Dia King was number 171 in line and didn’t know if he would get a chance to speak in front of the D.C. Council. But if he did, he knew what he wanted its members to know.
He wanted them to know he has worked as a hotel valet for more than four years.
He wanted them to know that in those years, he has never received a raise beyond his base pay of $7-an-hour, even as he has watched the valet rates climb to more than $50 a car.
He wanted them to know he enjoys his job, but he feels “undervalued” in a position that requires him to stand straight for hours, without leaning and with a smile.
“I live in a city where the cost of living is constantly going up,” he had written on a piece of paper, outlining what he wanted to tell the council. “Rent, food and transportation continue to increase while my wages stay the same. Since they refuse to give me a raise, I am here now talking to my government — for the people, by the people, right? — to hold them accountable.”
He had more to say, but it doesn’t matter.
Just as it doesn’t matter what the 170 people in line before him — and the many more behind him — wanted to tell the council.
It doesn’t matter because we, along with the council, have already heard the arguments in favor and against Initiative 77, which would raise the base pay of tipped workers in the city to the standard minimum wage. Currently, employers are allowed to pay them $3.89 an hour, with the expectation their tips will make up the difference. There are compelling economic arguments on both sides of the wage hike issue, but I am not going to make them here because they have already been made.
This is not another article about Initiative 77. This is about a different conversation the council sparked when it decided to hold a hearing this week on whether to repeal the ballot measure that voters approved in June. The issue went to a citywide referendum, and it passed with 56 percent of the vote.
Whether you agree or disagree with the wage measure — or don’t care one way or another about it — you should be concerned that the hearing has further split an already divided city and confirmed for some what they already suspected: Some residents’ voices matter more than others.
All but one of the city’s wards — Ward 3, one of the wealthiest — supported the measure.
That fact did not go unnoticed by many who live and work in some of the poorest parts of the District. They describe the council’s move to repeal the vote as an all-too-familiar pat on the head, a condescending “You think you know what’s best for you, but trust me, we know better.”
“The fact is that somehow we got politicians that want to nullify the vote of every other ward in the city to support the vote of one ward in the city,” the Rev. Graylan Hagler, senior minister at Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ, said at a news conference before the council’s hearing on Monday. “We should not tolerate that under any circumstances.”
“Respect the vote!” he said several times to the sound of applause.
Days earlier, he had said as much — and more — when he replied to an email the executive assistant for Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) sent saying he could not meet for six weeks. Hagler pointed out he was among the supporters Mendelson emailed “bragging about” the number of people who voted for him in parts of the city where now votes were being declared “illegitimate.”
“We cannot decry voter suppression anywhere in the country if we are doing the same here,” Hagler wrote. “We cannot tell people to come out and vote when the Council declares that votes don’t count anyway. I really need to speak to the Chairman on this one, but if he doesn’t want to meet then I understand that he cannot face his own contradictions.”
Ward 3 Council Member Mary M. Cheh (D) was the only lawmaker who supported the measure, and she has now proposed a compromise that calls for phasing in the wage hike at a slower pace.
Council members who have called for repealing it told my colleague Fenit Nirappil, who wrote about the hearing, they did not take overturning the will of the public lightly.
They shouldn’t because regardless of what the council now decides — and there is not an option that will leave everyone satisfied — the issue is no longer just about wages and menu prices. It’s about who feels heard and respected and who feels ignored. It’s about the cost to the public’s trust and the high tally of that bill.
“It just feels like our leaders aren’t here for us,” King said. “That’s how it feels to me.”
The District was known as Chocolate City when it was majority black and at that time, people from all parts of the city knew how to make themselves heard, he said. Now, he believes a valet’s voice carries no weight compared with the owner of a valet company and that the city’s message is clear: “Those with money know better than you about your life.”
“D.C. is not Chocolate City anymore,” he said. “It’s Money City.”
It was after midnight when his turn finally came to speak in front of the council. By then, he had waited more than 12 hours. It was worth it, he said, because what he had to say mattered, even if it won’t change the council’s mind.
“It’s not just about it mattering to them,” he said. “It matters to me. At least, I know I did something.”
This column has been corrected to reflect that the citywide referundum on the initiative was not put forth by the D.C. Council.