D.C. Council debates ‘living wage’ and Wal-Mart

September 17, 2013

Catania, Bowser and Wells — seen during the July vote on the Large Retailer Accountability Act — have been targeted by bill supporters seeking to swing their votes. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

The D.C. Council is undertaking a final debate Tuesday over whether to require the District’s largest retailers — including several planned Wal-Marts — to pay their employees a “living wage” of no less than $12.50 an hour in combined wages and benefits. To override Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s veto, nine of 13 council members would have to support the move. The original bill passed in July on an 8-to-5 vote.

[liveblog]

Statements galore

The Rev. Graylan Hagler, the senior pastor at Plymouth United Congregational Church of Christ and a leader of the Respect D.C. coalition issued this statement:

“We are disappointed that Mayor Gray and Councilmembers Wells, Catania, Cheh, Bonds, Bowser, and Alexander have sided with Walmart and corporate lobbyists rather than the hardworking people of our city. Today’s events show that many of our elected officials are not leaders. They had to be forced by an overwhelming push from residents and workers to propose even modest improvements in the minimum wage. Big corporations like Walmart – with more than $16 billion in annual profits – can and should be paying a minimum of $12.50 an hour to workers who are making the company a success. DC voters believe that City Council and the next mayor should be fighting to bring better jobs in the city, and we’re prepared to stand with leaders like Phil Mendelson and Vincent Orange who won’t back down to corporate bullying.”

Keith Sellars, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C., Economic Partnership, issued this statement:

“Despite a robust retail market, D.C. still has close to $1 billion in unmet retail demand. … This was potentially a very damaging bill. The Mayor’s veto sends an important message to the entire retail industry that we remain committed to our goals for retail attraction. … We will continue to pursue retailers that we believe should have a presence in the District, especially in those neighborhoods that are under-retailed.”

David French, senior vice president for government relations for the National Retail Federation, issued this statement:

“Plain and simple, the city council’s vote to sustain the mayor’s veto of the Large Retailer Accountability Act is a victory for D.C. jobs and the D.C. community. … The residents of the District of Columbia will now be able to reap the benefits of continued economic growth, development and opportunity, career choices, and a wider diversity of retail options that come with a healthy and competitive marketplace. … Just as important, today marks a clear defeat for the special interest groups that sought to advance a narrow political agenda without regard to the legislation’s impact on current and future D.C. residents. No industry, and certainly no company, should be singled out by union organizers. D.C. needs retail as much as retail needs D.C.”

Wal-Mart issues statement

Steven Restivo, Wal-Mart’s chief spokesman for D.C. matters, issued a statement shortly after the council failed to override the mayoral veto:

“We applaud those Council members who rejected pressure from special interest groups to do the right thing by their constituents. We look forward to being part of the solution in communities across D.C., especially in areas east of the river that have been traditionally overlooked by major retailers, when it comes to creating jobs, economic development opportunities and more affordable shopping options in Washington, D.C.”

Activists explode after vote

Aaron C. Davis reports:

As Mendelson announced that the override had failed, dozens of supporters stood and broke into chants of “We won’t forget!” and “Recall!”

They walked slowly out of the room, past the dais, with some stopping to point at Wells and Bowser, and holding up signs that read, “My next mayor supports the Large Retailer Accountability Act.”

The activists spilled into the hallway on the fifth floor of the John A. Wilson Building, continuing to chant loudly enough that Mendelson briefly suspended the ongoing council meeting, which had moved on to disciplining member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8).

The override fails, 7-6

The roll was called at around 4:25 p.m.

The vote was 7-to-6 in favor of override, falling two votes short of success.

Anita Bonds (D-At Large) was the only member to change her sentiments, moving from support for the bill to opposition to the override. (She was the member who privately expressed doubts before the meeting.)

Voting in favor of override: Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), Vincent Orange (D-At Large), David P. Grosso (I-At Large), Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8).

Voting against: David A. Catania (I-At Large), Anita D. Bonds (D-At Large), Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7).

Bowser, Mendelson trade views on ‘retail leakage’

Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), the last of the opponents to speak, reiterated that the bill was bad from an economic development perspective — particularly considering, she said, that many D.C. residents already shop at Wal-Marts outside the city.

“People of the District of Columbia shop at Wal-Mart every single day,” she said. “They just don’t do it near their homes … The fact of the matter is, they make choices for their families and they do it outside the District of Columbia.”

But Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said that he believed in a different vision of economic development and that the “retail leakage” effect was overstated.

“This is really about what kind of economic development strategy we want in this city … one that not only creates jobs for District residents, but quality jobs for District residents,” he said. “Creating low quality jobs, in my view, is not a good economic development strategy.”

LRAA supporters rally before vote

Aaron C. Davis reports:

A few hours before the vote, as the council met upstairs, more than 100 supporters of the living wage bill gathered outside the John A. Wilson Building, with many warning they would remember the names of the five council members who voted against the measure come election time next year.

Dozens of the protesters held up red-white-and-blue Obama-style campaign posters, replacing the likeness of the president with silk-screen-style images of the five council members who had cast no votes. All of the posters contained a single word “OVERRIDE.”

“Mayor Gray, we all know he’s spineless … but now Wells? He won’t get any votes in Ward 7 or Ward 8, will he?” asked Inocencio Quinones, an organizer with Our DC asked, eliciting applause from the crowd.

The Rev. Graylan Hagler, a leader of the supporters, also singled out each of the five by name. But he said that even if the measure failed to pass the override, supporters had won by getting the mayor and council to seriously address raising the minimum wage.

“One of them could have put a bill in yesterday, six months or a year ago, but they didn’t,” Hagler said. “But now, they are. … You’ve changed the conversation,” he told the crowd.

Cheh, Alexander maintain opposition

Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) both said in their dais remarks they remain opposed to the bill and would not support the override.

“I don’t vote based on national debates,” Cheh said. “I vote based on what is best for the District of Columbia.”

Alexander, who represents a ward where two Wal-Marts are planned, sought to address claims that the Arkansas mega-retailer’s jobs would be significantly worse than those offered by other employers.

“Wal-Mart is going to be just as competitive as anyone else in the District of Columbia,” she said. “You can choose to work there, or you can choose not to work there.”

She added that low-wage jobs will give the currently unemployed a leg up: “You will see people rising up. You need to make your start somewhere.”

Catania will not support override

David A. Catania (I-At Large) ended the suspense over his intention with an impassioned speech that started with a remembrance of his late mother, who was a union clerk at an A&P store in Missouri.

Despite her experience, Catania said, he believed trading off new jobs for narrowly targeted higher wages would be to “cut off our nose off to spite our face.”

Instead, he called for a “Marshall plan investment to bring the jobs we need and crave” rather than “crumbs.”

“I wish I could do this in my heart, but I know in my head this is not the right way to solve income inequality in this county,” he said. “I don’t believe two wrongs make a right.”

Barring a surprise change of heart, Catania’s remarks ensure the Gray veto will be sustained.

Wells remains opposed

Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) was the first LRAA opponent to speak on the override, and he said he remained against the bill.

“I don’t believe we take one corporation at time to legislate,” he said, referring to Wal-Mart. “I don’t think that would be responsible.”

Wells addressed the pressure he had faced from progressive activists, who accusing him of caving to Wal-Mart pressure.

Wells replied by saying he was more persuaded by community leaders who begged him for jobs.

“I’m bullied by them,” Wells said, “not by the Wal-Mart corporation.”

Orange makes fiery appeal

Vincent Orange (D-At Large), another LRAA supporter, made a more fiery appeal for an override.

He claimed Wal-Mart has agreed to pay workers at a Colorado store at least $12 an hour, comparable to the $12.50 wage demanded by the D.C. bill.

“We’ve been had, and it’s time for us to stand up,” he said.

That drew cheers and claps from the audience in the council chamber, prompting Mendelson to ask for order.

Mendelson: ‘All … arguments that have been made’

Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), a strong LRAA supporter, introduced the override motion at about 3:40 p.m. He briefly reiterated arguments in support of the bill, but acknowledged the debated has largely run its course.

“All have heard the arguments that have been made,” he said. “I think members know those arguments.”

Could any pro-LRAA votes switch?

All the attention has been on the five members who oppose the bill, there is a possibility that at least one member who supported the bill in July could end up opposing an override.

One member who has previously supported the bill spoke on the condition of anonymity ahead of the final tally, said their vote was “in play” for the final override vote.

“I’m very interested in raising the minimum wage,” the member said. “The rest is coincidental to that.”

“Fairness” was the issue, the member added, noting the bill’s narrow focus: “Where’s Bank of America? Where’s Apple?”

All eyes on David Catania

There are five members who voted against the LRAA in July. For an override to succeed, one of them will have to change positions.

Asked in recent days about their plans on the override vote, four of the five opponents — Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7), Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) — said they remained against the measure.

The fifth, David A. Catania (I-At Large), was out of town until late Monday and has not commented on his plans since the veto. People lobbying against the bill said they had been assured by staff that Catania remained opposed but had not heard directly from Catania himself.

Catania declined to address his plans before Tuesday’s meeting.

Debate will begin shortly

The D.C. Council, meeting for the first time since Mayor Vincent C. Gray vetoed the Large Retailer Accountability Act, is now deep into its agenda. The council is voting on contract approvals and should start debating whether to override the veto in about 10 minutes.

Earlier in the meeting, lawmakers were set to vote on an emergency measure creating a tax credit for the retailers targeted in the LRAA, reimbursing them $1,000 for every District employee paid at least $12.50 an hour in wages and benefits but with a yearly income of less than $50,000. But sponsor Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) withdrew the bill, saying who would introduce it again if the override failed.

D.C. Council debates ‘living wage’ and Wal-Mart


Catania, Bowser and Wells — seen during the July vote on the Large Retailer Accountability Act — have been targeted by bill supporters seeking to swing their votes. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

The D.C. Council is undertaking a final debate Tuesday over whether to require the District’s largest retailers — including several planned Wal-Marts — to pay their employees a “living wage” of no less than $12.50 an hour in combined wages and benefits. To override Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s veto, nine of 13 council members would have to support the move. The original bill passed in July on an 8-to-5 vote.

[liveblog]

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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Mike DeBonis | September 17, 2013