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Opinion | Elissa Silverman’s stumble opens door in D.C. Council at-large race

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“While the Councilmember is seeking Re-election in the November 8, 2022, General Election as an At-Large Member of the Council who is elected citywide, she chose to expend Fair Election Funds on a poll regarding a Ward Primary Election in which she was not a candidate,” wrote the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance on Oct. 27, concluding with this:

“Clearly, this was not an acceptable expenditure of campaign funds.”

The council member referenced, Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), disagrees with that finding. She wants the D.C. Board of Elections to reconsider the Campaign Finance Office’s order that she reimburse the city’s public financing program for two polls that cost taxpayers a combined $6,277.

Silverman, in my view, doesn’t have a leg to stand on.

The law is indeed clear: Funds from the D.C.’s Fair Elections Program can’t be used for “any purpose other than the furtherance of the participating candidate’s nomination or election.”

Through her polling of the Ward 3 primary, Silverman was trying to influence the outcome of a contest in which she was not competing. Her interest was to marshal information that could be used to help defeat a Ward 3 candidate, Eric Goulet, who was supported by an outside interest group, Democrats for Education Reform, not aligned with Silverman’s political interests. The District’s public campaign financing program cannot be exploited that way.

The Post’s View: Elissa Silverman’s unacceptable conduct was not some minor violation

The city’s Office of Campaign Finance, to its credit, performed as required by law.

That office was created in 1974 by the D.C. Campaign Finance Reform Act, which I had a hand in drafting, as a staff member with the Senate District of Columbia Committee.

The bill’s chief sponsor, Sen. Charles Mathias Jr. (R-Md.), recognized that the District’s election laws were dangerously weak when it came to regulating campaigns for the newly established offices of elected mayor and council members. That void had to be filled, and Mathias was first to act.

It should be noted that 1973’s Home Rule Act was created under the dark cloud of Watergate. The country was just beginning to digest reporting by The Post’s Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodwardon the hundreds of thousands of dollars in President Richard M. Nixon’s reelection contributions that had been set aside to pay for an extensive undercover campaign aimed at discrediting and disrupting Democratic presidential candidates and their campaigns.

The last thing District supporters in Congress wanted was to leave a path open for the newly elected local government to be rooted in political corruption. They produced a law to create an electoral process that would, in Mathias’s words, “generate confidence among District citizens in the integrity of the officials they select to govern them,” ensure “that qualified candidates will not find their access to the political arena seriously conditioned by their financial resources,” “create an electoral process which promotes broad and active participation in the political system,” and “remove a large part of the corrosive influence of big money and the abuses rooted in secrecy from the political campaigns and the new governing process.”

The overriding goal the D.C. Campaign Finance Reform Act was to ensure the integrity of the District’s electoral process.

“Not only must this new election system be fair, honest, and open,” Mathias said at a committee meeting, “but it must also be believed to be so.”

Silverman’s mode of operation to benefit her interest in the outcome of the Ward 3 primary campaign undercuts that purpose.

Congress declared “elective and public office … a public trust, and any effort to realize personal gain through official conduct … a violation of that trust,” in the campaign reform law. That ethical point seems lost on Silverman. And it outweighs, in my book, whatever points she has earned for vigorous oversight of the executive branch.

Silverman is running to keep her at-large council seat. Which candidate in the race benefits most from her self-inflicted wounding?

That’s for voters to decide on Election Day. But I take my hat off to Karim Marshall, an independent who is also contending for one of the two at-large seats at stake, for filing the complaint against Silverman that prompted the Campaign Finance Office’s investigation. Silverman denounced Marshall’s complaint as a “political stunt.” She’s wrong again.

His was an act of ethical leadership. Marshall’s judgment and knowledge of the law are exactly what’s needed on today’s D.C. Council. I wrote in a September column that Marshall was an independent candidate who brought not just new energy but genuine ideas and plans to the campaign and that he made a good case for a place at the legislative table.

If anything, thanks should go out to Silverman for affording Marshall the opportunity to demonstrate his respect for the public trust.

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