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Deep down, At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman probably had to know this day was coming.
Whether it was in her former life as a journalist or over the course of her political career, Silverman has historically never been afraid to call foul on ethics violations, campaign finance flaws, or donor influence. So she can’t be that surprised that her political opponents have seized on the chance to assail her over such concerns now that she’s given them the chance.
The condemnations of Silverman came swiftly after the Office of Campaign Finance ruled Thursday that she misused public funds in polling the Ward 3 Council primary this summer. OCF said she shouldn’t have spent roughly $6,300 surveying a race she wasn’t involved in but would not go a step further in finding that Silverman illegally coordinated with other campaigns by discussing the results of those polls (and spurring a consolidation behind Matt Frumin, who won the nomination). OCF General Counsel William SanFord ordered only that she refund that money, but that has not stopped local politicos from chattering. Call it a late October surprise in the heated at-large race.
Silverman was defiant in the wake of the ruling, arguing that she acted cautiously to stay within the bounds of the law, and says she’ll ask for a hearing before the Board of Elections. She and her supporters see it as a politically motivated attack from fellow at-large contender Karim Marshall, who requested the OCF investigation back in August, but she’s earned enough enemies over the years that a dust-up over the polling was unavoidable. Longtime political consultant Chuck Thies, no fan of Silverman’s, asked for a similar investigation of Ward 3 candidates Tricia Duncan and Ben Bergmann not long after Marshall. Thies is now Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray’s spokesperson but is speaking in his personal capacity and argues that they were “knowingly and intentionally accepting an illegal in-kind contribution” when discussing the poll results with Silverman. Thies tells Loose Lips that OCF is still investigating that case.
The severity of the issue depends, as ever, on who you ask. On the relatively mild end of the spectrum, you have Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie saying that his fellow at-large hopeful “played politics with the integrity of the Fair Elections Program by putting her own self interest ahead of Ward 3 Democratic voters,” D.C. Democratic Party Chairman Charles Wilson denouncing “this infringement upon the Democratic primary elections,” and the Washington Post editorial board rapping her for her “unseemly meddling” in the primary. Others have gone a step further: Marshall says he’ll appeal the original ruling and bring the issue to “federal election authorities,” since he believes she tried to improperly influence the race, though he won’t say which authorities to protect the integrity of any future investigation.
“If she had just paid the fine and accepted it, then we could start the healing process,” Marshall tells LL. “We could talk about, what does moving forward look like? But instead she says, ‘I didn’t do anything, why are you mad?’”
Then there are those pursuing the nuclear option. Ward 3 Council candidate-turned-State Board of Education aspirant Eric Goulet wants her to immediately recuse herself from Council business and resign if the Board of Elections sides against her appeal. Plus, he wants federal prosecutors to investigate to “ensure that our elections are fair and that criminal acts did not tarnish the process,” since coordination among candidates is prohibited in most circumstances. As a leading contender in the Ward 3 Council primary, Goulet was the target of Silverman’s poll, and lost the race after three of his opponents dropped out and endorsed Frumin.
Longtime activist Ron Moten isn’t willing to wait and just wants her to resign immediately. He organized a small rally outside the Wilson Building Tuesday to make that demand and pledged more demonstrations if Silverman doesn’t step down.
“Instead of saying, ‘I made a mistake,’ instead of saying ‘I was wrong,’ she denies it,” Moten said before a crowd of roughly 20 supporters, just a smidge larger than the anti-vaccine protest proceeding a few steps away. “To me, this sounds more like Donald Trump. This is Donald Trump behavior.”
Moten and other McDuffie supporters see a double standard at play in this whole saga. If Silverman were Black instead of White, they argue, she’d already be hounded out of office by an outraged media or ambitious federal prosecutors. They think back to the allegations against Kwame Brown and Vince Gray and wonder whether those against Silverman are just as serious, if not more so.
“We want her to get the same treatment that anybody up here would be getting today if they did the exact same thing,” Moten said.
To Silverman’s supporters, that sort of argument falls flat. Rev. Graylan Hagler, a veteran progressive activist who plans to vote for Silverman, says it amounts to her critics simply “playing the race card” and “piling on” now that they smell weakness.
“They sense blood in the water, and they want blood,” Hagler says. “When folks start coming at you, ready to crucify you like this, they’re not even coming at you about the issue itself. They’re coming because they see an opportunity.”
Attorney General Karl Racine, a top Silverman endorser, couldn’t agree more. He says calls for her to step down are “ridiculous hyperbole.” If another politician had faced similar accusations, he doubts Silverman would be among those “piling on with these scurrilous allegations.”
“All of this is directed to change the script and turn the attention away from the fact that we have two incumbents running in the race that have proven to be mouthpieces of the developer class,” Racine says, referring to McDuffie and At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds. The AG stresses that he’s speaking in his personal capacity to avoid any claims of impropriety.
Hagler says the bigger ethical issue in the at-large race is “someone who is actually a Democrat who tries to run as an independent because they didn’t do their due diligence,” in a shot at McDuffie’s thwarted effort to run for attorney general. In fact, Hagler says he’d considered supporting McDuffie but ultimately decided against it.
Fundamentally, Hagler doubts that this dust-up will do much more than “move the insiders,” especially because Silverman has built her reputation as an ethics watchdog. Silverman’s backers have to hope he’s right, and that the negative stigma that attaches to her name has come too late in the game to make much of a difference. The Board of Elections reports that 52,390 people have already voted as of Monday—about 232,000 people turned out to vote in a similar midterm-aligned election four years ago.
“It’s not exactly at the top of the list of concerns that voters in D.C. are worried about today,” says Tom Lindenfeld, a political consultant who has advised Silverman in the past. “It’s a little bit like saying to somebody, ‘Tell me what happened with that Whitewater thing, what was that all about?’ You could ask that of a whole lot of people and you’ll come up with a bunch of answers…It’s just really obscure.”
Lindenfeld admits that he is not the best judge of ethical issues, given his own past, but he believes Silverman ultimately will be proven right. He notes that his former client, Mayor Muriel Bowser, has been known to poll ward races in the past, even though she isn’t a candidate in those races: “What’s the difference?” Lindenfeld wonders.
Racine similarly argues that Silverman had a clear interest in polling the contest, since a huge base of her support is in Ward 3, and (as Silverman herself has argued) she needed to know where voters stood as she considered an endorsement. He says the main headline from the OCF’s ruling should be one familiar to the certain former president Moten referenced: “No collusion.” Bergmann and Duncan have also since reiterated their arguments from this summer that they chose to drop out of the race because they feared the influence of big donors pushing Goulet into office, not because Silverman pressured them to do so. (Bergmann additionally sees political influence at play in OCF’s decision to release this ruling so close to the election, telling LL the whole episode is a “cynical effort to defeat one of the Council’s most effective progressives by the mayor’s political machine.”)
But all of that won’t get formally hashed out for some time, and certainly not in time for her to provide a clear answer to voters. A Board of Elections spokesperson says there’s no hearing scheduled, and Marshall, who hopes to participate in the proceedings, doesn’t expect anything for months.
That means voters will decide just how much this all matters. Will they write it off, as Lindenfeld hopes? Bowser herself was once fined twice as much as Silverman over campaign finance violations but now she’s waltzing to a third term, so it’s not inconceivable. Or will they see Silverman as a hypocrite, discarding her as just another corrupt politician in a long line of miscreants?
McDuffe certainly sees an opening on the latter point: “Integrity is on the Ballot,” blares the subject line of an email blast from campaign chair (and former Bowser official) Roger Mitchell Tuesday. Maybe Marshall can also benefit from all this earned media and his proclaimed stand for ethical government, just as Bruce Spiva elevated his status knocking McDuffie out of the AG race in the first place. Marshall insists this isn’t about politics, but it probably doesn’t hurt that he has a reason to get in front of the cameras with a week to go until election day.
“Irrespective of the outcome of the election, I’m going to proceed with this, whether that’s as a councilmember or as a public citizen,” Marshall says. “I’m talking about accountability here.”
Caught in the crossfire is Frumin, who surely didn’t want to re-litigate the ugliness of the primary as he tries to sew up the general. He’s probably not in any real danger of losing, even after the Post endorsed his Republican opponent, David Krucoff. But it has given Krucoff an opening to issue demands that “must make it clear that he had no contact with Elissa Silverman as part of her taxpayer-funded poll and her use of it to help him win the primary in our ward.”
For what it’s worth, Frumin declined to comment on the matter, saying only that he’s “looking forward to the sprint to the tape.”