Nov 8, 2022 - News

D.C. biz community seeks influence through new spending

Illustration of Benjamin Franklin wearing a vote button.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

Washington’s business community is trying to win back influence at city hall through a new lobbying surge and political spending on Tuesday's key D.C. Council at-large contest.

Why it matters: At an increasingly left-leaning council, the city’s titans of industry fret their voice is nowhere to be found.

What’s happening: Two separate organizations that both carry the name Opportunity D.C. represent a big push from business leaders to regain political muscle.

One is a nonprofit whose donors are not publicly disclosed — also known as a dark money group. It funds a top lobbyist at the Wilson Building to represent the interests of developers, businesses, and employers.

The second group is an independent expenditure committee — a super PAC-like entity that can spend unlimited funds but can’t coordinate directly with candidates — formed last month. It has already spent nearly $181,000 to support Kenyan McDuffie in his bid to unseat progressive incumbent Elissa Silverman.

  • McDuffie, the Ward 5 council member, has a more business-friendly platform than Silverman, who through two terms on the council has helped shepherd worker-friendly legislation including paid leave.

Zoom in: Public records show that the dark money group was formed in Sept. 2020 and is on pace to spend about $270,000 since March 2021 on lobbyist Janene Jackson, a former Wilson Building official who works at Holland & Knight.

  • Jackson’s lobbying behind the scenes was instrumental in amending a law that enacted strict new rules around how employers can use non-competes, a win for the business community.

The chair of Opportunity D.C.’s board, Matthew Cutts, tells Axios that the group was hatched early on in the pandemic.

  • Cutts says that the board, which is not publicly disclosed, includes developer Jair Lynch, former D.C. deputy mayor and current Amazon official Brian Kenner, and Greater Washington Partnership CEO Kathy Hollinger. (The three did not return Axios' requests for comment.)

What they’re saying: “They’re sort of spending to fill in the void left by the politically inactive Chamber,” said D.C. Council chair Phil Mendelson, referring to the once powerful D.C. Chamber of Commerce.

Meanwhile, the Opportunity D.C. political committee has raised over $211,000, according to campaign finance records. The bulk of that money came from a handful of top donors, including Katherine Bradley of CityBridge and Tim O'Shaughnessy, CEO of Graham Holdings and the son-in-law of Don Graham.

  • That includes $62,750 from the nonprofit’s anonymous donors.

The committee’s chair, Antwanye Ford, said most of the money has been spent on mailers supporting McDuffie. Ford is CEO of IT company Enlightened Inc.

Reality check: The business community lost influence at the Wilson Building long ago.

Gregory McCarthy, SVP at the Washington Nationals, says industry leaders need a “positive” message for job growth, entrepreneurship, and boosting Black-owned businesses.

  • “They need to be for something,” he tells Axios.

The other side: Silverman is Opportunity D.C.’s top target, whether through the nonprofit’s lobbying efforts or the political committee’s spending.

  • “I meet with them every time they want to meet,” Silverman tells Axios. But “their one agenda is kicking me off the council.”

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