D.C. Council meets during shutdown, delays first attorney general election to 2018

District voters will not get the election next year for attorney general that they approved overwhelmingly at the polls three years ago. And proponents of a measure to let illegal immigrants apply for District driver’s licenses will have to wait at least two weeks for a decision after the D.C. Council on Tuesday scuttled or postponed action on its most controversial measures.

The council also stuck with the status quo on next year’s election calendar, sidelining arguments that an early April primary would amount to “incumbent protection” because it would force challengers to face better-known officeholders before voters tune in to election-year politics.

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Though Tuesday’s council meeting was at times contentious, the members did come together to pass broad restrictions on outdoor smoking, including banning lighting up within 25 feet of any city park, recreation center or bus stop.

The mere fact that the council was at work Tuesday stood out in a city where hundreds of thousands of federal workers and contractors made only brief appearances at their offices to turn in BlackBerrys and close up shop until Congress can reach a spending agreement.

The council openly delighted in the contrast, voting unanimously to support an emergency bill calling for the mayor to keep the city open for the duration of the federal shutdown. The measure was largely symbolic but put the council squarely behind Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), who last week defied Congress and past precedent by declaring the District’s entire 30,000-member workforce as essential personnel.

Gray made a rare appearance in the council chamber and thanked the council for the vote.

“I really think it is a seminal moment for our city that the executive and the legislative branch have come together on this hugely important issue,” Gray said after being invited to address the council by Chairman Phil Mendelson (D). Gray called it “a very powerful statement on behalf of the 630,000 people in the city.”

D.C. officials have has been awaiting a ruling from President Obama’s budget office on Gray’s decision to declare all city workers essential. The mayor acknowledged “a very cooperative, collegial discussion” with the office Monday. But he said there has been no conclusion yet.

The city’s government is being funded out of a special reserve fund, containing $218 million or more, which could keep it operational for roughly two weeks. “That makes it a lot less contentious at this stage,” Gray said.

Council harmony frayed during a last-ditch effort by Mendelson and council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) to move forward with the first election of the District’s attorney general, who is currently appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council.

District voters overwhelmingly supported a measure in 2010 that called for holding the first election in 2014.

This summer, however, the plan began to unravel, and the council voted, 8 to 5, to postpone the election until 2018, arguing that an ongoing debate over the structure and responsibilities of the office, as well as a lack of declared candidates, made proceeding with the election unwise.

Mendelson and Wells won the support of Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), who had voted for the delay in July. But ultimately they came up a vote short.

Later, in another blow to Mendelson, his colleagues soundly defeated a bill that would have moved next year’s April 1 primary to early June. In doing so, the council rejected arguments that it would be too difficult for candidates to circulate ballot petitions, which would be due shortly after Jan 1., during the holiday season. Council members also argued that it was unfair to have a nine-month lame-duck period.

The bill, which needed nine votes to pass, received only five. Mendelson said after the meeting that he does not expect to pursue the matter further.

The smoking ban that secured final passage Tuesday expands a 2010 District law that permits businesses and government ­offices to ban smoking within 25 feet of their front doors.

The new law would place the same buffer around 300 city parks and playgrounds, as well as recreation centers and bus stops. ­No-smoking signs would be required in those areas. The measure would not apply, however, to federal properties, such as the Mall and Dupont Circle. And it would allow a homeowner or tenant who resides within a 25-foot buffer to use tobacco “within his or her residence,” according to a committee report.

Mendelson added an amendment that also exempts cigar bars, hookah bars and some establishments with patios for smoking.

The council had been set to also take a final vote Tuesday on a bill authored by Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) allowing illegal immigrants to apply for D.C. driver’s licenses for the first time. But the vote was delayed, in part to allay concerns that the measure could run afoul of federal law, Cheh said.

Allowing undocumented residents to hold licenses indistinguishable from those held by legal residents could violate the yet-to-be-implemented Real ID Act, a 2005 law that sets tough standards for state identification cards.

Cheh said she had recently met with high-ranking officials at the Department of Homeland Security who raised concerns, though they did not take an official position on the legislation.

Some states that have moved to offer licenses to illegal immigrants, including Maryland, have used markings indicating such licenses are “not for federal identification purposes.” Immigrant advocates have opposed doing that in the District, calling it a “scarlet letter” that would alert law enforcement that the person bearing the license is undocumented.

Also Tuesday, the council member who most forcefully opposed stripping Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) of his leadership role for accepting cash payments from city contractors garnered the most power under a plan the council approved to carve up Barry’s committee.

Council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) gained oversight of the Department of Employment Services and the city’s Workforce Investment Council, two entities with sway over hiring programs and worker protections.

 
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