September 6, 2013

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) claimed that he waited more than 50 days to transmit to the executive that controversial Large Retailer Accountability Act — or anti-Wal-Mart bill — because he wanted to give supporters time to lobby Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) to sign it. So the head of the legislative branch has added lobby organizer to his job description. Don’t expect that service for every bill, however.

Mendelson’s slow dance was all about self-preservation. He needed to placate unions, which have been a key component of his political base. Conversely, he has been their go-to guy, generally asking, “How high?,” when they have demanded that he jump. He isn’t about to change his ways as he launches his reelection bid this year. Those union campaign contributions and phone banks aren’t to be discarded.

D.C. Chamber of Commerce President Barbara Lang, who has urged the mayor to veto the legislation, which mandates certain retailers pay a minimum wage of $12.50 per hour, called Mendelson’s actions “unnecessary political gamesmanship.”

Residents should brace themselves for more nauseating levels of special-interest politics as the District enters a wild and worrisome election season. U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr.’s investigation into corruption in the city, including Gray’s 2010 mayoral campaign, continues unabated. Meanwhile, nearly the entire council is running for something: Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), David A. Catania (I-At Large) and Anita Bonds (D-At Large) are expected to seek reelection. Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) want to move into the mayoral suite. (With his federal problem, the incumbent is more lame duck than threat to anyone’s aspiration.)

The madness in the legislature begins Sept. 16, when members will return from summer recess. A fall and winter council agenda chock-full of serious public policy issues that are tethered to vocal special-interest groups should provide ample opportunity for pandering. For example, catering to good-government acolytes, McDuffie has promised a vote on comprehensive campaign financing that includes the use of public funds to support political candidates.

Wells, chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary, has pledged to hold a public hearing on whether to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana. That measure has a growing and youthful constituency, particularly since proponents have successfully linked it to the plight of black males. The bill is one module in the far-left-leaning platform Wells has attempted to construct to distance himself from his opponents.

Bowser and Evans are no liberal slouches. She has linked herself tightly to senior citizens’ issues; they are a strong and dependable voting population. He, often seen as “Mr. Big Business,” voted in favor of that anti-Wal-Mart bill, which could balance his image in working-class communities — except that he took the action to win support with his colleagues for lowering the city’s sales tax rate. A much-anticipated report later this year from the tax review commission could ramp up demands, particularly among business leaders, for more tax cuts.

Meanwhile, the executive has engaged in its own brand of political posturing. Consider the mayor’s “duh” news conference this week, where he announced what everyone already knew: Federal budget cuts will affect the local economy.

Gray and his minions prattled about a spike in unemployment (although the level of unemployment is still significantly lower than it was last year at this time) and the loss of 7,000 federal jobs (no word on how many of those individuals are city dwellers). As a point of reference, the majority of D.C. government employees don’t live in the District; they pay income taxes to their home states. The mayor said the city has “projected” losing $30 million in federal grants and payments. “I’m calling on Congress to end sequestration,” he added, echoing the Democratic Party line. “We’re starting to see what could be a lasting impact.”

That Chicken Little routine would have some folks thinking that the District is following Detroit. Gray has ignored the fact that Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi incorporated what one council source called a worst-case scenario in the city’s 2014 economic forecast and multi-year financial plan. He projected for 2014 a loss of $60 million due to federal budget cuts. In his last two reports, he also noted a slowdown in job growth — in both the public and private sectors — and a rise in office vacancies.

Still, in June, Gandhi revised his revenue projections for 2014 upward by $92 million. That change, he said, “incorporates the expected impact of measures to tame the growing budget deficit, such as the federal spending sequester.”

Gray’s charade may be an attempt to cushion himself against criticism for rising unemployment. More likely, however, his doom-and-gloom narrative was created to make a veto of the living wage bill more palatable for his union allies.

Translation: There won’t be any way to escape political insanity in the District.

jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com