Shortly before Mayor Vincent C. Gray announced that he had nominated her to the board of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, Barbara Lang, the president and chief executive of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, made a phone call.
On the other end of the line was Joslyn Williams, president of the Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO. Lang wanted to let the leader of one of the region’s largest labor organizations know the news — and find out whether the group would oppose the nomination.
The gesture was vintage Lang, say those who have worked closely with her over the years. She is someone who anticipates problems and tries to resolve them before they erupt in full public view.
“She’s really good at getting the ‘yes,’ ” said Antwayne Ford, the president and chief executive of Enlightened, a technology consulting firm.
Those skills will come in handy if, as expected, Lang joins the board of the authority, which has become known more for lavish perks and insider dealing than for managing Reagan National and Dulles International airports and overseeing construction of the $5.6 billion Metrorail extension to Dulles and Loudoun County.
The D.C. Council is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a bill that would increase the size of the authority’s board from 13 to 17 members. If approved, the measure will take effect immediately and give the District one additional seat, which, if all goes as expected Tuesday, would be occupied by Lang.
Congress and the Virginia General Assembly have passed bills to increase the size of the board, which is made up of appointees from the District, Maryland, Virginia and the federal government. But additional board members could not be seated until the District approved its legislation. (Maryland officials do not have a vote on the change because the state was not part of the compact that created MWAA).
Changing the makeup of the board has been a priority for some local leaders, particularly in Virginia, where Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) has pushed for more influence in MWAA business — a stance that has often put him at odds with labor leaders.
McDonnell played a key role in forcing the authority to drop a labor-friendly contracting provision from the second phase of the massive rail extension project. The governor also removed Dennis Martire, a labor official, from the board in June. But Martire sued to block his removal. Some feared that the court battle would cost the authority millions in legal fees, but earlier this month, Martire, Virginia state officials and MWAA reached a settlement in the case and the suit was dropped.
In light of such strife, Lang’s role as the District’s main business booster has given some labor leaders pause.
The Mid-Atlantic chapter of the Laborers International Union of North America, which questioned Lang’s views on paid family leave and living-wage policies, said Monday that it is “committed to working with every MWAA board member.” (Martire is vice president and regional manager of the Mid-Atlantic chapter of the union.)
The AFL-CIO said it will not oppose Lang’s nomination.
“We do not consider her anti-union,” said Williams of the AFL-CIO. “We have worked through issues of disagreement in the past. I think [Gray] could have done worse.”
At her confirmation hearing last week, Lang was asked about criticism of some of her policy positions. She told council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) that she would not attempt to undo policies that were working.
“We have to coexist in this sandbox together, so the question is, ‘How can we sit down and work through these issues?’ ” said Lang, who lives in Northwest Washington.
Lang, 68, said she first spoke to Gray (D) a few years ago about the possibility of joining the airports board.
Despite the authority’s recent troubles, she is undaunted. “I’m not saddled with any of that,” she said, referring to the regional rivalries and past practices that led at least one board member to dub the board an old boys’ club. “I’m good at trying to bring disparate folks together.”
A few days after that strategic phone call, Williams called back and indicated that the AFL-CIO would not oppose the nomination. He asked Lang to sit down with local labor leaders. They hope to set up a meeting within the next few weeks.
Still, Lang knows it’s possible that her time on the MWAA board could be short-lived. Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who sponsored the federal legislation that expanded the size of the board, introduced a bill this year that would reduce the number of seats to nine from 17 — giving Virginia six seats and the District, Maryland and the federal government one each.
Lang said she was worried about the potential harm the bill could cause to regional cooperation. At last week’s hearing, Mendelson labeled the bill “a thumb in the eye of the District.”
“I’m hoping it will just die,” Lang said. “If the airports authority can get itself together, then maybe [the desire for the change] goes away.”