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

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Democrats for Education Reform has been the big money group at the center of all the hottest political drama in D.C. this year. But it seems a pack of the city’s most influential rich folks are now asking why they should have all the fun.

A new organization dubbed Opportunity D.C. burst onto the scene in mid-October and already looks to be challenging DFER for the title of biggest dark-money player in the general election. It’s hard to beat the pro-charter group when it comes to the sheer volume of cash pumped into local races this year (DFER has spent just shy of $1.4 million so far) but Opportunity D.C.’s first batch of campaign finance forms suggest they’re making up ground.

The group’s independent expenditure committee reported raising a little over $211,000 between Oct. 11 and Oct. 31, according to reports filed Monday, and spent nearly $180,900 of that haul over the same time period. The money was entirely devoted to boosting Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie’s candidacy, the records show, since the group has endorsed him in his at-large race against incumbent Councilmembers Anita Bonds and Elissa Silverman and a pack of other hopefuls. Unlike a traditional political action committee, groups like Opportunity D.C. can only spend to benefit a particular candidate independently and can’t contribute any money to their campaigns directly.

DFER’s independent group has been spending to support McDuffie as well, though it hasn’t formally endorsed him, perhaps feeling the sting from its unsuccessful efforts to boost Eric Goulet in the Ward 3 primary. But the group reported spending a combined $110,600 to aid McDuffie, Bonds, and its two preferred candidates in the State Board of Education races (Carisa Stanley Beatty in Ward 5 and Brandon Best in Ward 6), so it seems Opportunity D.C. takes the prize as McDuffie’s biggest outside backer. The D.C. Association of Realtors, which also endorsed the Ward 5 lawmaker, reported spending about $182,000 through its own independent expenditure committee over the same time period, but did not delineate which candidates might’ve benefited from that money.

So what is Opportunity D.C.? Its website says the group was created to support “pragmatic, fiscally responsible local candidates who will promote a robust economy capable of enabling the greater social good in the District,” and it warns that “new taxes and regulations, housing costs, rising crime, and the shift to telework” all threaten the city’s economic future. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that it counts former D.C. chief financial officer Natwar Gandhi as its treasurer and Antwanye Ford (a prominent local businessman with ties to Mayor Muriel Bowser) as its chair. The group’s principal backers also align closely with the nonprofit Federal City Council, one of D.C.’s leading pro-business organizations, which former Mayor Tony Williams leads.

Tim O’Shaughnessy, head of the ex-Washington Post owners’ Graham Holdings, and noted charter school booster Katherine Bradley provided Opportunity D.C.’s biggest individual donations at $20,000 a piece, and both sit on the Federal City Council’s board of directors. But the real estate industry put up the bulk of the cash.

There are individual executives like MRP’s Bob Murphy (a Bowser favorite), Trammell Crow’s Adam Weers, Edens’ Jodie McLean (a member of FC2’s “leadership committee”), and Joshua Bernstein of the eponymous apartment management company (another FC2 board member), all of whom gave $10,000 each. Deborah Ratner Salzberg, yet another big name in real estate and FC2 board member, added $5,000. Hines executive Bill Alsup, an FC2 committee member as well, did the same.

Some big companies chose to give directly, like SJG Properties, Quadrangle Development Corporation, and the Forge Company (a firm you might remember from the Jack Evans scandal. Its head, Rusty Lindner, is a Federal City Council board member). All of those firms also gave $10,000. Hotel developer and manager Donohoe takes the cake, however, giving a combined $24,000 split across four separate limited liability companies. The company’s president and CEO also sits on the FC2’s leadership committee.

The single biggest donation comes from Opportunity D.C.’s own nonprofit, via a $50,000 check (which came in addition to a $12,750 in-kind contribution via some polling it conducted). It’s organized as a 501(c)(4) group, a so-called “social welfare organization,” meaning it can participate in political activities without disclosing its donors. These groups are a key source of dark money in elections across the country, and DFER relies on a similar set-up to shield information about its contributors, accepting lump sums from a 501(c)(4) tied to its parent group, Education Reform Now.

The similarities between DFER and Opportunity D.C. don’t stop with their choice of fundraising tactics or preferred candidates. The groups also rely on the same vendor, SKDKnickerbocker, for their political activities. DFER directed its $110,600 in spending through the firm—which counts many national Democrats as clients and manages advertising, polling, and other political work—while Opportunity D.C. did the same with its $180,900.

There aren’t many details available online about this Opportunity D.C. nonprofit (and the group didn’t respond to a request for comment) but it sure seems similar to its political arm. The group appears to have been incorporated in September 2020, per online records, and two of its listed agents have ties to the Federal City Council: Attorney Matthew Cutts sits on the group’s board, while Steve Russo appears to work for the group directly as its director of finance and administration. The final agent for the nonprofit, Erica Roque, works for the influential law firm ArentFox Schiff, which hired former Councilmember David Grosso as a lobbyist when he retired. His longtime friend at the firm, Jon Bouker, also serves on the FC2’s leadership committee.

Can this group of very big names make a difference with less than a week until Nov. 8? It’s already been sending mailers on McDuffie’s behalf, and there’s every reason to expect more in the campaign’s closing days.

Yet money has never really been an issue for McDuffie, particularly after he was forced to raise money the traditional way (he was barred from using public financing a second time after his attorney general bid was foiled by eligibility issues). He raised about $72,600 between Oct. 11 and 31 (including a $1,000 check from Williams) and finished with about $252,700 in the bank for the race’s closing stretch.

Silverman raised $75,000 over the same time period but only has roughly $35,200 left to spend after drawing down most of her war chest, so McDuffie will have the funds for advertising blitzes, both independent and in-house. Silverman will benefit from the support of labor organizations, too, but not quite on the same level—the independent expenditure arm of several local unions reported spending about $90,500 on direct mail boosting her candidacy last month. There may be two at-large seats on the ballot, but this pair is likely fighting over one, since Bonds’ status as Democratic nominee will almost certainly secure her a spot.

The bigger question on Loose Lips’ mind is whether Opportunity D.C. will stick around for future elections, or even the more mundane debates about policy within the Wilson Building. There are already plenty of groups willing to spend in D.C. elections to back business-friendly candidates, just as there are many ready to lobby the Council on the priorities of the business class (the Federal City Council foremost among them). What’s the need for one more?

Nevertheless, there are early signs that Opportunity D.C. is here to stay. Lobbying records show the group has been paying Holland and Knight’s Janene Jackson (a top aide to Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray back when he was mayor) to represent them on “issues impacting [the] District of Columbia business community” since last year.