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The hottest City Council race money can buy

MY QUOTE of the week — I don’t usually name a quote of the week, but I’ll make an exception — is from Charles T. “Bud” Ferillo:

“We will not be outspent.”

Bud was speaking in his capacity as campaign consultant to Belinda Gergel, who is seeking the 3rd District Columbia City Council seat being vacated by Anne Sinclair. This will, by all accounts, be the most expensive City Council district race ever in Columbia, with most of it spent by Ms. Gergel and rival Brian Boyer. A third candidate, Reed Swearingen, is running a much lower-key campaign.

Mr. Boyer started running a TV ad Wednesday depicting photos of him as a Dreher High School athlete and Army officer serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. In all, he plans to spend $50,000 on television between now and the April 1 election, out of a total campaign budget of $130,000 to $140,000.

Belinda Gergel has raised $164,000, and had not intended to use any of it for TV, but that changed this past week — her own campaign commercial started airing early Friday morning. (You can see both ads, plus video from our endorsement interviews with the candidates, on my blog at

Where does all the money come from? Mr. Boyer’s is replete with the names of local builders and Realtors, including that of Don Tomlin — the candidate’s brother-in-law and president of the homebuilding company of which Mr. Boyer is a vice president. Other names include Kirkman Finlay III and Gayle Averyt, who have been allied with Mr. Tomlin.

Ms. Gergel’s rather longer list includes a lot of names long associated with local political activism, such as Joel Lourie, Ed Sellers, Bill Boyd, J. Lewis Cromer, Zoe Nettles, Barbara Moxon ... and Bud Ferillo.

Those lists play into the conventional wisdom that, despite City Council being nonpartisan, the two most visible candidates represent distinct, rival factions:

Mr. Boyer, a homebuilder, is seen as the “developer” candidate, representing the political faction led by Mr. Tomlin, who has also backed council members Tameika Devine, Kirkman Finlay III and Daniel Rickenmann. Ms. Gergel, as the past president of Historic Columbia Foundation, is perceived as the “preservationist” candidate, representing Mayor Bob Coble and other Democrats. (Never mind that Mr. Tomlin et al. supported Mr. Coble’s re-election in 2006; “conventional wisdom” overlooks such things.)

Ms. Gergel, the retired head of the history and political science departments at Columbia College, rejects that pigeonhole, stressing that “I believe in the nonpartisanship of this election.” And indeed, among her contributors are names such as Jack Van Loan, a Five Points business leader and confidante of John McCain.

“As far as this ‘camps’ thing,” Ms. Gergel says, “I don’t know where this is coming from, and I have no idea why someone would focus on what camp Belinda would be in. I am a strong, independent woman; that is what Columbia College did for me as a student, and what we worked on as faculty to encourage in our students. I have no permanent enemies and no personal friends on council....”

And as the daughter of a developer herself, she was not brought up to be “anti-development.” She says she’s for smart development that enhances existing communities, and fully understands how vital such growth is to the local economy.

Mr. Boyer laughs off talk of factions, and of the Tomlin connection says he can’t help who his sister happened to marry. “I’m about as independent as they come.” As for the folks who are supposedly behind him, “none of them were there in the mountains of Afghanistan” or the “deserts of Iraq,” where he earned the Bronze Star before returning home to become a homebuilder.

“I sort of feel that I’ve proved myself, and proved my decision-making ability, long before I knew those guys.”

And he takes great pride in the kind of development he has been able to do, including homes priced for low-income buyers in the Arsenal Hill area.

In our endorsement interviews, all of the candidates stressed public safety issues — Mr. Boyer suggesting his military experience qualifies him in that area, Ms. Gergel speaking of her own experiences dealing with crime in her University Hill neighborhood, and Mr. Swearingen promising to spend more on police whatever the political cost.

All three decried the lack of accountability recently with regard to city finances. Messrs. Boyer and Swearingen both favor switching to a “strong-mayor” form of government to make city administration more answerable to the voters. Ms. Gergel, a veteran of the commission that considered changing city government, said she went in as a strong-mayor advocate, but realized it’s not going to happen politically, so the thing to do is “fix the system that we have now.”

This isn’t the only City Council race on the ballot — three challengers are running to unseat at-large member Daniel Rickenmann. We’ll get to that one another day.

For more about this race, go to