D.C. Attorney General candidate Edward “Smitty” Smith filed a campaign finance report on Oct. 10 showing that his campaign made 26 separate “contributions” of $15 and $35 to the Gertrude Stein Democratic club in September.
The Stein Club’s website says its general membership fee is $35 and its fee for “special” memberships for low-income people, students, and senior citizens is $15. Sources familiar with the club have said the payments the Smith campaign made to the club were for membership fees for the 26 people.
Smith captured 72 percent of the vote of the club membership to win the club’s endorsement on Oct. 6 at a club-sponsored forum. Four other candidates running against Smith for the attorney general’s post joined him at the forum in expressing strong support for LGBT rights.
Activists familiar with the Stein Club, the city’s largest LGBT political group, have said the club since its founding in the 1970s has welcomed and encouraged candidates seeking its endorsement to recruit supporters to join the club and vote at endorsement meetings.
But the Smith campaign’s decision to purchase 26 memberships and itemize the expenditure for those memberships on its official campaign finance report filed with the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance has raised eyebrows among some club members who backed other candidates, including backers of lesbian attorney Lateefah Williams, a former Stein Club president.
Williams received 16 votes compared to 82 votes cast for Smith in the first round of voting at the Stein Club forum. She said she had no immediate comment on the Smith campaign’s purchase of memberships for his supporters.
John Rodriquez, Smith’s campaign manager, also declined to comment when asked about the membership payments, saying the campaign might release a statement on the matter later in the week.
He said the Smith campaign was focusing on concerns by supporters that his main rival in the race, attorney Karl Racine, a partner in a large D.C. law firm, could be faced with a major conflict of interest if elected attorney general because many of his law firm’s large corporate clients have city contracts or do business with the city.
Racine has disputed Smith’s claims that he would be plagued with conflicts of interest due to his firm’s clients. Racine has said Smith was attempting to create a bogus issue to overshadow the fact that Smith has far less experience than Racine in engaging in litigation relevant to what the city’s next attorney general will face.
Stein Club President Angela Peoples didn’t respond to a call from the Washington Blade on Monday. Peoples and the club’s vice president for political and legislative affairs, Martin Garcia, didn’t respond to a separate Blade call and email on the day following the endorsement forum asking how many new members joined the club during the period prior to the Oct. 6 forum.
The club’s bylaws prohibit people from voting for an endorsement unless they are a member at least 30 days prior to the date of an endorsement vote.
Club member and veteran gay Democratic activist Earl Fowlkes, a member of the Democratic National Committee, told the Blade that recruitment of new Stein Club members and in some cases paying for the membership fee has been a routine part of campaign organizing in the city. He noted that paying for someone’s membership is permitted under the club’s bylaws and rules.
“Membership over the years always bloomed around the endorsement process,” Fowlkes said. “Knowing some of the leadership over the years I knew that was one thing that happened. And there was nothing unethical about it,” he said.
“We want more members, and the endorsement is one of those tools to bring new members in and to get more people involved with the organization – with the understanding that once they become a member they’ll see the benefits and continue to be a member,” he said.
In addition to Williams and Racine, Smith, a former partner in a prominent D.C. law firm, is running against attorneys Paul Zukerberg and Lorrie Masters. Racine and Masters are current partners in separate law firms considered prominent among the city’s legal establishment. Zukerberg is the chief partner in a smaller law firm he founded and has been an outspoken advocate for legalizing marijuana.
One longtime club member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Smith out organized his opponents by lining up the most new members and existing members to turn out for the endorsement forum, which was held at Smith Public Trust restaurant and tavern in the city’s Brookland section. Close to 200 people attended the event, one of the largest turnouts for a Stein Club endorsement meeting in recent years.
Nine independent candidates competing for two at-large D.C. Council seats in the November election also participated in the forum, addressing the membership and visitors after the attorney general candidates spoke.
Communications firm executive and veteran LGBT rights advocate Courtney Snowden won the club’s endorsement in that contest.
“I am proud that the Stein Club members voted to endorse two qualified candidates,” Peoples said in a statement released after the forum. “I encourage our members to engage in the election process to ensure that the best people are elected into D.C. leadership.”
In the same statement, Garcia said Stein Club endorsement forums play an important role in D.C. elections.
“The engagement tonight shows our community is paying attention and will turnout in this election,” Garcia said.