D.C. Council fails to override ‘living wage’ veto, paving way for Wal-Marts

September 17, 2013

The D.C. Council failed Tuesday to overturn a mayoral veto of a hotly contested measure requiring the city’s largest retailers to pay their workers no less than 50 percent more than the current minimum wage.

The attempt to override Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s veto failed when only seven of 13 members voted to support it; nine votes were needed for the override to succeed. The tally came after nearly an hour of sharp debate and heated outbursts from the audience.

Council members raised few new arguments pro or con but repeated their well-worn talking points with new passion.

“This is really about what kind of economic development strategy we want in this city,” said Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), a supporter of the bill. “Creating low-quality jobs, in my view, is not a good economic-development strategy.”

The bill had become part of a national campaign against the proliferation of low-wage jobs, and it has become entwined locally with Wal-Mart’s plans to open several stores in the city. Wal-Mart, which had threatened to abandon its plan should the bill become law, issued a statement after Gray’s veto last week that it would proceed with plans for at least five stores.

But the larger implications did not sway any of those opposed to the bill. “I don’t vote based on national debates,” said Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3). “I vote based on what is best for the District of Columbia.”

Proponents highlighted Wal-Mart’s poor track record and large profits, and lamented joining in a nationwide race to the bottom on wages. Opponents feared the measure would kill jobs and impair economic development.

“People of the District of Columbia shop at Wal-Mart every single day,” said Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4). “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.”

The Large Retailer Accountability Act would have required retailers with corporate sales of $1 billion or more operating in D.C. locations of at least 75,000 square feet to pay their employees a “living wage” of no less than $12.50 an hour in combined wages and benefits.

Activists favoring the bill targeted several council members who opposed it in the hope of inspiring a change of heart — particularly Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), a progressive-minded mayoral candidate.

But Wells remained steadfastly opposed, instead gathering support for a bill he introduced Tuesday that would institute an across-the-board minimum-wage hike indexed to inflation. The bill gained nine co-introducers, indicating significant momentum for an across-the-board wage increase.

In addition, Gray (D) floated an unspecified minimum-wage increase in his veto letter Thursday, and council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) introduced a bill Tuesday proposing an increase.

Council watchers had considered Catania the most likely of the five council opponents to switch his vote, given his comments on the council dais in July suggesting that he could support the bill with minor amendments. He remained cagey about his stance up until the final vote Tuesday afternoon but in the end did not waver.

Catania referenced his late mother, who was a union clerk at an A&P store in Missouri. “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.

In the end, only Anita Bonds (D-At Large) changed her vote — opposing the veto override Tuesday. She did not speak on the dais but said in an interview that she had new concerns about the bill’s “fairness.”

“Where’s Bank of America? Where’s Apple?” she asked.

On Tuesday, as the council met upstairs, more than 100 supporters of the bill gathered outside the John A. Wilson Building, with many warning that they would remember the names of 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 votes against the bill. All of the posters contained a single word: “Override.”

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.”

At the rally, the Rev. Graylan Hagler of Respect D.C. 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.

“You’ve changed the conversation,” he told the crowd.

Aaron C. Davis contributed to this report.

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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