Silverman McDuffie signs
Elissa Silverman and Kenyan McDuffie are sparring in the at-large Council race. Credit: Alex Koma

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Loose Lips predicted at the outset of this at-large Council race that things would get ugly. It took a little longer than expected, but with tempers running high less than a month until election day, that forecast finally delivered.

A debate in Southwest Tuesday night was the site of some of the most heated arguments of the campaign thus far, with At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman and Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie (perhaps unsurprisingly) emerging as the main combatants. The dispute chiefly centered around McDuffie’s ties to developers, lobbyists, and other big-money interests, which Silverman has not hesitated to highlight since he entered the race. But those attacks have largely come in the form of campaign emails and media interviews, and McDuffie has often refrained from responding directly—there’s nothing like an in-person debate to make things a little testier.

The sparring started after the seven candidates in attendance were asked about a specific development in the neighborhood, and how to improve the negotiation process between neighbors and builders more broadly. Statehood Green candidate David Schwartzman raised the issue that “the Wilson Building is occupied territory for developers,” and Silverman rushed to agree. She went further, too, arguing that “two of the candidates up here have a majority of their money” from the building industry, and that this influence has a corrosive effect on any discussion of housing in the city.

“There are two candidates here that if you look at their campaign finance filings, I’m sure it’s Jair Lynch, it’s developer after developer after developer after developer,” Silverman said, referring to one builder that’s particularly close to Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration. Silverman stayed vague on which candidates she was referring to.

But everyone in the room knew she meant McDuffie and Graham McLaughlin, based on her past criticisms of each. Another challenger in the race, Karim Marshall, was next in line to answer the moderator’s question, and he spoke up to defend McDuffie, in particular.

“If you think somebody’s bought and paid for, say it,” Marshall said. “But there’s a lot of coded racial language going on right now, talking about somebody getting bought for $100 if they’re using public financing or $1,000 if they’re using traditional financing. This notion that somebody would spend their career in public service and then be bought because a developer wrote them a check for $1,000 is, frankly, ridiculous. I’m not getting money from developers. I’m defending somebody else on this stage. But I think it’s disgusting and it’s coded racial language, so I need to call it out.”

McLaughlin piled on, arguing that the idea that he’s been corrupted by developers is insulting to the returning citizens that have chosen to support him (many of whom he’s worked with as part of his nonprofit). He added that “I’d be interested” to see who has more donors from wards 7 and 8 among candidates in the running. For what it’s worth, D.C. Geekery’s calculations show that about 14.4 percent of his donations have come from east of the river, though those figures don’t include the most recent fundraising reports. Only 4.4 percent of Silverman’s donors hail from wards 7 and 8.

“I do take umbrage with the fact that we’re bringing this marketing in and framing in, instead of saying, what is the best way to create affordable housing?” McLaughlin said. “We need to stop this demonization and these binaries.”

McDuffie had perhaps the most impassioned response.

“What I’ve learned in politics is that when people start talking about who’s donating to whom and they’re throwing around all these insults and they’re trying to distract you from things, it’s because they usually don’t have a record of delivering results,” McDuffie said. “What I can do is substantively point to what I’ve done around comprehensive campaign finance reform, around comprehensive ethics reform, what I’ve done around affordable housing to make it more expansive in this city, what I’ve done around criminal justice reform and juvenile justice reform. I’ve authored those bills and gotten my colleagues’ support and others to get it done. I’m somebody who gets stuff done in this city.”

LL gives top marks to moderator Andrew Lightman for giving the candidates space to respond to these attacks instead of rushing to the next topic. Things only got juicier as time went on.

“I’ll ask Southwest neighbors: Do you think there’s an even playing field with developers in this city?” Silverman said, to a smattering of “nos” from the crowd. “I think it does matter who gives to you and I think we shouldn’t turn this into something that it’s not. The fact of the matter is, when you look at campaign finance filings of people in this race, you are going to see developer after developer after developer give to, yes, two of the candidates here. Why are they giving? I guess I’d just ask you that: Why are they giving in such bulk?”

Silverman based most of her critiques on McDuffie and McLaughlin’s past fundraising efforts, but she predicted that the latest campaign finance reports (which were still trickling in as the debate was happening) would show a similar pattern.

When it comes to McLaughlin, her claims are a bit exaggerated, as he reported just a handful of donations from the building sector over the last two months. But he certainly did draw checks from industry standbys (think EYA, Edens, JBG Smith, Roadside Development, and others) earlier in his bid, before McDuffie entered the contest and started drawing developer cash.

And in McDuffie’s case, she was on the money—by LL’s count, at least $91,000 of the $278,000 he reported raising between Aug. 10 and Oct. 10 came from the real estate industry. He reported about $333,000 in the bank for the race’s closing stretch compared to Silverman’s $102,000 (Marshall has yet to file his newest report, while McLaughlin reported finishing the two-month period about $9,000 in debt).

“Who’s he going to be listening to?” Silverman asked of McDuffie. “He talks about being a councilmember for the entire city, but the campaign finance records don’t indicate that. It indicates developers have undue influence. It’s not being bought and paid for, it’s undue influence.”

By this point, the candidates were quite far afield from the original question. But why break things up when the two top contenders are having a debate about first principles in D.C. politics?

“They want you to focus on campaign finance records,” McDuffie said. “Here’s the reality: Focus on those records, and then focus on the reality of delivering results at the Wilson Building. Focus on that.”

He proceeded to rattle off his legislative achievements in office, like passing criminal justice reforms in the NEAR Act and creating a pilot program for “baby bonds.”

“Who I listen to is you,” McDuffie said, garnering a decent round of applause. “I listen to the people.”

McDuffie is right that voters should compare candidates’ legislative records in making such decisions (sadly, the leading contender for one of the two seats on the ballot, At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds, skipped this opportunity to engage in such a debate). But, fundamentally, his answers evade Silverman’s questions here.

It can certainly be reductive to charge that lawmakers will simply vote to satisfy their donors 100 percent of the time, and skeptical reporters like LL are more guilty of that assumption than most. But it is also naive to argue that the issue doesn’t matter, and that campaign contributions don’t affect who bends a politician’s ear behind the scenes. If the Council didn’t think it was important to lessen donor influence, they never would have created the city’s popular public financing system in the first place (a program that McDuffie says he would’ve used for this race, had he not been barred from doing so after already taking public funding for his short-lived attorney general bid).

Fundamentally, the issue is one of trust. How can voters have confidence in their politicians about what happens when no one’s looking, and votes aren’t on the record, with this money sloshing around? As Silverman wondered during the debate, why would business executives spend thousands of dollars on these campaigns if they didn’t think it was worth the money?

When Amazon executives combine to give McDuffie $3,075 or FanDuel chips in $2,500, just to list two examples over the last two months, what exactly do they think they’re buying?