Campaign Financing Heats Up Tuesday’s At-Large Debate

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Capital Community News Managing Editor Andrew Lightman (far R) moderated the At-Large Forum at Riverside Baptist Church. E.O'Gorek/CCN

There were some explosive moments at Tuesday’s At-Large Candidate Forum, held at Riverside Baptist Church (699 Maine Ave. SE).

Seven of the eight candidates on the November ballot participated in the event, hosted by a coalition of community organizations. Candidates discussed public safety, education and how to increase housing stock. You can watch the full debate on the Hill Rag Facebook page.

But the most explosive discussion happened around development and campaign financing.

Developers and Housing

The topic was raised about halfway into the debate, in response to a question about how to ensure developers incorporate more affordable housing into large projects from start to finish, rather than merely a minimal amount as required by law.

Neighbors included the question, which referenced a development in planning for 9th and Maine Avenue SW, near to the debate site. The plans call for 500 units –only 19 percent of which will be affordable, despite a request for a zoning change to allow for the 100 percent increase in building density.

Republican candidate Guiseppe Niosi said that councilmembers must not be bullied, ensuring that negotiations for affordable housing must not conclude until all requirements are met. Meanwhile, Green Party candidate David Scwhwartzman said that a radical shift in how affordable housing is dealt with in DC, calling for DC to use taxpayer money to fund social housing and community land trusts to deliver affordable housing that costs no more than 30 percent of household income.

In her answer, Independent Councilmember Elissa Silverman said the Office of the Attorney General (AG) needs to empower Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs) which conduct much of the negotiations for big projects with developers. Marshall said the way the District affordability requirements are applied need to be re-examined, calling for a more affirmative process for changes to large development plans and the rezoning that sometimes is required.

Graham McLaughlin said that there was a way to balance needs. While additional affordable housing is needed in the District, developers shouldn’t have whatever they want, he said. McDuffie said it was important to ensure that developers build equitable across the city, possibly through zoning. He also said that affordable housing should be required in private developments as well as projects built on public land.

Speed Round: Raised Hand Means "YES". Click to Enlarge

“Developer-Occupied Territory”

But Schwartzman also called the Wilson Buillding “developer-occupied territory,” saying “the Zoning Board is really more or less the appartus of the Mayor and big developers.”

Silverman agreed, pointing to the campaign contributions made by developers to her opponents.  “There are two candidates here who if you look at their campaign finance filing… it’s developer after developer after developer,” Silverman said. “That is not my campaign finance filing. Do I have a few people in real estate who give to me? Yes,” she said. “You know, because I talk to them.”

Marshall said discussion of financing was “ridiculous,” characterizing the discussion as racially coded. “This notion that somebody would spend their career in public service and then be bought just because somebody gave $1,000 to their campaign is frankly ridiculous,” Marshall said.

But Fred Hill disagreed with Marshall, saying that developers have an edge with the District. “I don’t care what any of them said, I know for a fact they’ve got their pockets filled,” he said as McDuffie gestured in opposition. “There’s no way in the world you’re going to convince me that you would forget.”

Acknowledging that he was one of the two candidates being called out, McLaughlin invited an examination of who has the most donors in Wards 7 and 8. He said he took “umbridge” with messaging that he was bought and paid for by developers, listing the names of returning citizens who have donated to his campaign.

“One of the things that I’m trying to do is be uniting in this city, not dividing and partisan,” McLaughlin said, calling for unity to tackle problems rather than what he typified as unnecessary division.

But Silverman stood by her initial point. “I’ll just ask Southwest neighbors,” Silverman said to the audience. “Do you think there’s an even playing field with developers in this city? No. And I think it does matter who gets to you, and I think we shouldn’t turn this into something it’s not.” Pointing to McDuffie’s last filing, she said 80 percent of contributions received by McDuffie to that point were from developers.

“Who is he going to be listening to?” Silverman asked. “He’s talking about he’s councilmember for the entire city, but the campaign records don’t indicate that.”

McDuffie said discussion of financing was a distraction tactic only used when candidates could not invoke policy. “They want you to focus on campaign finance records,” McDuffie said. “But here’s the reality: focus on those records — but then focus on the record of delivering results at the Wilson Building,” McDuffie said.

“And what you’ll find is, who I listen to is you,” McDuffie added, going on to list the Child Wealth Building Act, the Near Act and the campaign finance reform as legislation he had authored. “When people start calling your name multiple times up here, perhaps I’m doing something right.”

Missing Incumbent

The lone Democratic candidate did not appear at the forum, and it did not pass without remark.  “It’s not a coincidence that one of our opponents has not shown up, considering what’s in the news,” Karim Marshall said. “It’s a failure of oversight.”

Marshall referenced reporting on a federal audit by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that pointed to systemic failures in the DC Housing Authority (DCHA) , including failures in maintenance, finding new tenants and financial management. Attorney General Karl Racine has recommended an agency overall. Bonds chairs the Committee of Housing and Executive Administration, which has oversight of DCHA.

The forum was hosted by The Capitol Hill Restoration Society, The Southwest Neighborhood Assembly, The Southwester & The Ward 6 Democrats, DC Statehood Green Party and Capital Community News (the Hill Rag).

You can watch the entire forum on the Hill Rag Facebook page.