07/04/2012 10:19 am ET Updated Sep 03, 2012

Last Chance for DC Citizens to Ban Corporate Donations, Fight Sleaze

This week marks the  last chance for citizens to put on the ballot in November a ban on the corporate donations that have helped make Washington, D.C. perhaps the most corrupt current city government in the country. (So many officials have faced criminal investigations or arrests, you need a scorecard to follow it all.) A remarkable, under-the-radar  grass-roots campaign led by the D.C. Committee for the Public Trust, joined by Public Citizen, the D.C. for Democracy progressive group and countless volunteers, is close to gathering the 23,000-plus signatures they'll need to ensure they'll get a slot on the ballot for Initiative 70 in November.

Opportunities to sign and volunteer end for this part of the campaign on Sunday: advocates have provided a list of ward organizers to contact, and events include this July 4th's parades in the Palisades neighborhood and on Capitol Hill near Eastern Market -- and petition-gathering near supermarkets and subway stops in the Petworth area of the city in Ward 4. This may seem like a hyper-local story, but it actually has broader national significance in the wake of the corruption of federal campaigns by Citizens United. Citizens in D.C. are just seeking to prevent the direct corporate donations to candidates that 30 other states now ban, but it's also a chance on a local level to for citizens to stand up to corporate power.

But so far, thanks to only glancing references to the Initiative 70 ballot campaign in the mainstream media, relatively few citizens are aware of it. Once they're told about it in the vigorous signature drives, however, they're eager to sign the petitions to put it on the ballot. One reason reformers see a ballot petition as necessary: Various good-government ethics proposals considered by the corruption-tainted city council have all, not surprisingly, been watered down or blocked in recent years.

In fact, not until political officials face criminal indictments and the prospect of prison time looms, do most of their colleagues bother to speak up. That was even the case when, as in the scandals of council member Harry Thomas, Jr., the crimes involved looting $300,000 aimed mostly for poor kids. Otherwise, it's business as usual in the D.C. government, where a "pay-for-play" culture dominates.

Indeed, it sometimes seems that political leaders throughout city government are in essence laughing at the electorate, confident that a passive public will  do nothing to prevent further corruption. So far, their calculation has worked: no meaningful ethics or campaign finance reform legislation has passed yet, despite rampant corruption. And, reformers argue, it won't pass this city council until the public has a chance to vote on such legislation in November -- and that won't happen unless enough valid signatures are gathered this week. The ban on direct corporate donations to candidates won't by itself end corruption, but it's seen by reformers as an important first step.

Still the question remains: what will the rest of the D.C. public do? Will they take back what's been called "Sleaze City" so the people can assert control again -- or continue to let corporate and campaign donors run the city so that, as federal investigators estimate, as much as $20 million annually is being stolen, misappropriated or wasted in crony contracts?

As local broadcaster Tom Sherwood put it in a Washington Post op-ed column recently, citing D.C. council members, the Mayor and political aides who've either pleaded guilty to crimes, been carted off to prison or face federal investigation:

Shoes are dropping pretty fast in these D.C. scandals.

Harry Thomas Jr. Felon.

Kwame Brown. Felon.

Two campaign aides to Mayor Vincent Gray. Felons.

Unfortunately for our city, what we have here is a centipede of corruption. There are more shoes to drop.

U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen Jr. says his primary goal is rooting out public corruption in the District. He says the Gray campaign "deceived" the voters. Machen is doing his job.

What now are the citizens to do?

What will our politicians still in office do?...

He later reported the issues at stake in a broadcast piece: "Deadline Looms for Citizens Hoping to Ban Corporate Donations."

Mayor Vincent Gray, facing a criminal investigation into his campaign's handling of funds  -- to which some aides have already pleaded guilty -- is now offering his own weak approach to campaign finance reform, designed to blunt the Initiative 70 campaign. One Gray official derided the donation ban as a "meat-ax." A leader of the campaign, as reported by the DCist blog, responded:

But for Bryan Weaver, one of the initiative's proponents, a meat ax is exactly what's needed to clean up D.C. politics. "Until we pushed this with our 'meat ax' agenda, this hasn't been a priority for the council or the mayor's office," he said. "Until we really started doing this initiative process, until we put this on the front-burner... it was never really talked about."

With only a few days left to get the initiative on the ballot, it's still an open question whether enough citizens will volunteer and sign up to make city officials pay attention. So far about 21,000 of 23,000 have been obtained, but a larger margin, of at least 30,000 signatures, is needed to ensure that all signature are considered valid by the city's election board, which has to receive them by next Monday, July 9th.

As the campaigns leaders, Sylvia Brown and Bryan Weaver, recently declared: "It's time to break the cycle [of corruption], and it's up to us to do it. Our D.C. Council members have already proved they have no stomach for fixing a broken campaign finance system that works so well for them."
Pushing towards getting enough signatures this weekend, they also argued, "That's why residents across the District have come together to ban direct corporate donations through a ballot initiative that we hope will be approved in the November 6 general election."

UPDATE: After July 4th, this week's petition gathering and signing, opportunities for D.C. residents can be found at these locations:

Day   Time   Location

Tuesday 5-7 Rush Hour (Petworth Metro/Safeway) Wednesday 4-9 Old Soldier's Home Thursday 5-7 Rush Hour (Petworth Metro/Safeway) Thursday 5-7 Rush Hour (Petworth Metro/Safeway); Petworth Market Friday 4-8 Petworth Farmer's Market Saturday 12-6 Pools (Takoma/Upshur); Safeway Sunday 12-4 Pools (Takoma/Upshur); Safeway; Takoma Market