Salah Czapary sign side
A sign for Ward 1 Council candidate Salah Czapary in LeDroit Park. Credit: Alex Koma

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It was probably inevitable that as soon as D.C. created its Fair Elections Program to lessen the influence of the city’s donor class, big-money interests would start finding loopholes to exploit. Loose Lips has to applaud their creativity.

The dust has firmly settled from the contentious Ward 1 Council primary in June, and the more LL looks at the numbers, the more one of those loopholes reveals itself. The strategy was seemingly intended to boost former police officer Salah Czapary over incumbent Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, and while that effort fell a bit short, there’s every reason to believe similar strategies will re-emerge in future election cycles.

In Ward 1, it all came down to the LGBTQ Victory Fund, a political action committee founded to support LGBTQ candidates that generally spends most heavily in federal races but devoted some outsized attention to the D.C. Council this June. As the group has filed more campaign finance reports covering its activities during the primary, it appears the PAC served as a convenient repository for money from many of D.C.’s usual suspects.

In all, the Victory Fund took in $129,000 from D.C.-based donors, including $25,000 from the D.C. Association of Realtors’ PAC and $50,000 from the pro-charter school group Democrats for Education Reform, from late May to late June. The Victory Fund then turned around and spent nearly $103,000 on digital ads, phone calls, texts, and even a poll in the Council primary, according to the group’s federal fundraising reports.

Only a few of those expenses were listed as benefiting Czapary directly (the main exception is the $8,000 the group spent on a poll for his campaign) but it stands to reason that most, if not all, of this money was aimed at helping him.

The only other candidate the fund endorsed in the Council primary was another gay man, Ward 5 winner Zachary Parker, but it never reported any contributions to his campaign. Many donors to the Victory Fund overlap with Czapary’s backers, most of whom hail from D.C.’s old guard, Green Team ranks. Spokespeople for the fund did not respond to requests for comment.

None of this spending is illegal, but it does seem to cut pretty squarely against the spirit of the public financing program, which was explicitly designed to prevent participating candidates like Czapary from accepting big checks from wealthy donors. An endorsement from the realtors or DFER sends a particular kind of message in D.C. politics (those groups also backed more conservative options like Mayor Muriel Bowser, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, and Ward 3 hopeful Eric Goulet this election cycle), yet Czapary benefited from their monetary support without being tied to either group. And by contributing to the Victory Fund instead of Czapary directly, these donors got to skirt the $50 cap on individual donations to a Fair Elections candidate.

None of these names should be surprises for close watchers of D.C. politics. Major charter schools booster Katherine Bradley led the pack with a $15,000 check to the Victory Fund, while prominent developer (and Bowser favorite) Chris Donatelli sent a $10,000 contribution. Real estate executives Bill Alsup and Joshua Bernstein and bar owner John Guggenmos each pitched in $5,000, too. Councilmember turned lobbyist David Catania sent in $2,500 (he happens to sit on the fund’s campaign board, which identifies LGBTQ candidates worth supporting), as did his lobbying partner Ben Young. Top developers and Bowser pals Bryan Irving, David Jannarone, and Bob Murphy all cut big checks, too. With the exception of Guggenmos, none of these donors appear to have given to Czapary directly.

Add it all up, and this spending (which largely doesn’t appear on local D.C. finance reports because the Victory Fund files as a federal PAC) was quite the boost for Czapary. On paper, his campaign spent about the same as Nadeau’s—he reported spending about $280,000 in total, compared to her $282,000. But throw in the Victory Fund’s $103,000 intervention and it’s clear why Czapary was so awash in campaign signs in the race’s final stretch. Nadeau got some outside help from local unions, but their efforts pale in comparison.

Plainly, all that spending only has limited efficacy (Nadeau still won by about 2,800 votes, after all) but it’s worth noting should the Victory Fund or other outside groups repeat these efforts. It appears to be the PAC’s largest intervention in a D.C. election yet—the group endorsed Kent Boese in his run against Nadeau in 2018 (and appears to have spent about $4,000 on his behalf) and Ward 2 hopeful Randy Downs and at-large contestant Alex Padro in 2020, but didn’t back up either with such big spending. Its only other involvement of note in local D.C. politics appears to have been a few contributions to Catania, as well as Nadeau’s predecessor, Jim Graham, over the years, but nothing on the level it managed in 2022.

The Victory Fund can, at least, claim to be marginally more transparent than DFER. That group poured roughly $1.2 million into D.C. primary races, but only lists contributions from its parent organization, Education Reform Now, which only releases limited information about its donors.

But it seems clear that, at some point, someone backing Czapary’s campaign spread the word around that the best way to support the candidate without attracting the attention of snooping reporters or political opponents was to give money to the Victory Fund instead. It’s hardly a novel tactic in American politics writ large, but it doesn’t exactly seem in keeping with D.C.’s recent efforts to chase big money out of its elections, either.