Sherwood's Notebook: Excess Baggage

Mayor Muriel Bowser is in China on an official trade mission until Saturday.

Given the enormous international investment in the city, it’s a smart trip to take. China has investment dollars, and the District is one of the hottest real estate markets in the nation, if not the world.

The mayor’s office noted in a release Monday that Mayor Bowser had met with Beijing Mayor Wang Anshun to discuss development opportunities and closer ties. The elaborate arch in Chinatown was the result of a China trip that former Mayor Marion Barry took many years ago.

Mayor Bowser has made clear she will make economic development — in all eight wards — a priority of her administration. The mayor is right to spread the word that the District is open for business.

But more than a few people — including some of her close supporters — worry Bowser has taken on some excess baggage that may weigh down her whole administration and her reputation as a fresh voice in the mayor’s office.

The China trip shows how the recently disclosed FreshPAC supporting the mayor already is affecting coverage of her activities. Some of the delegation members with her in China are private developers who have paid large sums into FreshPAC.

Even though its organizers told The Washington Post’s editorial board and WAMU 88.5’s Patrick Madden late Tuesday that FreshPAC was being disbanded because it had become “too much of a distraction for the mayor,” some of the questions may loom.

FreshPAC is the independent political action committee created by Bowser’s political allies. Though legal, it’s caused a lot of criticism among both Bowser’s critics and, more importantly, some of her strongest supporters like the editorial page of The Washington Post. The Post twice called on her to shut it down.

Whether FreshPAC was a mistake or not, the risk was that virtually everything Bowser did in the lucrative economic development field would be seen through the prism of the committee.

“I think the whole issue of FreshPAC relates to the question of pay-to-play politics,” said independent D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine, speaking to NBC4 last week. “I think it’s clear that D.C. residents don’t even want to have the appearance of pay-to-play.’’

On the WAMU Politics Hour Friday, he was more blunt, calling it “the return of flagrant pay-to-play politics in the District of Columbia” and saying people “want that day to be past.”

Prior to Tuesday’s reports, the mayor had been vigorously pushing back. She says she has never done anything unethical and never will. She has privately dismissed Racine’s criticism as that of a potential political opponent.

However, as the FreshPAC story continued to unfold, the entanglements were building barnacles.
Madden reported that City Administrator Rashad Young bought his home from Ben Soto, the head of FreshPAC, and that EagleBank, where Soto is on the board of directors, wrote two mortgages for Young’s purchase. Young told WAMU that the city’s ethics board approved the arrangement but cautioned him to distance himself from Soto’s extensive business interests.

So already, Young, the widely respected city administrator who touches all aspects of official city business, was hemmed in by FreshPAC.

Other appointees of the mayor aggressively sought donations for FreshPAC. When and how they raised the money — and what they said in aggressively soliciting it — remain questions.

Another example is the pending Pepco-Exelon merger. It is one the most high-stakes issues facing the city right now. But Pepco, Exelon and FreshPAC itself all have declined to say whether

FreshPAC asked the utility giants for contributions while the mayor’s administration was negotiating the recently revised deal that allowed her to support the merger. Pepco and Exelon, sources say, properly refused to donate to FreshPAC during this time, but the circumstances of the alleged ask haven’t been disclosed.

Racine said he sees this as a reasonable line of inquiry. “I can certainly understand that question and I do think the public has the right to understand whether such a request was made,” he said on the Politics Hour. “And this is what causes the problem with pay-to-play politics.”

Again, the mayor told NBC4 she is unaware of any FreshPAC dealings with Pepco or Exelon — if any — and she defended her personal integrity and said she wouldn’t do anything to undermine that.

But as The Post’s Colby King recently suggested in an opinion column, the real question may be: What is being done in her name by her associates?

■ Know your history this week. The 42nd annual Conference on D.C. Historical Studies begins Thursday and runs for four days.

The opening lecture by Pulitzer-winning author and Columbia University professor Eric Foner will be at 6 p.m. Thursday at the National Archives. Other events will be at the Carnegie Library, 801 K St. NW.

The conference includes sessions on the roots of multicultural Washington, social upheavals following World War II, slavery and freedom, the rise of LGBT issues and the city’s music scene. Check out the website: (And thanks to Jane Freundel Levey for alerting us to the varied agenda.)

Tom Sherwood, a Southwest resident, is a political reporter for News 4.

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