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. (jstampfl/c.o. A&R Companies)

Supporters of a controversial bill mandating a “living wage” for some of the city’s largest retailers put their strongest pressure to date on District Mayor Vincent C. Gray, urging him Friday to sign a measure that has generated strong opposition in the business community.

More than two dozen clergy members rallied at a church east of the Anacostia River, calling on Gray (D) not to heed veto demands from retailers and developers who have warned that the enactment of the Large Retailer Accountability Act could severely hamper plans to attract retail development to the city.

“A living wage is about economic justice,” said the Rev. Kendrick E. Curry, whose Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church hosted the news conference. “We must be just and compassionate in dealing with economic matters that are confronting us.”

The bill would require companies with corporate sales of $1 billion or more operating D.C. stores of at least 75,000 square feet to provide workers wages and benefits of no less than $12.50 an hour, with an exception for union shops. The city’s current minimum wage is $8.25.

The D.C. Council approved the bill July 10 on an 8 to 5 vote. The measure has yet to make its way to Gray, who will then have 10 days to decide whether to sign it. Nine council votes are necessary to override a veto.

Though some speakers Friday insisted that the legislation was “not a Wal-Mart bill,” most referred to the Arkansas-based retail giant and its threat to abandon plans for at least three of the six stores it is planning in the city should Gray sign the bill. Two of the planned stores would be in Ward 7, where the event was held and where city statistics indicated nearly 15 percent unemployment last month.

Several said they were willing to forgo the 1,800 permanent jobs Wal-Mart has said its six planned D.C. stores would create, saying that the low-wage jobs the chain is offering would keep District residents mired in poverty.

“Sometimes, something is not better than nothing,” said the Rev. James Coleman, pastor of All Nations Baptist Church in Northeast Washington’s Eckington neighborhood.

The ministers’ public entreaties come as non-Wal-Mart business interests have raised their voices to urge Gray to veto the bill.

On Wednesday, government-
affairs executives from six major national retailers including Target, Lowe’s and Walgreens wrote Gray, calling the bill “misguided” and “unfairly discriminatory” and suggesting that “future plans for retail expansion in the city must be revisited” should it become law. On Thursday, 17 of the city’s most prominent real-estate developers signed a missive saying high-
priority retail projects “will simply not move forward as planned” absent a veto. The D.C. Chamber of Commerce took out a full-page ad Friday in The Washington Post urging residents to contact Gray and “say ‘NO’ to the LRAA.”

The ministers were reticent to discuss the political ramifications of a Gray veto. “That’s not the issue right now,” said the Rev. Graylan S. Hagler, pastor of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ and a lead organizer supporting the bill. “We believe the mayor is intelligent enough, the mayor is wise enough, perceptive enough to take a stand and do the right thing.”

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) has said it could be several weeks before the bill reaches Gray’s desk, but there are already indications that a veto is likely. The deputy mayor for planning and economic development, Victor L. Hoskins, warned last week that the bill would devastate the city’s real estate development efforts, and Gray’s communications staff has shared letters urging a veto but none encouraging him to sign it.