In its brief years of home rule, the District has passed initiatives that have gained it a national reputation for being liberal, progressive even, in its politics. But Initiative 28 may turn that reputation on its ear.
If the bottle bill fails next week, after outside interests have dumped so much into this city to defeat it, D.C.'s progressive reputation may be tainted not only because the infusion of money has obscured the real issues at stake, but also simply because those in the District who oppose the bill have taken the outside money. Indeed, the money has taken on a life force that has made it the center of attention rather than the virtues or vices of the bill for the citizens of the District.
However, the people who have put up the money to fight the bottle bill do not care about the issues we care about. They do not care about guaranteeing adequate overnight shelter to the homeless. They do not care about full employment. They do not care about rent control or rejection of tuition tax credits.
But now comes the bottle bill initiative and a lot of the city's most politically active and civic-minded people, including some former elected officials, are taking this special-interest money to persuade voters, especially those in black and integrated neighborhoods, that a deposit on beer and soft drinks will be a huge disservice to them.
Leading the fight against the initiative is the Clean Capital City Committee, composed of 100 organizational members, including such industry giants as Pepsi-Cola, Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch and glass and aluminum industry representatives. They have spent $2 million to poll, politic and persuade city voters to vote industry's way.
Now, I'm not about to say that every notable black who has spoken out against the initiative is being paid, nor do I feel that everyone who opposes Initiative 28 is in the pockets of the industry. It is even appropriate that some of those who are opposed would welcome the influx of capital to fight for what they believe in.
Most of the industry money has been used to pay for a series of TV and radio ads (many of them quite patronizing, incidentally). In addition, several minority public relations firms were hired to fight the initiative, including one owned by former D.C. Council chairman Sterling Tucker.
The industry also set out to establish an organization of workers. Such persons as Harry Thomas Jr., son of council member Harry Thomas (D-Ward 5), had been paid $11,000 as of last week, in addition to expenses. Campaign reports have listed payments of more than $80,000 to 35 paid ward workers while numerous others have begun receiving payments of at least $100 each to work on the precinct level.
The key people I'm concerned with are those who are active at the ward level who have signed on to work for interests opposite of the end of the political spectrum they usually occupy. What the beverage makers want for the $2 million they have pumped into the bottle bill initiative is obvious. But what's truly sad is how some of the city's leading political activists have jumped on the chump wagon without really investigating, debating and deciding what is in the best interests of all the people in the city.
There are valid arguments for and against the bill, but this slick infusion of money, a rich diet not usually fed to us, has negated the opportunity for a clearheaded investigation of them. And unfortunately, who paid what to whom will be important long after Tuesday's vote.
Indeed, what does this say about the political system here circa 1987?
It says that the unique and special quality of D.C. politics, which made most citizens feel in touch with the process, is being endangered by this influx of outside corporate money that has given some of our local political activists a taste of the sweet life and negated to a large degree citizen participation.
In changing the nature of local politics, at least temporarily, those activists who have jumped on the chump wagon to fight the fight the new way may have stolen something from all of us. By taking away the normal process by which we operate, they have deprived us of the opportunity for the kind of inspired and intellectual debate of issues that is our hallmark.
The next time there is an initiative on an important city issue, will the average person in the ward wonder if the precinct worker who calls on him is being paid or is speaking from earnest conviction?
I'll vote for Initiative 28 because I think it makes sense for the city, but I'll also mourn our loss of innocence.