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Three weeks before the November election, Council candidate Karim Marshall and his campaign manager found themselves stuck in a shouting match with one of their top staffers outside the Busboys and Poets restaurant in Anacostia.
The argument was about the employee’s paychecks, and they were angrily demanding answers for why they hadn’t received full payment for roughly two-and-a-half months of work managing Marshall’s door-knocking operation in his bid for an at-large seat. The dispute got particularly ugly between this employee, who asked for anonymity so as not to jeopardize future job opportunities in D.C. politics, and campaign manager Mysiki Valentine, who remembers “all types of different obscenities” being exchanged.
“I let [Valentine] know if it ever happened again, I will be gone,” the former staffer tells Loose Lips. “Karim tried to kind of smooth things over verbally, but he never was able to make a commitment or give me the money I needed to go ahead and do the job.”
The former employee quit the campaign soon afterward, as more money troubles arose. They were managing the campaign’s paid field organizers and chose to pay them out-of-pocket while waiting on funds from the campaign. A reimbursement of the roughly $300 in expenses was never forthcoming. In all, this staffer walked away from the campaign believing they were owed roughly $2,000.
“It just felt like they were using the money at the time to pay for something else and not prioritizing everyone’s paycheck,” the employee says. “It was a really horrible time in my life.”
Issues with paying campaign staff were pervasive during Marshall’s ultimately unsuccessful run for office, with at least three workers forced to hound Marshall for weeks to get their payments, according to five people on the campaign who spoke with LL.
Valentine and other staffers paint a picture of a chaotic campaign with a dearth of management experience, even as Marshall held himself up as a competent D.C. government veteran. Marshall, who has also served in leadership roles for the Ward 7 Democrats, didn’t make much of a dent in the at-large field, finishing a distant fifth. But he’s already being whispered about as a future Council candidate (perhaps in Ward 7 next year), particularly after he gained notoriety for his campaign finance challenge to Elissa Silverman’s Ward 3 polling. That said, it’s probably worth unpacking just what kind of campaign he ran in his first bid for office.
“Karim’s campaign made me decide to take a step back from politics,” Valentine says. “There were some things in the campaign that just didn’t match the ideals we were fighting so hard for.”
Marshall tells LL that all his staffers have since been paid now. He attributes his payment issues to delays in receiving funds he was owed through the Fair Elections program, which matches government money for contributions candidates received from D.C. residents. Marshall received a final payment of $15,700 on Jan. 25, records show, and staffers reported receiving payments about two weeks later.
The former candidate otherwise declined to comment on specific allegations from his ex-employees.
But some say the payments don’t exactly match what they believe they’re owed, and they suspect Marshall did not intend to pay them until they brought their concerns to LL. At one point, one former staffer even warned Marshall they would pursue a lawsuit against him to recover the money. “Threatening a lawyer with legal action really isn’t the best way to move things along, I know you’ll run up more in legal fees than you’ll recover in a judgment,” Marshall, an attorney who worked at several D.C. government agencies before his independent Council bid, wrote in one email exchange with the staffer last December.
Money troubles are hardly “abnormal” for shoestring political campaigns, Valentine says, citing his own experience working on other local efforts. But he believes he saw a clear “pattern” of Marshall trying to withhold money workers were owed to cut costs, despite his efforts as campaign manager to get people paid. He claims he offered to forego his final check to help pay other employees on the campaign, but Marshall declined.
“At this point, it really isn’t even about the money,” one former staffer says. “For me, it’s the fact that so many of us supported a candidate that was very prominent in his advocacy for workers’ rights and fair wages and justice. And quite honestly, he’s been nothing but a hypocrite behind closed doors.”
The problems started a few months after Marshall launched his at-large campaign last May, ex-staffers say. Julia Miles tells LL that she helped get Marshall’s bid off the ground and served as his first field director, but ran into trouble actually getting paid for that work as the campaign got more organized in late summer and early fall.
She says Marshall offered her the job at the rate of $3,000 a month, with the understanding that she’d get paid once the campaign started raising money and qualified for the Fair Elections program. On Aug. 17, the Office of Campaign Finance made its first matching payment to Marshall, seeding the campaign with nearly $77,000 in public funds, and Miles expected she’d be paid for her previous work soon after.
But by September, she says Marshall began to renege on those promises. He offered Miles a contract to compensate her for her work since August, but started denying that he ever offered to pay her for the months before that. “I have no recollection of agreeing to that [$3,000 monthly] amount before the campaign qualified for matching funds,” Marshall wrote to her in a Sept. 21 email forwarded to LL. “No one else on the campaign has been anything other than a volunteer before August as everyone else is working full time elsewhere,” he added, noting that he felt Miles had failed to deliver “a canvassing plan, despite multiple requests.”
Miles says it felt like she was being gaslit. She specifically remembered discussing salary details for herself and other campaign employees before the arrival of matching funds in August (and she provided text messages with Marshall to support that assertion). But she says Marshall never gave her a written contract covering her organizing work in the spring and summer, which began to feel like an intentional decision, in hindsight.
“It just felt like he was throwing his weight around as an attorney,” Miles says. “He’s a lawyer, and now he’s saying ‘there’s no contract,’ so it felt like he was using his position to say whatever he wanted and spin the narrative in a way that benefits him.”
Valentine confirms much of Miles’ account, and said that she was “instrumental in putting down a lot of the foundational parts of Karim’s campaign.” When he joined as Marshall’s campaign manager late in the summer, Valentine says he was disturbed to hear Miles didn’t have a formal contract, and worked to get her back pay or a bonus of some kind.
But Valentine says Marshall was resistant to the idea, and gradually began talking about firing Miles.
“Karim did not like her communication style, which wasn’t necessarily abrasive or anything of that nature,” he says. “But he made it very clear. He wanted somebody in the field that was, quote, unquote, going to listen to what he said. And Julia was providing him advice and suggestions that I don’t think he wanted to be receptive to.”
In late September, Marshall opted to hire a new field director instead, enticing them to come aboard at the rate of just $1,200 a month. Miles says Marshall initially told her that she would move into a deputy campaign manager role instead, but he later walked back that promise as well. As it became clear that Marshall did not intend to pay her and was effectively demoting her, she chose to leave the campaign, despite the roughly $9,000 she felt she was owed.
“I wasted a lot of time, honestly, helping him on this campaign,” Miles says. “I thought he was somebody with integrity and then he turned around and was essentially lying, saying he didn’t think he needed to pay me for all the work I did.”
Valentine felt that Marshall made the decision to try and push Miles out of the campaign “very swiftly and overnight, without any input without any consideration or guidance or counsel.” (For what it’s worth, he says Marshall’s decision to “attack Elissa Silverman” and request a campaign finance investigation into her Ward 3 polling, which became a centerpiece of the at-large race, was similarly unilateral.) And the hiring of the new field director only produced a “snowball effect,” Valentine says, with similar payment issues cropping up.
Miles’ replacement as field director is the person who confronted Marshall and Valentine outside Busboys and Poets. In addition to delays in receiving paychecks, they say they regularly paid $25 an hour to door-knockers with the understanding they’d be reimbursed, but that never happened either.
Some former staffers suggest Marshall was right to be more hesitant about paying those bills if he hadn’t approved the payments ahead of time or if these field workers were claiming to have worked more hours than they actually put in. But Marshall’s ex-field director felt as if they were on the same page with the candidate about the campaign’s door-knocking program, only to see Marshall reverse himself.
The former field director left the campaign a few weeks before election day, and when they approached Marshall about receiving the money they felt they were owed, they encountered similar resistance as Miles.
“He was trying to muscle this situation, trying to say ‘You backed out before the election was over, I’m not paying you,’” they say.
Valentine and other former staffers say that Marshall hired a third field director to finish out the final weeks of the race, and they also experienced gaps in receiving their paychecks. In an interview, this person tells LL they had “no problems” getting paid, but requested that their name be withheld so as not to jeopardize future job opportunities. Another field organizer with the campaign, Michael Campbell, says that he personally never had any trouble getting paid, but heard frequently about other issues on the team.
“Let me put it this way: I purposely stayed on a volunteer basis for most of the campaign,” Campbell says. “So as long as I was on a volunteer basis, I really didn’t have too much of an issue.”
The payment problems extended beyond the field operation, ex-staffers say. Another employee who did consulting work for the campaign, who also asked for anonymity, says they pursued Marshall for weeks over the nearly $2,000 they felt they were owed. (This is the same person that ultimately threatened legal action against Marshall.)
In December email exchanges with Marshall and other staffers that were forwarded to LL, the candidate initially claimed the payment delays stemmed from the fact he didn’t “have access to all of the account information” and had trouble tracking down his treasurer. Valentine says that “in no way, shape or form” was such an assertion true, based on his experience discussing finances and even visiting the bank with Marshall. Valentine says he was disturbed when ex-staffers mentioned that remark to him just a few weeks ago.
By early January, Marshall began emailing the consultant and two other ex-employees, blaming OCF’s slow process of sending him matching funds for delays in payments. One of those employees, Renee Scott, declined a request for an interview but tells LL that Marshall has “maintained transparency and kept open lines of communication with staff following election day, and I don’t have any concerns about my payments.” The other, Felicia Donelson, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
“Thank you for your patience as I navigate this complete cluster**** of a situation,” Marshall wrote to staffers in a Jan. 25 email.
In an interview with LL, Marshall says it was “incredibly frustrating” waiting on the campaign finance office to deliver his final allotment of matching funds. It took his staff some time to gather information to submit a last request for Fair Elections money, accounting for some of the lag between the end of the race and the Jan. 25 order granting him the remaining $15,700 he was owed. But he says other problems cropped up, too. For instance, he says there was some back-and-forth between the campaign and OCF about whether to issue the last tranche of matching funds electronically or via a paper check.
Marshall says he considered paying staff out of his own savings during this period, but the strict rules around Fair Elections made it so “the audit trail on that would have been disastrous.” He and his wife met the program’s limits for personal donations and loans to the campaign—a total of $2,500—but he was otherwise restricted from other “things I could’ve done in a traditional campaign.”
“Everybody who worked on Election Day was paid within a couple of days of Election Day,” Marshall says. “And the folks that were outstanding were the large dollar amounts that, frankly, we would have overdrafted the account if I tried to pay them.”
Marshall’s most recent campaign finance report (covering Nov. 1 through Dec. 10) certainly supports that notion, as it reflects debts of roughly $13,700. But it doesn’t list money owed to workers like Miles; previous reports also show Marshall with plenty of money in the bank that he used to pay some of his workers (not to mention tens of thousands he spent on advertising and mailers).
The good news for some of these staffers is that they have received at least some money from Marshall within the past week. The ex-employee who was owed $2,000 says they were paid in full, while the former field director who fought with Marshall outside Busboys says Marshall sent them about $667, which is less than what they believe they are owed. Miles declined to comment on whether Marshall has since paid her or not.
Still, this whole ugly back-and-forth left a bad taste in the mouths of many campaign workers. Campbell, the former organizer, assigns more blame to Valentine as campaign manager, based on his experience. Although he respects Marshall, Campbell also feels he bears responsibility for his choice of deputies: “Everything stems from strong leadership,” he says.
Valentine insists he did the best he could on the campaign under challenging circumstances. Going forward, he says he will remember his time working on Lisa Gore’s at-large campaign in the Democratic primary fondly; his experience with Marshall, less so.
“I would work for Lisa again in any capacity, even if she’s not running for anything,” Valentine says. “That’s not necessarily the same olive branch I would extend to Karim.”