Thies: Are Shadow Campaigns Stealing D.C. Elections?

There is an ongoing debate in District political circles: without the aid of an illegal shadow campaign, would Vince Gray have defeated Adrian Fenty in the 2010 mayoral election?

Gray won the contest by more than 13,000 votes, topping Fenty by ten percentage points.

No one will ever be certain if the outcome would have been different had the battle been waged on a level playing field.

But what if the results were closer? In that case, claims that the election was stolen might be credible.

The more we learn about the 2010 Gray shadow campaign, the more we know about a possible 2011 Vincent Orange shadow campaign.

Orange, who served on the D.C. Council from 1999-2007, mounted a comeback in 2011. He bested eight candidates in a special election to win an At-Large seat.

Orange’s margin of victory was 1,732 votes; a mere 3.9 percentage points.

Vernon Hawkins, who prosecutors have said tried to help cover up the Gray shadow campaign, was an unpaid advisor to Orange’s campaign (which, by the way, is the same role he played in the legitimate Gray 2010 campaign).

Hawkins pleaded guilty to a charge related to his role in the 2010 shadow campaign today.

Jeff Thompson, allegedly the source of money that funded the Gray shadow campaign, helped to finance Orange’s campaign.

Thompson has not been charged with any crimes.

A Washington Post story cites a source who says that Thompson “secretly paid for T-shirts, campaign signs and field workers” to assist the 2011 Orange campaign. The story said he also spent to boost the campaigns of six other District candidates.

The Washington City Paper has reported that Thompson associate Jeanne Clark Harris, who pleaded guilty to her role in the Gray shadow campaign, was spotted at Orange’s campaign headquarters on Georgia Avenue.

An Orange campaign staffer with whom I spoke told me that the campaign had two headquarters; one on South Dakota Avenue where he worked, and a second on Georgia Avenue from which operations he knew little about were conducted. The staffer, who has been interviewed by Federal investigators, told me that the Georgia Avenue HQ was not run in conjunction with normal, day-to-day activities of the campaign.

The parallels between the Gray shadow campaign and Orange’s 2011 campaign are too glaring to ignore.

Ronald Machen, the U.S. Attorney investigating and prosecuting political crooks in D.C., has said, “In 2010, the mayoral campaign was compromised by backroom deals, secret payments and a flood of unreported cash."

In a press statement, Machen said that the 2010 Gray shadow effort was “a conspiracy which for too long subverted our federal and local electoral system.”



No one can definitively prove that a shadow campaign altered the outcome of the 2010 election, but Machen comes close to saying as much.

Orange’s narrow 2011 victory came at the expense of two chief rivals, Patrick Mara and Sekou Biddle.

Whether or not Mara, Biddle and District voters were robbed is an unanswerable question.

Whether or not Thompson, Harris, Hawkins and others “compromised” and “subverted” the 2011 special election is a question that Machen may be able to answer with certainty. His office has subpoenaed Orange's campaign.

We know that key figures from the Gray shadow campaign can be associated with Orange’s comeback campaign. Orange has also stated that he received campaign contributions in the form of  “suspicious” money orders that appear to be linked to Thompson.

Hawkins and Harris have cut deals with prosecutors, presumably to lessen the consequences of their crimes in exchange for information leading to the conviction of other miscreants.

Machen’s statements are unambiguous; he does not tolerate criminals who seek to influence elections.

Prepare yourself, District voters, you may soon be treated to yet another special election.

Chuck Thies is a political, communications and advocacy consultant. From 1998 to 2010 his portfolio included District of Columbia politics. Chuck has worked on national projects and internationally in Europe, Africa, the Middle East , China and Mexico. If you are daring, follow him on twitter: @ChuckThies.

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