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A Revealing Look at DC Campaign Contributions

The Sunlight Foundation published a report that shows where city council candidates have been getting their dollars.

Anita Bonds is the paving and development candidate in next Tuesday’s city council election.

That’s the clear message from Sunlight Foundation’s report this week on campaign contributions for DC elections. There were many takeaways in the rich and revealing dive into campaign finance reports, but the big-dollar contributions to Bonds’s campaign stood out.

Sunlight’s analysis showed that Bonds has reported receiving funds from 24 corporations, far more than private-sector cash to campaigns of the other five candidates. A quick analysis of those corporations showed that most are local construction and development firms, largely located in Maryland and Virginia.

For example, Sunnybrook Properties, a landfill in Fort Washington, forked over $1,000. District-based Anchor Construction, which specializes in utilities, gave $1,000. Aggregate and Dirt Solutions, out of Capitol Heights, Maryland, came up with another $1,000.

The generosity from builders might not come as a shock, since Bonds works for the road builder Fort Myer Construction, which also dosed her up with $1,000. Bonds is a veteran of DC politics and is the temporary incumbent, thanks to a vote by the Democratic State Committee. She is seen by many as the frontrunner in Tuesday’s race to fill the at-large seat vacated when Phil Mendelson became council chair.

Developers and builders tend to bet on the probable winner. Some see it as savvy. Some call it the pay-to-play side of local politics.

By contrast, all of Elissa Silverman’s contributions came from individuals. Paul Zukerberg’s campaign is financed by individuals and his own pocket. Matthew Frumin drew from individuals with a tiny sliver of dough from corporations.*

Sunlight is known for examining funding data for federal issues. This week’s report is its “pilot” for delving into a local database.

“The District is the only mainland territory that doesn’t have a watchdog group examining its campaign finances,” says Liz Bartolomeo, Sunlight’s media director. “We figured we should pay attention to it. It’s our home city.”

Ryan Sibley, the report’s author, was not pleased with the raw data she unearthed from DC campaign finance reports. “It’s not really as good as it could be,” she says. “There’s a lot of missing information.”

The information it gleaned presents an interesting question. In the past two years, it reports, contributions have come from 47 states and amounted to 30 percent of funding for DC races.

Why, Sibley asks, would “contributors from as far away as California” put their cash into “races where the debate centers around issues such as parking restrictions, charters schools, and creating dog parks?”

My guess is that some of the donations come from transient DC residents, such as Hill staffers, who have maintained their home-state residence. And since we are the nation’s capital, local pols can appeal to national Democratic party operatives, who might be able to reach beyond the city lines for cash. Most of the money must come from corporations and developers based just over the line in Maryland and Virginia. Major corporations such as Lockheed do plenty of business for the District government and back candidates they believe can win and help.

Still, 30 percent is a big hunk of money.

Sunlight Foundation promises to keep digging into documents and publishing its results. Stay tuned.

*An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Perry Redd received more contributions from corporations than Patrick Mara. We apologize for any confusion.

  • Pete Perry is correct, and Harry Jaffe should correct the error. Redd has not taken corporate donations, and Mara has taken far more in corporate donations than Redd has in donations of all kinds put together.

  • peteperry

    False. Statehood Green Perry Redd is not taking any coporate donations. None. Look closer at the color coding on the Sunlight Foundation's report.

  • Tanya

    You're right—we've updated the article. Apologies for the error.

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