Spending more than half a million dollars on a few nights of partying might sound exorbitant to your average D.C. resident. But Mayor Muriel Bowser’s latest inauguration was downright cheap compared to its predecessors.
That’s not to say that Bowser skimped out on lavish inauguration celebrations of her Mayor-for-Life-rivaling third term in office. Her inaugural committee’s latest finance reports, released Tuesday, show that she spent roughly $533,000 on the whole affair, with about half of that devoted to catering alone. The refreshments must’ve been pretty good with a combined price tag of $265,000 across the weekend’s events, including a $16,700 bill at RPM Italian (one of Bowser’s favorites) and a cumulative $28,000 spent on food and drinks at the swanky new Pendry hotel at the Wharf.
All that spending looks more modest if you consider that Bowser raised just over a million bucks for her last inaugural bash in 2019 and spent most of it. Similarly, she took in more than $1.3 million for her first set of festivities in 2015 and used all but $109,000 or so. This time around, Bowser only took in about $560,000 through her “DC Proud 2023” committee. (Her totals could always increase as she releases final fundraising figures, but it’s safe to say she’s well below her prior efforts.)
In fact, you have to go back to 2007 and Bowser’s mentor, Adrian Fenty, for the last time a D.C. mayor devoted such a small sum to an inauguration, when he spent about $500,000 on his events. Vince Gray’s bills totaled close to $715,000, including nearly $127,000 spent on carpeting alone.
Don’t let the relatively modest celebrations fool you. Bowser’s three-day affair was still funded by some of the richest, most well-connected names in the District. Even with the newly imposed $4,000 cap on donations, she still managed to harvest her deep connections among the wealthy and powerful to score lots of checks. The total amount she raised may be smaller than past years (when contribution limits were once as high as $50,000 per check) but the sheer number of maximum donations shows she hasn’t lost the faith of the business class. In all, Bowser scored 126 of those $4,000 checks since launching her committee in November, with the vast majority of donors giving the maximum amount.
It’s hard to keep track of all the notable names who threw the mayor some cash, but Loose Lips can divide them, roughly, into a few broad categories.
Let’s start with the really big names, the ones who stand out more than most. Michael Bloomberg, Bowser’s pick for president back in the day, probably tops the list, though Fenty himself is plenty notable, at least locally. Washington Nationals owners Mark and Ted Lerner certainly qualify, too, though they only combined to give Bowser $5,000 (that sale of the baseball team hasn’t materialized yet, so they must be hard up for cash). Armstrong Williams, the media mogul, Ben Carson pal and would-be City Paper owner, rounds out this star-studded crew.
Then there are the usual suspects, the local business execs that seem to populate pretty much every D.C. campaign finance report (especially when the Green Team is involved). There’s Chico Horton, David Jannarone, Phinis Jones (who also gave through one of his holding companies), Emmanuel Bailey (who gave through his Veterans Service Corp., the controversial subcontractor operating the city’s sports betting program), and Rusty and Mimi Lindner. Current City Paper owner Mark Ein chipped in, too. And Bowser’s brother, Marvin, dropped his sister a $250 check.
Rest assured, there were lots of lobbyists as well. Ex-councilmember David Catania and his business partner, Ben Young, gave, of course, as did top Qatar lobbyist and nightclub king Vinoda Basnayake, longtime Bowser pal Max Brown, and ex-Kenyan McDuffie staffer Corey Griffin. Powerful firms like Holland and Knight and Nelson Mullins added their own checks.
Don’t forget the developers, long the most generous donors in all of D.C. politics as a way to win friends among the politicians that hand out lucrative deals. Executives at Gragg Cardona Partners sent Bowser a combined $16,000, while W.C. Smith wasn’t far behind with $14,000 and Donohoe added $12,000. Tim Chapman and his wife combined for $8,000, as did the Donatellis, the Alsups, the Weerses, and Zach and Ryan Wade of the well-connected firm MRP. Other big-name companies were represented at the $4,000 level like Urban Atlantic, Blue Skye Development, and Smoot Construction. Buwa Binitie, head of Dantes Partners and former chair of the D.C. Housing Finance Agency’s board, sent in $4,000 too.
Finally, there were good old-fashioned checks from big business. National firms including Amazon, Caesar’s, Comcast, Deloitte, FedEx, and Verizon all chipped in max checks either directly or through their political action committees, while more local concerns like Pepco, Washington Gas, American University, Georgetown University, MedStar Health, and Children’s National Hospital did the same.
LL has to confess to feeling no small amount of malaise in gazing at this lengthy list of names, considering that all the same donors were featured the last time an LL wrote a version of this article (and the time before that, and the time before that). Ethics reforms have limited the size of inaugural hauls, but getting around the $4,000 limit isn’t exactly hard—companies regularly make a habit of having several different executives all contribute to amplify the size of their donations, and some political power brokers will give money in their personal capacity, then also give through various LLCs that they control.
The concerns about allowing these types of donations in the first place have been well documented for years. As ethics expert Craig Holman put it four years ago, these donors aren’t “donating to improve the quality of our elections” since “they already found out who won.”
“Almost always they want something in return,” he observed. Pretty much all of the donors listed above either do business with the city or make their money lobbying District government, and this amounts to an easy chance to show their loyalty.
But hardly anyone pays much attention to this particular corner of the political influence game. If LL makes it to 2027, he’ll surely write pretty much the same article all over again. Time, as Rust Cohle reminds us, is a flat circle.
Source: Washington City Paper