D.C. Council member Marion Barry muscled past Chairman Phil Mendelson on Thursday to send a bill that offers new anti-discrimination protections to ex-offenders to the full council for a vote.
The Ward 8 council member and former mayor persuaded the Aging and Community Affairs Committee to approve legislation that bars employers from asking about a person’s criminal record until after a job offer is made. Employers could only rescind offers if the applicant’s past convictions are directly relevant to the job.
If denied a job, applicants could appeal decisions to the Office of Human Rights — in effect giving formerly incarcerated residents protections afforded to other minority groups.
“This bill is about discrimination in America,” said Barry (D), who was convicted of possessing crack cocaine in 1990. “My view is people who break the law, that they serve their time and . . . if you paid your debt, you paid your debt.”
But the legislation was able to clear the panel only after Barry, along with council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large), defied Mendelson (D) on the day he was sworn in to permanently replace former chairman Kwame R. Brown (D).
In an extraordinary move, Mendelson appeared in the committee room and sought to cast the tie-breaking vote to kill the bill using a council rule that allows the chairman to vote on any committee.
After an emotional debate before a room filled with ex-offenders and business lobbyists, Mendelson initially succeeded in stopping Barry’s proposal.
“When you look at a protected class for sexual orientation, there is nothing about that that justifies discrimination,” said Mendelson, who had served as interim chairman since June. “Here, it’s much more subjective, and that is what the difficulty is.”
Realizing that Mendelson’s vote, joining those of members Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), would probably defeat the bill, Barry recessed the hearing. A few minutes later, at Orange’s urging, Barry reconvened the meeting when Mendelson was not in the room.
Barry again called for the vote about 4:45 p.m., and Mendelson rushed into the hearing room. But Barry said Mendelson was not eligible to vote because he was interim chairman. Mendelson wasn’t sworn in as the permanent chairman until after 5 p.m.
“You’re not a member of this committee,” Barry said at the time, allowing him, Orange and council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) to approve the bill. “You can’t vote until you are sworn in.”
The bill goes to the full council for a vote Tuesday. Business leaders strongly oppose Barry’s measure, fearful it could open the door to lawsuits. Mendelson is putting up separate legislation that would encourage employers to hire ex-offenders.
“I have seniors and a lot of folks very concerned about criminal behavior in their neighborhoods, and it appears in this bill, you handcuff the ability to deal with that,” Wells said.
But several council members said the government needs to do more to integrate into the community the estimated 60,000 D.C. residents with criminal records.
“I believe people need to be given a second, third, fourth, fifth chance,” said Graham, noting that his chief of staff, Calvin B. Woodland Jr., has a record that includes dozens of arrests.