Bowser in China: D.C. mayor talks trade mission, FreshPAC controversy and 'hard pivot'
Mayor Muriel Bowser's week-long trade mission to China is coming to a close and there are tangible results to report, she said Friday, though those results may get lost in the ongoing FreshPAC controversy.
Bowser, joined by former Mayor Anthony Williams, D.C. Councilman Jack Evans and D.C. Chief Financial Officer Jeff DeWitt, touted the visit during a conference call with reporters as the best yet to China.
"The mayor's been decisive, she's been persuasive," said Williams, CEO of the Federal City Council.
Former Mayor Vincent Gray visited China several times during his term, and his deputy mayor for planning and economic development, Victor Hoskins, essentially established the District's trade infrastructure there. This was Bowser's first mission.
Here's what we know, so far, from this most recent trip. The group spent upward of 45 minutes with what Evans called the "richest individual in Asia," who expressed "very strong interest" in investing in the District. It produced a guidebook for doing business with D.C., hosted two forums — one in Beijing and another in Shanghai — for Chinese investors to hear from D.C. developers with projects to sell, launched a partnership between Children's National Medical Center and a Chinese hospital, and heard from a travel official that Chinese tourism to D.C. could jump 100 percent (220,000 Chinese people visited the District in 2014).
Bowser met with Dalian Wanda Group Chairman Wang Jianlin, head of China's largest commercial property company and the world's largest cinema chain operator. And it had been previously announced that the China trip locked down $155 million in EB-5 investment for a pair of D.C. projects, The Wharf and Skyland Town Center.
Much of the positive PR Bowser might have expected from a week-long trade mission to China evaporated, however, with persistent reporting that contributors to FreshPAC, the independent political action committee established to drive her agenda and elect friendly council members, were along for the ride.
Members of the private sector joining Bowser in China included Scott Nordheimer and Caroline Kenney of Urban Atlantic, Tony Pierce of Akin Gump, Debbie Ratner Salzberg of Forest City, David Franco of Level 2 Development, Richard Lake of Roadside Development, and Buwa Binitie of Dantes Partners (a $10,000 contributor to FreshPAC). Most were on the hunt for the lucrative Chinese investor.
FreshPAC, if it hasn't already, will be shut down, Bowser's allies announced this week. While established legally, critics — including D.C. Councilwoman Mary Cheh, D-Ward 3, and Attorney General Karl Racine — decried the organization as unseemly, perceiving it as a classic example of pay-to-play politics.
"I do agree that the FreshPAC had become a distraction and I very much support their decision to move on," Bowser said during the conference call.
She added later: "Everybody should recognize that the leaders of the FreshPAC made a hard pivot away from it."
Donors, who contributed more than $300,000 to FreshPAC in denominations as high as $20,000, included Matthew Jemal, the D.C. Hospital Association, Premier Health Services Inc., Facchina Construction Co. Inc., Keystone Plus Construction Corp., McCullough Construction LLC, Blue Skye Construction, Republic Properties Corp., Willco (under five separate LLCs), The Warrenton Group and CSX Corp.
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