Divided D.C. Council takes aim at Mayor Bowser’s super PAC

Divided D.C. Council takes aim at Mayor Bowser’s super PAC

By Aaron C. Davis, Washington Post, October 20 at 8:53 PM

A majority of the D.C. Council on Tuesday signed on to legislation that would rein in a political action committee run by allies of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser.

Council members said a flood of more than $300,000 in contributions to the group in recent months, mostly by businesses seeking contracts with the city, threatened to corrupt a District government still reeling from an ongoing federal investigation into the last mayoral administration.

“Just what are we becoming here, Tammany Hall?” asked D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who introduced the measure with David A. Grosso (I-At Large).

The legislation would close a loophole in city election law that allows a PAC to accept contributions of unlimited size during years in which the group is not actively working to elect a candidate. Ben Soto, treasurer of the pro-Bowser PAC and the mayor’s former campaign treasurer, told The Washington Post last week that he was beginning a fundraising drive to fill the PAC’s bank account with $1 million by the end of the year.

The money is already rolling in through contributions of up to 10 times the legal limit for a mayoral campaign. It would be used by the PAC next year to help reelect allies or unseat council members who do not see eye-to-eye with Bowser, Soto said.

On Tuesday, he pushed back against Cheh’s description of the PAC as anything like Tammany Hall, the notorious political machine that operated in New York City during the 19th and 20th centuries.

“I have a hard time with that when we are completely in compliance with the campaign finance regulations that she signed off on,” he said. “We consider ourselves smart and innovative and doing everything we can to support the mayor.”

Grosso was the only council member up for reelection next year who publicly supported the bill. The other six members who signed on as co-sponsors do not face reelection until 2018.

But Grosso occupies one of the council’s citywide seats that is reserved for non-Democrats, giving him some insulation from PAC spending in the heavily Democratic city. Grosso said he is still concerned that the mayor’s allies could use the money to fund a challenger but said he could not let the unlimited contributions continue.

“Unlimited donations undermine the voice for the people,” Grosso said. Limits “keep elected officials accountable to every individual and not just big donors.”

Whether his legislation could actually stop the pro-Bowser PAC remains unclear.

With only a narrow majority of the council in support, Grosso acknowledged that he and his allies could not pass emergency legislation to halt the fundraising drive of Bowser allies before the end of the year.

And if the council does pass the legislation, it is not clear its backers could override a mayoral veto.

Even if the restrictions were to become law, it is also far from certain that they would survive legal challenges in the wake of U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have protected the right of corporations to make unlimited political contributions.

The legislation could also draw a wide range of opponents, ensnaring District political parties, labor unions and dozens of others who operate PACs to further their members’ causes, lawmakers and experts in election law said.

But Cheh said the damage from the pro-Bowser PAC necessitated council action.

The PAC, which supporters dubbed FreshPAC after Bowser’s campaign slogan of a “fresh start,” “is basically a kind of shakedown of those who are doing business or who want to do business in the District of Columbia,” said Cheh, a professor of constitutional law.

Cheh said the PAC risked tipping the city’s balance of power by intimidating council members to rubber stamp the mayor’s requests.

“The mayor’s supporters unabashedly say, unabashedly admit that they are going to use this tainted money to try to control the votes of the council,” she said.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and council member Anita Bonds (At Large), head of the D.C. Democratic Party, signed on in support of the legislation. Three of five new council members elected last year also publicly backed the measure: Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) and Charles Allen (D-Ward 6). Silverman and Allen shunned corporate contributions during their campaigns.

Council members Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large), Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) and Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) did not support the measure. All face reelection next year.

Council members Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4), Bowser’s former campaign finance director, and LaRuby May (D-Ward 8), a Bowser campaign organizer east of the Anacostia River, also did not publicly support the measure. They, too, face election next year for full, four-year terms.

Bowser was returning from a conference in London on Tuesday and was unavailable for comment. In a statement, Bowser spokesman Michael Czin said: “We have not reviewed the legislation that would change the rules for PACs — and presumably state parties — for the first time in years. However, we have and will always abide by the rules.”

The legislation now goes before Judiciary Committee Chairman Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5). McDuffie helped craft a rewrite of the city’s campaign finance regulations two years ago and left the long-standing allowance for unlimited fundraising in place for non-election years. The limit in election years is $5,000.

City attorneys at the time said they were concerned that eliminating the provision could draw court challenges.

McDuffie promised Grosso and Cheh that he would take up the legislation, the supporters said. But in a statement, he tried to strike a balance between the issues.

“While I recognize the potential for abuse of PACs, any further restrictions to PAC contributions must not run afoul of the decision in Citizens United and its progeny,” he said, referring to the 2010 Supreme Court case.

Health-care companies, developers, and a core group of supporters of Bowser and her mentor, former Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, have pumped more than $300,000 into the PAC since it was launched in April, according to disclosures made last week.

Three Bowser appointees to powerful boards and commissions have contributed $10,000 apiece. A fourth has given $2,500, and a fifth is the PAC’s attorney.

Soto said the PAC would follow whatever the law states. If the council enacts restrictions and the courts uphold it, “we’ll abide by that,” he said. “We want to bring prosperity to all eight wards of the city — that’s our goal.”

Aaron Davis covers D.C. government and politics for The Post and wants to hear your story about how D.C. works — or how it doesn’t.


Do Bike Helmet Laws Do More Harm Than Good?

Do Bike Helmet Laws Do More Harm Than Good?

Some cycling advocates argue that helmet regulations can create long-term health problems


Rachel Bachman, Wall Street Journal

Oct. 12, 2015 11:13 a.m. ET


Helmets help prevent head injuries, so laws requiring cyclists to wear them would seem obvious.

But many cycling advocates have taken a surprising position: They are pushing back against mandatory bike-helmet laws in the U.S. and elsewhere. They say mandatory helmet laws, particularly for adults, make cycling less convenient and seem less safe, thus hindering the larger public-health gains of more people riding bikes.

All-ages helmet laws might actually make cycling more dangerous, some cyclists say, by decreasing ridership. Research shows that the more cyclists there are on the road, the fewer crashes there are. Academics theorize that as drivers become used to seeing bikes on a street, they watch more closely for them.


Cycling advocates say bike shares, such as New York’s Citi Bike, are safer than other types of riding because the bikes are slower and often used in bike lanes and areas with other cyclists. Photo: Allison Scott/The Wall Street Journal

Cycling advocates are quick to say they’re not anti-helmet. Instead, they’re opposed to helmet laws and their unintended consequences—especially amid the rise of bike-share programs.

“I wear a helmet every day. Everyone in our office wears a helmet every day,” says Colin Browne, communications coordinator for the Washington (D.C.) Area Bicyclist Association. “But as public policy, it’s not a good idea. It just limits the ease and accessibility of bicycling.”


WABA argued that a mandatory, all-ages helmet law proposed in Maryland a few years ago would do more harm than good. The group cited a paper in the British Medical Journal that showed no noticeable drop in head injuries after enforcement of helmet laws in parts of Australia, Canada and New Zealand, but drops in cycling of between 20% and 44%. The study focused on the years leading up to and after the laws were passed. The Maryland bill died in committee.

California cyclists made similar arguments when pushing back against a proposed all-ages helmet law earlier this year. The helmet requirement never came up for a vote, and the bill was amended to focus on injury research.


Seattle’s Pronto Cycle Share is a year old. County law requires cyclists of all ages to wear helmets, which bike-share officials acknowledge could have deterred some riders. Photo: Pronto Cycle Share

Mandatory bike-helmet bills also have stalled or failed in Hawaii, New Jersey and Mississippi in recent years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Dallas changed its helmet law in 2014 to exempt adults before a local bike-share program’s launch.

Some cyclists and academics say helmet laws discourage a convenient form of exercise in an era of inactivity. Sedentary lifestyles can have quieter but wider long-term effects than bike crashes, such as billions of dollars in health-care costs for chronic conditions, they say.

Piet de Jong, a professor in the department of applied finance and actuarial studies at Sydney’s Macquarie University, actually calculated the trade-off of mandatory helmet laws. In a 2012 paper in the journal Risk Analysis, he weighed the reduction of head injuries against increased morbidity due to foregone exercise from reduced cycling.

Dr. de Jong concluded that mandatory bike-helmet laws “have a net negative health impact.” That is in part because many people cycle to work or for errands, experts say. People tend to replace that type of cycling not with another physical activity such as a trip to the gym, but with a ride in a car.


Helmet-law proponents say the possibility of fewer people riding is worth preventing debilitating or deadly injuries. Statistics vary, but several studies show that wearing a helmet reduces the risk of head or brain injury by about two-thirds or more. An analysis in the Journal of Pediatrics of a decade of data concluded that bicycle-related death rates were about 20% lower among children in states with helmet laws.

The helmet-law debate is complex enough that the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, which grew out of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association four decades ago and is still a part of it, disagrees with WABA’s stance on helmet laws. The institute supports the laws.

“They do, in fact, increase helmet use and increase the awareness that you should be thinking about a helmet before you get on a bicycle,” institute director Randy Swart says.

In total, 21 states and Washington, D.C., require bike-helmet use by young people—typically under age 16. About 50 cities or counties in the U.S. mandate bike-helmet use for all ages, according to the BHSI.


Seattle’s Pronto Cycle Share has helmets at every station for checkout by annual members or $2 rental by short-term users. Few other bike-share programs rent helmets. Photo: Pronto Cycle Share

Cyclists make up less than 1% of U.S. commuters, but their ranks have surged in recent years. The dozens of bike-share programs now operating in U.S. cities have spurred more commuters and tourists to ride. The services let people rent bikes stationed in central locations for short trips.

“It is a burden on customers to have to bring their own helmet,” said Paul DeMaio, a former board member of the North American Bike Share Association, emphasizing that he was expressing his own opinion. “Bike sharing actually is a very safe mode of transport.”

Bike-share riders in the U.S. generally wear helmets at lower rates than other cyclists, research shows. Still, program advocates say bike-share travel is safer than other cycling because the bikes are heavier and slower and often are used in areas with relatively more cyclists.

In recent data from 10 bike-share cities in North America and London, 200 crashes have been reported out of more than 14 million trips, according to the North American Bikeshare Association. New York’s Citi Bike, with 7,400 bikes and more than 22 million trips since its 2013 launch, has had no reported deaths.


Denver’s bike-share program launched in 2010. The area has no bike-helmet law, but many people wear helmets anyway. In this 2014 photo, U.S. Olympic freestyle skier Bobby Brown was photographed taking a promotional ride for charity. Photo: Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

Advocates point to statistics showing that in cities where more people bike as part of their commute—a common use of bike shares—cyclist fatality rates tend to be lower. Drivers are more likely to operate more slowly and carefully where they know bikers are common, advocates say.

A 2014 study in the American Journal of Public Health analyzed five bike-share cities. Data from the study showed a 28% decrease in overall bike-related injuries and a 14% decrease in bike-related head injuries in the year after bike-share programs launched. The study didn’t track helmet use, which injuries were incurred on bike-share bikes versus other bikes or overall ridership changes.

The figure from the study that made headlines wasn’t the injury decrease, but the fact that the share of total injuries that were head injuries increased to 50% from 42%. A contentious Internet debate ensued on bike safety and helmet laws.

Some Australians have pushed back against that nation’s decades-old, all-ages bike-helmet laws, arguing that they’re hurting a nation with rapidly growing obesity levels. Observers in Melbourne stationed at the same 64 locations and observation times before and after the 1990 enactment of a state law found a higher rate of helmet use—but also 29% fewer adults and 42% fewer children bicycling at all.

In the U.S., the Seattle area’s King County is among the most populous places affected by an all-ages bike-helmet law. Seattle’s year-old bike-share program, Pronto Cycle Share, has helmets at every station for checkout by annual members or $2 rental by short-term users.


Boston’s bike-share program launched in 2011. Some cycling advocates say riding on bike-share bikes, which are slower and often have automatic lights, are safer than other types of riding. Photo: Wendy Maeda/Getty Images

Pronto has averaged about 24 trips per bike each month in Seattle. That is fewer than the 27 trips per bike each month in the first year of Denver’s B-cycle bike share, which also had 50 stations and 500 bikes, adjusting for Denver’s fewer operating months.

Seattle’s usage rate was significantly lower than the rates in the first years of bike shares in the San Francisco Bay Area (37 trips per bike a month) and Washington, D.C. (76 trips per bike a month).

Holly Houser, Pronto’s departing executive director, acknowledged that the helmet law “can be a deterrent, because there is a perception that if you have to wear a helmet to ride a bike, then biking is dangerous.”

But Seattle’s steep hills and patchwork bike infrastructure are stronger factors than the helmet law in putting off casual riders, she says. “You combine the topography with a lack of protected bike lanes, and helmets become that much more important,” Ms. Houser says.

One way to make cycling safer, many advocates say, is to create more bike-specific lanes and pathways—to decrease the chance of crashes in the first place.

Write to Rachel Bachman at rachel.bachman

Former D.C. mayor Vincent C. Gray eyeing comeback, associates say


Former D.C. mayor Vincent C. Gray eyeing comeback, associates say

By Paul Schwartzman, Washington Post, October 2

A year after voters rejected his reelection bid, former mayor Vincent C. Gray is considering mounting a campaign for the D.C. Council, according to four people familiar with his thinking.

Gray, whose 2010 mayoral campaign has been the subject of a long-standing federal investigation, is eyeing two potential races next year: the at-large seat occupied by Vincent B. Orange (D) and the Ward 7 seat held by Yvette M. Alexander (D), according to the associates, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak freely about the matter.

Gray, 72, who resides in Ward 7, declined to comment when asked about returning to the city’s political arena 18 months after Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) defeated him in the Democratic primary.

However, an associate who has talked with the former mayor about the races said Gray has been buoyed by expressions of encouragement from people he meets in his daily travels. The associate described Gray (D) as having grown more serious about the possibility of running, and this person is also confident that the former mayor could raise enough money to mount a formidable campaign.

Prior to his election as mayor, Gray served as Ward 7’s representative on the council and then was elected chairman.

“This is the real deal,” the associate said. “The moment he announces, he will not have a single worry when it comes to fundraising.”

At the same time, a person familiar with Gray’s thinking said that the former mayor’s conversations about a possible campaign are informal at this stage and that he remains undecided about returning to public life. Gray, the person said, misses government work and has been flattered by supporters’ encouragement.

painfully slow corruption probe of Vincent Gray

Nominating petitions are set to be available in January, and the city’s Democratic primary is scheduled for June 14.

As a candidate, Gray probably would face questions about the unresolved federal investigation into the 2010 campaign, in which he defeated then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty.

Soon after Gray took office, investigators began looking into whether he had orchestrated a scheme to illegally funnel more than $660,000 into his reelection bid. While Gray has never been charged and has denied wrongdoing, a half-dozen of his associates have pleaded guilty to an array of charges.

When he ran for reelection, Gray for several months led a field of Democratic candidates, including Bowser, vying to unseat him. But Bowser defeated him by more than 10,000 votes after then-U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. announced a few weeks before the Democratic primary that a business executive had implicated Gray in the creation of an illegal “shadow” campaign.

Machen resigned as U.S. attorney in April, though the probe into Gray’s 2010 campaign remains unresolved. Gray departed from office thinking he would have won reelection had it not been for the investigation, a sentiment shared by many of his most ardent supporters, some of whom hope he returns to politics.

“He needs to come back into the politics in the city,” said Barbara Morgan, a longtime activist in Ward 7. “Vince is a good person. The city persecuted Vince Gray, and the city owes him another chance.”

But the ongoing investigation is likely to remain an issue for voters who hesitated to support Gray during the mayoral race.

Barbara Savage, another Ward 7 activist, is a former Gray supporter who did not back his reelection campaign, in part because of the investigation. At this point, Savage said she does not know whether she could support him if he ran for the council.

“I don’t want to jump out there, and then I’m disappointed because the U.S. attorney drops a bombshell,” she said. Referring to the prosecutors, she also said: “I don’t think they have anything. I don’t think it’s fair to him. I don’t think it’s fair to people like myself.”

A person familiar with the Gray’s thinking said that his decision about a campaign is not dependent on prosecutors resolving their investigation. Gray ran for reelection as mayor under the same cloud.

If he runs for the Ward 7 seat, a district that encompasses neighborhoods including Deanwood and Hillcrest east of the Anacostia River, Gray probably would face Alexander, an incumbent whom he endorsed when she ran. Asked about a potential Gray challenge, Alexander said the field of candidates remains in flux and she is unsure who is running.

Gray won nearly 60 percent of the Ward 7 vote in the 2014 Democratic primary. In 2010, against Fenty, Gray won 82 percent of the vote in Ward 7.

As an at-large candidate, Gray would run citywide.

A onetime member of Gray’s cabinet, who has been in his presence at public events, said the former mayor has appeared to grow more interested in seeking office as the months have passed and as people have encouraged him to run. “At first he was ­non-responsive,” the former aide said. “And then he started saying he would consider it. It wasn’t like he was being polite. If he wasn’t going to do it, he’d tell you. He’s pretty direct that way.”

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