Case Highlights Need for Public Financing of Elections
U.S. PIRG & Public Citizen
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Top executives and their families at Fort Myer Construction – the D.C.-based construction company involved in a contracting controversy with Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office – have donated at least $130,000 to 18 candidates since 2011. They used contributions from 11 sources, according to research by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) and Public Citizen.
Fort Myer, with its affiliates, was the largest corporate contributor early in the 2016 primary – making 38 contributions at the maximum amount allowed, with donations totaling more than $20,000. Most of the contributions supported the election of Bowser’s Council allies. The controversial corporation is a major contractor with the District and has been a prominent donor in District elections, second only to Jeffrey Thompson in the amount given between 2005 and 2014, according to WAMU.
While Fort Myer pursued government contracts, campaign contributions to D.C. candidates came from the company’s corporate accounts, executives and their family members. Nearly 70 percent of the Fort Myer contributions came from checks written at the same address in McLean, Va., under the names of two Fort Myer executives and six family members. In almost all cases, each check was for the maximum amount a single corporation or individual can legally give.
The amount Fort Myer contributed is sizable; ward-level candidates in the 2014 elections spent less than $105,000 on average to win their primaries.
The data for the analysis was obtained from the District of Columbia Office of Campaign Finance and covers April 2011 through August 2016.
The analysis comes as red flags are raised about why officials in Bowser’s administration pressured the director of the Department of General Services (DGS) to fire two DGS employees shortly after they awarded a government contract to a Fort Myer competitor. The director refused and resigned on Aug. 12. On Aug. 15 the District placed the two DGS employees on administrative leave.
Fort Myer isn’t the only contractor conglomerate that spends big on District elections. In the midst of the 2016 Council primaries, Public Citizen reported that corporate interests in the real estate, construction, law and consulting sectors had provided more than half the total campaign funds raised. The majority of the funds supported incumbents.
The Fort Myer scandal, coupled with the domination of D.C. election funding by corporate interests, highlights the need for a small donor public matching program to amplify the voices of everyday District residents, Public Citizen and U.S. PIRG say
“The issue here isn’t any one particular contributor, candidate or headline-grabbing news story,” said Zach Weinstein, democracy advocate at U.S. PIRG. “The problem is that we have elections that allow wealthy donors and corporate interests to drown out the voices of everyone else, because they can donate far more than what everyday District residents can afford. We can turn that dynamic on its head by passing a fair elections law that would limit the influence of big donors and boost the influence of the little guy. If candidates could run for office without relying on profit-seeking groups, it would go a long way toward helping avoid the appearance of undue corporate influence in the District.”
Fair elections systems work in New York City, Connecticut and Maine by matching small contributions as low as a dollar with limited public funds for candidates who agree not to take large contributions. The D.C. Fair Elections Coalition, composed of more than 60 local groups, is working for passage of the Citizens Fair Election Act of 2015, a D.C. Fair Elections bill co-introduced by six members of the Council that would implement such a small donor matching system. A Washington City Paper poll found that 80 percent of District residents support such an approach. A recentresearch report by U.S. PIRG demonstrates how this measure would empower small donors to contribute 64 percent of D.C. election money – about the amount that corporations and donors who live outside the District currently contribute.
“If the Council passes D.C. Fair Elections, everyday District residents would have much more say in the decisions that affect their neighborhoods, housing and schools,” said Aquene Freechild, co-director of the Democracy Is For People campaign at Public Citizen. “Every day, people from the District with good ideas and good values could run and win without owing favors to corporate donors. It’s time for Mayor Bowser to stand up for Fair Elections in the District by supporting the Citizens Fair Election Act.”
Public Citizen serves as a people’s voice in the nation’s capital. Since our founding in 1971, we have delved into an array of areas, but our work on each issue shares an overarching goal: To ensure that all citizens are represented in the halls of power.
U.S. PIRG, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, is a consumer group that stands up to powerful interests whenever they threaten our health and safety, our financial security, or our right to fully participate in our democratic society.