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Campaign Ethics For All

Written by Stefan Hankin, President, Lincoln Park Strategies

The DC Council has been working on ethics reform for a while now, and while most of us tend to envision past problems with former Mayors (or those running for Mayor) the problems in DC are not limited to the top of the ticket. In fact, all you need to do is look to the race in ANC2E05 for some good old-fashioned election hi-jinx and prime examples of the need for ethics reform. For those who are not familiar with where the ANC districts are (all 99% of us), this particular district is in Lower Georgetown. The Current Commissioner, Bill Starrels, has served as ANC Commissioner for 16 years and has never had an opponent. This year he does. A first time candidate, Lisa Palmer, is running against him. We all know that elected officials tend to be a little protective of their positions, but typically it’s not for an unpaid, grassroots advocacy position. However, that is not the case in Georgetown this year.

The incumbent Commissioner started by trying to throw his opponent off the ballot so he would not have to confront having an actual race in the first place. The DC Board of Elections summarily refuted these efforts and certified her as a qualified candidate. Then, according to The Georgetowner, his campaign treasurer sent intimidating letters to Palmer, asking her to drop out of the race. This week, this same treasurer moved to intimidating supporters of Palmer, even sending emails to the community about a long time ANC Commissioner, telling this Commissioner he should be ashamed of his adult daughter.

Alone, this would be unseemly enough, but now the Incumbent is under investigation by the Board of Elections’ Office of Campaign Finance for illegal campaign tactics and process. This past week, Pinstripes (the bowling alley/restaurant/bar) appears to have paid for the advertising and hosted a meet and greet community reception at their establishment on Wisconsin Avenue. This matter is also being reviewed by the Office of Campaign Finance as related to the receipt of an illegal contribution. But what is most egregious about this reception, is Commissioner Starels, who is the co-chair of the ANC committee which, alongside CAG, negotiated a settlement agreement related to Pinstripe's liquor license and potential neighborhood complaints on behalf of the neighborhood. And now, he appears to be a recipient of this restaurant’s generosity.

Whether the event was handled legally on paper is a minor point compared to the overall issue of how this looks - that an elected official in the district is being thrown a campaign related party by an establishment with this type of pre-existing relationship. At best this is just bad optics, at worst it is more of the pay to play politics so many residents in the District are looking to move past.

The efforts of the City Council are long over due when it comes to cleaning up our campaigns and elected officials, but we should not be fooled that this is only important for the Wilson Building. We must start by supporting candidates that understand they have a legal and ethical obligation to avoid such situations.