Residents of the nation’s capital go to the polls today to choose between an ethics-plagued mayor or one of his challengers. Congress, which has oversight of the city’s budget and appropriates millions to the federal jurisdiction each year, doesn’t seem to care which side wins.
The indifference underscores the prevailing view on Capitol Hill: As long as things are running smoothly, congressional scrutiny is expected to remain lax, even if city lawmakers are embroiled in scandals.
“The operation of the government, rather than who’s the mayor, makes the bigger difference for Congress,” said James Jones, a spokesman for DC Vote, a group advocating for congressional voting rights for the city’s 646,000 residents. “They want to see things running efficiently.”
By many metrics, things are operating well under Mayor Vincent Gray. The city has a robust commercial and residential real estate market, falling crime rates and a budget that’s in the black.
“The city is booming and [Gray] can take some credit for it,” Mark Plotkin, a D.C. political analyst and activist told The Daily Beast. “If Gray weren’t in trouble, he wouldn’t even have serious opposition.”
His trouble, though, is pretty serious. Prosecutors last month said Gray, who’s seeking a second term, was aware of an illegal fundraising scheme that helped win the 2010 election. Gray has denied any wrongdoing and said he won’t step down even if he’s indicted. His biggest Democratic challenger, Councilmember Muriel Bowser, has drawn attention to the scandals in her campaign to unseat Gray.
In May 2012, two people involved with fundraising for Gray’s mayor campaign pleaded guilty to making illegal contributions and paying a separate candidate to publicly disparage the incumbent mayor. Separately, several members of the D.C. City Council have resigned since Gray took office, contributing to what many view as a culture of corruption in city politics.
While ethics scandals in the Air Force and the Navy garner congressional scrutiny, corruption within the D.C. government hasn’t elicited much criticism from lawmakers.
The D.C. government receives about $670 million annually from the federal coffers, mainly for courts and the criminal justice system, with other funds going toward programs such as in-state tuition assistance for college students. Since the 1970s, the city has had some autonomy under what’s known as home rule, but Congress still has the power to review and reject legislation approved by D.C. lawmakers.
The mayoral primary functions as the de facto general election in heavily Democratic D.C. In 2012, President Obama captured 91.4 percent of the vote, with Hawaii a distant second at 70.6 percent. The mayor’s office has never been held by a Republican or Independent.
Former U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA) said that even with the recent scandals, Congress isn’t as critical of the city like it was in the 1980s and 1990s when Mayor Marion Barry was in charge. While in office, Barry was caught smoking crack cocaine during an FBI sting. After serving a prison term he was re-elected as mayor and now serves on the D.C. City Council.
“The city is still pretty well-run,” Davis said in an interview with Politico. “It is a far cry from the basket case it was 20 years ago. [Gray] got caught up in a scandal of how he got elected, but it hasn’t really impacted the government. By itself, that hasn’t brought the city down in the eyes of Congress.”
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