Super PACs invest in D.C. Council race

Outside support not enough to propel Republican Patrick Mara to office

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It's tough to be a Republican in the District of Columbia, even when armed with a sizable campaign war chest and auxiliary support from super PACs during a low-turnout special election.

Despite his own fundraising prowess and support from two independent political action committees, Republican Patrick Mara failed to oust incumbent Democrat Anita Bonds in today's at-large D.C. Council race.

With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Mara ranked third in the race behind Bonds and Democratic challenger Elissa Silverman. Bonds carried 32.2 percent of the vote, while Silverman won 27.6 percent and Mara earned 22.8 percent.

Mara — a former lobbyist whom the Washington Post, D.C. Chamber of Commerce and Sierra Club's D.C. chapter all endorsed — was the election season's sole beneficiary of super PAC cash, indicating that these committees best known for raising and spending massive amounts of cash at the federal level aren't above local races.

D.C. Office of Campaign Finance spokesman Wesley Williams told the Center for Public Integrity that there are just two independent expenditure-only committees registered with the city government. Both were active on Mara's behalf.

The National Association of Realtors' super PAC spent $20,200 touting Mara, city records indicate. And a super PAC called the D.C. Action Fund spent more than $13,500.

The D.C. Action Fund is headed by Nicholas Jeffress, a former executive director of the District of Columbia Republican Committee. Brett McMahon, the president of the construction firm Miller & Long D.C., Inc., ranked as the group's top donor — giving $10,000 of the $35,000 it reported raising through mid-April. 

One mailer from the D.C. Action Fund praised Mara for his opposition to taxes and support for education reform. It also stated that Mara would "fix our broken campaign and election system," while his opponents "won't change anything" in a city that has been plagued by ethics scandals.

At the federal level, super PACs have proliferated in the wake of the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling, which overturned an existing ban on corporate spending for or against candidates. Super PACs may collect contributions of unlimited size from individuals, unions, corporations or other groups to produce political advertisements that are not coordinated with candidates.

Bonds' candidacy was endorsed by the D.C. Democratic Party, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees labor union and several local political heavyweights, including Marion Barry, the former D.C. mayor who now represents the 8th Ward in the southeastern portion of the nation's capital.

Silverman, a former journalist, was endorsed by the Washington City Paper and the popular Greater Greater Washington blog.

Both Bonds and Silverman were outraised by Mara, as well as Democrat Matthew Frumin, a lawyer and Advisory Neighborhood Commission representative.

Bonds collected about $137,000 in direct contributions during the campaign, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of campaign finance reports filed with the D.C. government. Mara raised about $151,000, and Frumin raised about $157,000 — more than any other candidate.

Silverman raised just shy of $90,000.

Today's contest was the result of a vacancy created when council member Phil Mendelson was elevated to the position of Council Chairman last year, after the resignation of Kwame Brown.

Last June, Brown pleaded guilty to a felony bank fraud charge. In 2011, he faced criticism after a request for a "fully loaded" black SUV — paid for with D.C. government funds at the time of a projected $400 million budget shortfall — came to light.

During the campaign, Frumin and Silverman both tried to cast themselves as reformers on campaign finance issues.

Mara, too, advocated for publicly financed city elections, banning outside employment for council members and eliminating constituent service funds, which he said have been abused as "unchecked slush funds."

However, Mara noted there were some campaign finance reforms that he couldn't support — such as barring government contractors and lobbyists from contributing.

"In light of Citizens United, no local or state system can completely eliminate the influence of corporate money," he said in response to one survey. "A discussion that does not include that reality is naive."