The growing movement to undo the nefarious impact of the Citizens United decision allowing unlimited corporate campaign spending finds its counterpart in a citizens' revolt against corporate control of local Washington, D.C. elections.
As a result, Robert Weissman, President of Public Citizen, the national reform group spearheading the drive to repeal Citizens United, last week issued an alert to its D.C. members in advance of a critical April 3 primary election when volunteers will be stationed outside polling places to gather signatures:
In Washington, D.C., corporations are permitted to make direct contributions to candidates. That's an invitation to scandal, and new reports are emerging every day about improper corporate spending in the last District election.
D.C.'s pay-to-play politics are a direct impediment to addressing critical issues like education, affordable housing and the District's yawning income and wealth divides.
It will take about 23,000 signatures to get Initiative 70 on the ballot this November. That will take concerned D.C. residents volunteering now to become neighborhood leaders, gather petition signatures or volunteer during the primary on April 3.
Although not meant as comprehensive reform, it's an important first step in the attempt to wrest control of city government from free-spending businessmen and political leaders immersed in a pay-for-pay culture. That is why the Initiative 70 to ban corporate donations altogether in local campaigns is the opening salvo in an overdue attack on the city's deeply-rooted corruption. A shoe-string but aggressive field campaign seeking extra volunteers is underway asking for 30,000 verified signatures to insure ballot placement -- shooting for half that amount with a full-fledged petition drive reaching out to voters in the city's low-profile April 3 primary -- to get a law on the November ballot banning corporate funding of campaigns.
The scandal-scarred city is awash in money from favor-seeking business interests and developers, augmented by embezzlement and bribes involving city officials. These include the over $300,000 stolen from city funds meant in part for low-income children by a prison-bound D.C. Council Member Harry Thomas, Jr, whose open seat has led to another primary race to replace him, including a candidate, Kenyan McDuffie, making ethics reform the centerpiece of his campaign.
More typically, council members like Vincent Orange, facing heated opposition in the primary, and Democrat Jack Evans, running unopposed but raking in at least $250,000 from businesses and corporate-linked donors, introduce arcane financial or contracts measures designed to shower their backers with tens of millions of dollars in added government spending from a revenue-starved city, as chronicled in the Washington Post and revealed through an ever-widening federal probe of city officials -- including Mayor Vincent Gray -- and their funders.
One of Orange's biggest donors, Medicaid health-care tycoon Jeffrey Thompson, had his home and offices raided last month by federal agents looking at a suspicious pattern of donations from Thompson, his companies and allies topping at least $730,000 for local races. The Orange campaign's receipt of $26,000 in suspicious money orders seemingly designed to circumvent cash donation restrictions -- most from Thomas associates or their allies' relatives signed with virtually identical hand-writing -- is part of the federal probe, according to the Washington Post and NPR affiliate WAMU.
Here's one example of why advocates say the corporate donation ban is so needed: one artfully written piece of legislation introduced by Evans would have drained over $50 million from city revenues benefiting just a few well-heeled corporate donors. It was a taxation change for eminent domain property to be seized by the government. On top of what critics see as such legalized looting of the D.C treasury, even more money has been wasted, stolen and, in some cases, just diverted through wildly inflated crony contracts. All told, according to the Republican whistleblower Tim Day who exposed Thomas's wrongdoing and is running for his seat, federal investigators and prosecutors with whom he is cooperating have found at least $20 million misappropriated or illegally wasted in both 2009 and 2010. The full cost and scope of the waste and corruption is not yet known.
Surprisingly, this primary election may not lead voters to throw the rascals out, but to re-electing them.
Because of the election's low visibility, political analysts say, unaware voters are likely to re-elect those with name recognition and an existing political machine, including Vincent Orange in his race for at-large City Council and the still-popular former mayor and ex- prisoner, Marion Barry, a council member representing the impoverished Ward 8. But Vincent Orange faces strong challenges from two opponents who are claiming the mantle of ethics reform: Peter Shapiro, a former county council chairman from neighboring Prince George's County, who is backed by the leading independent progressive group, DC for Democracy, many liberal activists and the influential Greater Greater Washington political blog, while former Board of Education member Sekou Biddle has picked up more high-profile endorsements, including the centrist editorial page of the Washington Post, among others.
But, as Shapiro and his allies have sought to point out, Biddle has ties to what Shapiro has called the "good ole boy network that is not in the best interests of residents." When selected for a temporary appointment to the City Council in 2011 by the State Democratic Party, Biddle was supported in a back-room deal by three political leaders who have all faced federal criminal investigations and ethical questions: luxury car-loving Council Chairman Kwame "Fully Loaded" Brown, the now-disgraced Harry Thomas Jr., and Marion Barry.
During debates, Biddle has sidestepped questions about past endorsements from the ethically challenged. "Last year, I was supported by a number of elected officials," Biddle said. "This year, I am not... I have been running very hard..."
Whatever the political results in this primary, the grassroots activists seeking to ban corporate domination of city politics plan to be out in force at the city's polling places to gather signatures for Initiative 70. Sylvia Brown, the chairman of DC Public Trust says, "I believe that a ban on direct corporate contributions will be a big step toward getting rid of play to play politics and restoring public confidence in DC government."
Not surprisingly, neither Marion Barry nor Vincent Orange have embraced Initiative 70 to ban corporate donations. As Greater Greater Washington observed recently:
Most sitting councilmembers aren't supporting this ballot initiative. Their desperate excuse is that a ban on direct corporate funding of campaigns could push corporate dollars into the shady world of political action committees.
But the council has the authority to regulate those PACs, so that argument rings hollow.
Those councilmembers would actually have you believe that the current system of direct corporate contributions to campaigns is transparent by comparison. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Corporate contributors make a mockery of campaign finance rules by cloning themselves to circumvent contribution limits. Corporate donors bundle checks from each of their corporate subsidiaries, even if those subsidiaries do nothing but write checks to councilmembers.
Supporters of Initiative 70 hope that the signature drive on primary day, April 3, will be the opening round of the battle to end -- or at least limit -- corruption in Washington's local political scene.