Vote-buying charges are the risk of a big-money campaign
There's one question that seems bound to consume the final days of the mayoral campaign: Is Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's campaign buying votes?
That has been the lightly-founded rumor among supporters of D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray dating back to a Ward 8 straw poll, back in May.
The allegations got a credibility boost last night from WJLA-TV's Sam Ford, who reported on two people who have come forward to say they were promised campaign jobs in exchange for Fenty votes. The jobs were not delivered.
The charges are serious. With people on the record, complete with names and some corroboration for their story, the Fenty campaign is faced with fighting a story that is difficult to disprove. Fenty sources say they have no record of the accusers getting a ride to the polls in a campaign van -- something that they say is thoroughly documented -- and that drivers are given strict instructions on what and what isn't appropriate. But elections officials confirm that at least one accuser did cast a ballot last week.
"We don't operate like that," said Fenty spokesman Sean Madigan. Meanwhile, the Gray camp is leveling accusations that vote-buying is "widespread."
This reporter has seen no evidence that there is any coordinated vote-buying or vote-trading operation inside the campaign, but the allegations illustrate the hazards of a fat campaign war chest in city politics.
The Fenty campaign has become a money-fed machine, feasting on the nearly $5 million in campaign contributions that have been collected for almost two years now. The money has gone to expensive campaign consultants and for high-dollar TV ads, sure, but Fenty has also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on canvassers -- the many, many boots on the ground in city neighborhoods. Without a rabid corps of volunteers to rely on as in 2006, he's had to pay to conduct his massive voter contact campaign, and word of that fact has gotten around: In a city with 10 percent unemployment, Fenty 2010 is hiring.
A campaign that's hiring canvassers or election day staff will be sure to get those workers to the polls, too -- along with a reminder of who exactly is responsible for your recent payday. That's not illegal. But all it takes is one off-message employee or volunteer to cross a line in his recruiting pitch.
And the more you have to hire your campaign workers, the more the expectation becomes that a vote should equal a paycheck. Pretty soon, folks start asking: They got paid, why not me? And maybe one of them who doesn't get a job drops a dime, rings up the local TV station.
It doesn't help that the Fenty GOTV operation has the air of a black-ops mission. Last Saturday, I attempted to interview three voters who were sitting in a Fenty van outside the Greater Southeast Tennis and Learning Center, an early-voting site. I began speaking to one person, munching on a bag lunch, when a driver came and shooed me off. "We're private," she told me.
Last night, I spoke to Fenty campaign organizer Ron Moten, who said he knew 19-year-old Rudolph Williams, one of the accusers. "He's from Sursum Corda; we've helped him out," he said, but he hadn't "come in contact with none of us from the campaign."
Moten says he was in the Fenty campaign office when Ford came in with Williams. "Young dude came up and said, 'I know him, he works for Peaceoholics,' " because everybody knows me. He said, 'I need a job, can you help me get a job?' "
September 9, 2010; 1:41 PM ET
Categories: Adrian Fenty , DCision 2010 , The District
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