Do D.C. Voters Care If Politicians Are Corrupt?

How much do D.C. voters really care about corruption?
Voters might not care if Vincent Gray is corrupt. Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

In 2010, when Vincent Gray unseated Adrian Fenty in Washington's mayoral race, there was fairly broad agreement that the central issue in the campaign was gentrification. The city's affluent newcomers were doing splendidly, buoyed by the hog-wild defense spending of the George W. Bush era and the hog-wild everything-else spending of the early Barack Obama years. The city's longtime residents -- poorer, and mostly black -- were suffering from terrible unemployment rates. The vote for the two candidates was split largely along racial and income lines.

Although this was the subtext of the election, the text of the campaign speeches and columns and Web comments often focused on other issues that were easier to speak about: "respect" for various communities and corruption allegations against Fenty, who had given a lucrative parks contract to some college friends. When folks pointed out that this explanation was hard to square with the city's embrace of considerably shadier politicians, they were accused of just not caring about corruption.

We may have an opportunity to test this thesis. Jeffrey Thompson, a local businessman, has pleaded guilty to illegally funding a "shadow campaign" to get Gray elected. And he says that Gray knew about it:

According to the plea deal, Thompson and Gray had at least two conversations specifically about the contractor's support. Three days before a deadline to report contributions, Gray urged Thompson to "accelerate his fundraising," the businessman told prosecutors. Thompson collected the checks, many of them donations from other individuals whom the businessman then illegally reimbursed.

Thompson said in court that Gray and most of the other candidates he supported knew about his unreported "shadow" campaigns.

At one point during the 2010 mayoral race, Thompson said, a Gray associate asked him for more than $400,000 to finance a plan to get voters to the polls on Election Day.

In response, Thompson said he insisted that Gray ask for the money himself. During a meeting at the apartment of a Gray associate, prosecutors said, Gray presented Thompson with his budget for the get-out-the-vote campaign and "expressed gratitude" for the assistance.

After the election, prosecutors said, Thompson gave a $10,000 check to Gray's "close family member" to settle debts with campaign workers. At Gray's request, Thompson also gave $10,000 to fund a unnamed union election campaign.

Later, after Gray was inaugurated, Thompson gave $40,000 to the mayor's "close personal friend" in part to finance home improvements, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Atkinson said.

It isn't clear to me how much this means, butit certainly doesn't look good. On the other hand, this is the word of just one man. So it remains to be seen whether prosecutors will be able to make a case against our mayor.

If they do, well, then, I think his administration has come to an end. But what if they don't? How much do D.C. voters really care about corruption? Gray is headed into the Democratic primary in three weeks -- which in the district basically is the mayoral election. So we're about to find out whether corruption drives voters as much as they say it does.

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