The DC Council recently passed the Fair Elections Act, which will make public financing available for candidates running for office. This policy has been implemented in many jurisdictions throughout the nation, and there is evidence that it expands the pool of candidates, which is a good thing. I congratulate the advocates who worked hard to get it passed.
Now it’s time for DC to take the next step by reforming our campaign finance and disclosure laws. Even after the Fair Elections Act has been implemented, DC law will continue to lag well behind what other progressive cities throughout the nation have already put in place.
My proposal is simple: DC must require mandatory public disclosure of all individual donors who serve as owners, executives, principals, directors, partners, board members or trustees of companies that have lobbied the DC Council or received public benefits. Public benefits would be defined as contracts, tax subsidies, or goods and services of substantial value provided by the city.
These types of disclosure laws have withstood First Amendment challenges in court. Judges have ruled that, even in an era where money is unfortunately protected as speech, it is in the public interest for voters to know who is electing – and influencing – our leaders.
For too long, DC politics have been flooded with shadowy business money. It influences our laws and shapes our skyline, so it’s time to shine some light on it. The current DC campaign finance laws cap business and individual contributions at $500, which has led to unintended consequences that undermine our democracy and need to be addressed. A candidate can only take $500 total from a business entity, and DC law considers all affiliated LLCs and subsidiaries as one entity. However, there is no limit on how many $500 contributions a candidate can take from the executives and leaders of those businesses. As a result, members of the DC Council take more money from owners and executives of businesses, as individuals, than they could have taken from the business itself, without having to disclose any of these business relationships to voters. This has made it extremely difficult to track which businesses are donating money through their owners and executive leadership, and has created a dynamic where people like Charles Allen, the Ward 6 incumbent, are able to take tens of thousands of dollars in donations from developer and business executives throughout the city, and tell voters they don’t take money from businesses. It was reported for the first time recently that at least 15 percent of Mr. Allen's donations come from real estate developers, even though for the past four years he has told voters he takes no business or developer money.
There are countless examples, but they are difficult for voters to locate. In 2014, Mr. Allen accepted a max contribution from the owner of PN Hoffman, a developer from McLean whose company secured approval to develop the Wharf shortly thereafter. In 2014 and 2018, Mr. Allen has received substantial and repeated campaign contributions from the executive team at Stanton, the developer that recently completed the Hine project in Eastern Market. Make no mistake, business executives are donating to Mr. Allen because they know their money will influence Council votes, dictate government priorities, secure taxpayer financing and lead to favorable zoning decisions. It should come as no surprise that Ward 6 is home to some of the most expensive new development in the city in recent years, most of which does not contain any truly affordable housing or provide any well-paying long-term jobs for members of our local community.
Some have proposed prohibiting companies that do business with the city from making campaign contributions. This sounds like good policy on its face, but doing so would further incentivize donations from individuals who are involved in the business. An example of this abuse would be a candidate who commits to not taking his or her $500 from the Trump Organization, but quietly takes money from Eric, Don Jr, Ivanka, Jared and Tiffany, for a total of $2,500, none of which would captured as a contribution from a business entity under current law. This is why the additional mandatory disclosure requirements I am proposing are absolutely necessary.
It’s simple: voters deserve easy access to information about any individual donor who is seeking to conduct meaningful business in their community, because these people wield as much influence on Councilmembers as their businesses, if not more so. Most of these people do not live in DC, so understanding who they are and why they might be donating is the least we should be doing if we truly care about reforming our campaign finance laws and returning influence to the people, where it belongs. We cannot by law prohibit donations from these individuals, but courts have held that we can require transparency by making disclosure of their donations and business relationships mandatory.
Absent some deterrent that would keep DC Councilmembers from taking tens of thousands of dollars from business owners and executives without paying a political price for doing so, our system encourages pay-for-play politics. Mandatory disclosure would not prohibit politicians from taking money from business interests, but it will give voters a fighting chance to understand who is trying to influence our elections, and decide whether they’re ok with it.
Increased transparency is in the best interest of our community and our government, so it’s time to elect leaders who will truly support reforms that get us there. Truly progressive cities have already implemented these disclosure requirements, so there is no reason for further delay in DC if our elected officials are truly interested in reforming our campaign finance laws so they work for the people of our city.