The District Beat: Will Falchiccio Scandal Derail Administration?

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John Falchiccio, then-Deputy Mayor of Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) and chief of staff to Mayor Muriel Bowser (D, left) stands behind the Mayor as they listen to Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen (D) at a press conference held March 28, 2022 near RFK Stadium. Photo: Elizabeth O’Gorek.

John Falchiccio held unprecedented power in District government as Mayor Muriel Bowser’s (D) chief of staff while doubling as her Deputy Mayor for Economic Development. His resignation in the wake of sordid allegations threatens to derail Bowser’s third term at its inception.

During the first two terms of the Bowser administration, Falchiccio earned a reputation as the most powerful DC bureaucrat since Anthony Williams served as the DC’s first Chief Financial Officer in the mid-nineties. Never in the half century of Home Rule has a mayoral aide wielded such power and influence. His position rapidly unraveled in the face of accusations of sexual harassment, which forced his sudden departure this month.

Who is Falchiccio

Falchiccio (43) has been at Bowser’s side since both joined then Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty’s (D) “Green Team.” This shoe-leather campaign executed a stunning upset of the District’s Democratic establishment electing Fenty mayor. The candidate won every  precinct.

During the 2006 campaign, Falchiccio got an inside look at the nexus between politics, power and money in DC. He sat next to Fenty as the soon-to-be-mayor called potential donors, soliciting large contributions. He joined the candidate on fundraising runs when Fenty picked up checks. This marked the beginning of his long-lasting relationship with District developers and the moneyed class, which still fuel DC elections.

In 2007, immediately after Fenty’s election, Falchiccio managed Bowser’s successful campaign to become the mayor’s successor as Ward 4 councilmember. Afterwards, he joined the Fenty administration as a political adviser, message bearer and and jack of all trades for “the boss.”

Mayor Fenty squandered his enormous political capital over the next four years. He was unceremoniously unseated by then Council Chairman Vince Gray (D) in 2010. Falchiccio then took a brief respite from DC to return to national politics. In 2014, he returned to advise Bowser on her 2014 successful challenge to Gray’s re-election. After Bowser’s victory, he became her first and only chief of staff. In Bowser’s second term, she appointed Falchiccio Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, significantly expanding his role in her administration.

Falchiccio added to his power by being the hardest working, most loyal member of the Bowser team.

The Curse of the Third Term

Falchiccio’s exit shattered the Mayor’s inner circle. It blew a huge hole in her administration that is not easily filled. This blow has compounded the mounting problems she faces at the start of her third term which already promises to be much more challenging than her first two. The time is past when DC officials and Council members could be heard proclaiming: “the city has more money than it can spend.”

That euphoria has vanished as the infusion of federal pandemic funds has started to evaporate. Moreover, federal agencies have not and may never recall their employees back to work, leaving downtown empty. Lastly, federal agencies, corporations and law firms are likely to need less space in the future. Recognizing this dire situation, the mayor has made the revival of DC’s office core the major focus on her third term.

In this environment of post-COVID fiscal austerity, Bowser must revitalize and reimagine downtown. She hopes to turn vacant offices into affordable residential town centers.

Falchiccio was the mayor’s point person on downtown revitalization, possessing singular skills and experience to deal with the crisis. He held the administration’s relationships with developers, who will play key roles in any future revitalization. However, as one of the Mayor’s most loyal supporters lamented last week, there is no Falchiccio 2.0 to serve in Bowser’s 3.0 administration.

Downtown woes are not Bowser’s only major headache. She also faces:

• dismal city revenues due to declining value of commercial office properties;

• a rise in violent and property crimes;

• reigning in the illegal cannabis gray market;

• aggressive oversight from increasingly hostile Congressional Republicans;

• difficult relations with the progressive-dominated DC Council;

• a DC Housing Authority slipping into federal receivership;

• public demand for increased affordable housing;

• a destabilized operation at DMPED.

The mayor’s first move was to shift Keith Anderson from the troubled General Services Administration to the helm of DMPED. Anderson also has served in the past as both the Director of Parks and Recreation and Director of the Department of Energy and Environment during the Bowser and Gray administrations. Many expect the move to be temporary while she conducts a national search for a permanent replacement.

Bowser then appointed Lindsay Parker as her new chief of staff. Parker has served in the past as Bowser’s deputy chief of staff, assistant city administrator and the city’s Chief Technology Officer.

Both Anderson and Parker are regarded as competent “implementers.” However, they are not strategic thinkers in the mold of Falchiccio. They also lack the deep personal relationships with the city’s business community which made him so invaluable.

Despite these swift moves, many see an administration that remains out to sea. “There is no one who can fill John’s shoes,’’ a longtime supporter observed.

The Mayor’s Shadow

When Bowser lost Falchiccio, she lost “her brain, her fixer, her enforcer,’’ DC employees, District political cognoscenti and Council staffers all say. More importantly, Bowser, a notoriously guarded politician, lost the person she trusted most among her surprisingly small circle of insiders.

“They had a symbiotic relationship,’’ says former Bowser campaign adviser Tom Lindenfeld. “When talking to John, people assumed they were talking to Muriel. And, when talking to Muriel, you assumed you were talking to John.’’

“She might find it hard to trust anyone, now,’’ Lindenfeld said.

Regardless of whether this scandal involves one woman – or ten — coming forward, Bowser politically and personally could not suffer the consequences of such a scandal, and had to distance herself from it immediately.

Women — and particularly young white professionals and women of color — form the hard core of her support, and standing up against this type of misconduct and treatment of women is central to her image and brand.

The reason for Falchiccio’s disappearance was finally revealed by civil rights attorney Debra Katz. In a March 20 press release, Katz disclosed allegations of Falchiccio’s sexual misconduct involving an unnamed female DC employee.

Katz urged other women to come forward. She advised them to contact Deputy Legal Counsel Vanessa Natale at the Mayor’s Office of Legal Counsel, who is conducting the investigation. This may signal possible criminal violations, such as providing favors or rewards to subordinates in return for silence.

Bowser, no doubt, hopes her quick moves to replace her consigliere will allow her administration to quickly move forward. However, Falchiccio’s ghost may yet haunt her footsteps. Only time will tell.

Kenneth V. Cummins has been reporting on DC politics and issues for nearly 40 years.