Mayor Gray to finally face veto decision on Wal-Mart bill


A rendering of the more-modern design for the Wal-Mart planned for East Capitol Street. East Capitol is on the left; a private entrance to the development is on the right. (A&R Companies)

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said Tuesday that he would send a controversial “living wage” bill to Mayor Vincent C. Gray by Friday for his signature or veto, ending a seven-week delay over the measure designed to force Wal-Mart and some other major retailers to pay a 50 percent premium over the city’s minimum wage.

Wal-Mart has threatened to pull out of plans to build at least three stores in the District if the bill, which proponents say is badly needed, becomes law. Since council passage of the bill on July 10, the popular grocery-store chain Wegmans also has said the measure could factor heavily in whether it locates to the city.

Under a quirk in District law, Mendelson, a major backer of the legislation, had no obligation to quickly get the bill to Gray (D). In an interview on Tuesday, he acknowledged that he used his prerogative as chairman to delay, giving union leaders, clergy and other proponents of the measure time to mount a campaign to pressure Gray to sign the legislation.

“There has been some strategic value in elongating the time” before it goes to the mayor, said Mendelson (D). “This time has been valuable in focusing people on the mayor.

“He has a key decision to make, and the fact that this is Day 47 means there have been 47 days of focus on the mayor.”

At a rally in support of the bill Tuesday evening at a Ward 7 church, Mendelson and council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large), another leading proponent of the bill, both made reference to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. a day before the 50th anniversary of his “I Have a Dream” speech.

Mendelson noted that when King was assassinated in Memphis in 1968, he was in the city to support a sanitation workers strike for higher wages.

“It was not about jobs,” he said to a crowd of about 200 gathered in Gray’s home ward. ‘‘It was about decent jobs. . . . I call on the mayor to put workers first.”

As recently as Friday, Gray repeated a refrain that he sees many “unanswered questions” about the bill’s potential effects on economic development in the District. And on Tuesday, Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro said the sentiment of most calls and letters received by the mayor’s office have tipped heavily toward a veto.

“The mail has actually been surprising,” Ribeiro said. “The vast majority has been against, not for. We received letters from labor officials across the country urging us to sign it, but we also received a lot of mail from local D.C. residents saying don’t sign it.”

Gray maintained Tuesday that he has not made a final decision.

With the measure in limbo, it has gained national attention, echoing a fight in Chicago seven years ago, when the council there passed a similar bill and then-Mayor Richard M. Daley vetoed it.

If signed by the mayor, the D.C. Council measure would require retailers with corporate sales of $1 billion or more and operating in spaces 75,000 square feet or larger to pay their employees no less than $12.50 an hour. The city’s minimum wage is $8.25.

Wal-Mart has said the District legislation would discourage investment in the city, and most recently it has sought to turn the attention on Mendelson by undercutting claims of vast support for the bill.

The bill would force retailers that have corporate sales of $1 billion or more and that operate in spaces of 75,000 square feet or larger to pay employees no less than $12.50 an hour. The city’s minimum wage is $8.25, a dollar higher than the federal minimum wage.

Mendelson said that no matter the outcome, he thinks the national attention has worked to proponents’ favor.

“People cannot live in the District on $8.25 an hour,” Mendelson said. “They can’t.”

The council vote in July was 8 to 5. Mendelson and proponents would need one additional vote to override a mayoral veto.

Aaron Davis covers D.C. government and politics for The Post and wants to hear your story about how D.C. works — or how it doesn’t.
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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