The much-maligned political action committee -- a financial vehicle that allows corporate dollars and individual donations to flow to politicians and political campaigns -- remains a potent force in local District politics.
In 2011 and 2012, political action committees in the District reported raising about $1.5 million, primarily for local elections. Some of the PACs also support candidates in Virginia and Maryland, but many others restricted their activities to the local District campaigns and causes.
These privately financed committees spent more than $1.3 million in the past two years, according to a Washington Examiner analysis of data provided by the District's Office of Campaign Finance.
Those totals pale in comparison with the influence that PACs wield in national politics. Still, consider D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson: His 2012 campaign for council chairman reported receiving $31,750 in contributions from labor and business PACs, representing just less than 12 percent of the $264,943 he raised altogether.
Those donations come from a range of sources. His campaign received the maximum $1,500 from the Mid-Atlantic Community Fund. That PAC reported the largest totals for money raised and money spent, $266,650 and $201,071, respectively. Much of its funding comes from unions and groups that advocate for unions. It also donated to a number of other candidates, including council members Vincent Orange and Muriel Bowser and former Councilman Michael Brown.
"PACs seem to be a dirty word, but PACs are a creature of federal election law," Mendelson said. "They're set up to give political contributions."
Mendelson said the best way to improve campaigns is to improve transparency.
"I think we can improve disclosure. I'm very dissatisfied with how difficult it is for citizens and the media," he said, adding it should be easier to match donors and city contractors. "A candidate who can be bought is still for sale even if you ban corporate contributions or even all contributions."
Political action committees focused primarily on the District that raised more than $100,000 in the past two years included the Washington, DC Association of Realtors PAC, D.C. Legal, the D.C. Democratic State Committee, UFCW Local 400 ABC PAC, Mid-Atlantic Political Action Committee, Service Employees International Union and Md./D.C. State Council.