committees). Candidates can then raise money to “retire” those debts, but they have to observe some limits around how much they raise and when they raise it (just ask Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto, who recently ran afoul of these provisions just before a Supreme Court ruling threw their legality into doubt).

So would any of this apply to White? The Office of Campaign Finance doesn’t think so. Spokesperson Wesley Williams tells LL that “there is no provision under the Fair Elections program that allows for candidates to fundraise after the election.”

But there’s nothing in the law that stops them from doing so either. Craig Holman, a lobbyist with the watchdog group Public Citizen, helped write the Fair Elections legislation, and reads the law to say that White could certainly continue raising money (so long as he followed the program’s limits on small-dollar contributions). He could even, theoretically, keep receiving matching funds from the city since he hasn’t hit the program’s ceiling, Holman says.

“There is a strict limit on a qualified candidate using personal funds ($2,500), so in most such cases, the candidate would have to continue soliciting small donors,” Holman writes in an email to LL. “If the debt is excessive, of course, the candidate will default on those debts to the loss of the vendors.”

That’s where things get even more complicated. In the case of a candidate like Orange, the campaign’s debts are very clearly listed to specific vendors. He commissioned roughly $40,000 in mailers for his 2016 race, for instance, but the firm he worked with claims he never paid. White’s report is a bit harder to parse, making it difficult to discern how he spent much of this money.

Some of the expense lines are straightforward. He paid Fria Moore, his campaign treasurer and a Ward 8 activist, $11,200 in salary; he paid another $8,100 to a printing company for campaign materials; and he handed over $3,500 to a transportation company, the report shows.

But those are the outliers. In all, White listed about $79,000 of his $150,000 in expenditures from June 10 to Aug. 10 as flowing to companies and people with the same address: 4135 Wheeler Rd. SE. That also happens to be the address listed as his campaign headquarters.

Some of the companies mentioned may well be based there (the address is home to a small shopping center) but it seems White’s campaign generally just dropped in the address haphazardly. For instance, LL easily discovered that one business owned by a local comedian that White paid for advertising is based in Maryland, not at Wheeler Road.

That might not be the soundest accounting practice, but the decision has real consequences for anyone trying to figure out where White actually owes this money. His largest expense, for $30,000, is listed simply as “GOTV- Tray White for Mayor 2022” with the Wheeler Road address. Similarly, there’s a $2,670 charge to “West of the River-Tray White for Mayor 2022,” with the same address.

This seems to be money paying workers for canvassing, but were these companies established for the purpose, or private consultants? Or something else entirely? Without more detail, it’s impossible to know. (White was much more clear about how much he paid to have high school students work on his campaign: He shelled out $5,600 while paying sub-minimum wage for some extra help.)

In all, White charged $18,800 to pay for salaries for 16 different people listed at the Wheeler Road address to work on his campaign. They’re unlikely to come after White for the money (most are only owed a few hundred dollars here and there, and they probably know White personally) though his larger, more traditional vendors may be a different story.

So it seems clear that the debts will stay on the books for the time being. What’s less clear is how White intends to settle them, and if he’ll prompt a fight with OCF if he chooses to fundraise to do so.

Those are smaller questions, however, than what all this means for Fair Elections going forward. Should White still be allowed to use the program for future runs for office after this? And do there need to be clearer procedures about what happens in these cases with taxpayer money at stake? OCF, and perhaps the Council itself, needs to come up with answers.