Initiative 70 Seeks to Change Elections Playing Field

Barrington M.Salmon | 8/8/2012, 11:18 a.m.

Since the District of Columbia's elected officials seem unwilling or unable to curb what some residents regard as campaign contribution excesses, a group of concerned citizens has moved in that direction.

The D.C. Committee to Restore Public Trust gathered more than 30,000 signatures by canvassing neighborhoods and approaching voters at the polls.

And later this week, said Ward 1 resident and activist Bryan Weaver, the Board of Elections will rule on whether Initiative 70 will be allowed on the ballot in the November elections.

"This would put the District in line with the Congressional and federal levels," said Weaver during a recent interview. "There would be no direct contributions from a company. A CEO or executive could write a check but not a corporate citizen like Target or Giant Food."

Creation of the committee, which is comprised of residents from all eight wards, was prompted by a troubling increase in contributions from members of the real estate sector and developers with multiple subsidiaries and entities, Weaver explained.

"They were giving 10 times, 20 times what's legally allowed," he said. "We wanted to stop this but there wasn't a lot of support from [elected officials]. They take bundles [of cash] because it's easy."

Another concern, Weaver said, is that council members are accepting more money from corporations than ordinary citizens. If nothing else, he and other supporters of Initiative 70 said, the skewing of contributions in this manner gives the appearance of "pay for play" which benefits these corporations and few others.

Phil Pannell, the committee's Ward 8 coordinator, said while he doesn't view Initiative 70 as a panacea, he thinks it will help stem the flood of corporate contributions to local politicians and try to level the playing field in favor of District residents.

"I've always believed that local elections should not have the effect of direct corporate contributions, especially given this atmosphere," he said. "This seems to be the right thing at the right time."

Pannell, 62, said the initiative is a grassroots-driven effort to remove direct corporation contributions not just from candidates and elected officials, but also to constituent services funds, inaugural and transition funds and legal defense funds.

The issue of corporate contributions, bundling and related matters has been at the forefront of the public's attention since it became public that the U.S. Attorney's Office and federal investigators had opened an investigation trying to ascertain if Jeff Thompson, a major donor to D.C. political campaigns, violated local and federal finance campaign laws.

Following raids on his home and offices, Thompson, 57, stepped down as a partner from Thompson, Cobb, Bazilio and Associates [TCBA] and also relinquished his role as head of D.C. Chartered Health. Thompson had, in the past, raised and contributed considerable sums of money to Mayor Vincent C. Gray and former Mayors Anthony Williams and Adrian Fenty. He is purported to have given money to every member of the D.C. Council except Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6).

Thompson is a noted philanthropist who has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to many D.C.-based organizations, including the University of the District of Columbia and the National Council of Negro Women.