Like the nation’s capital, the D.C. Council is changing. A wave of new lawmakers is replacing an older generation of mostly African American city leaders and reflects a younger, idealistic and more affluent electorate.
And those new council members are shifting the D.C. government to the left.
On Tuesday, the council approved legislation that would allow assisted suicide for terminally ill residents. It has enacted protections for transgender people and sought to regulate marijuana like any business. It wants to revive a moribund effort to strengthen campaign finance laws, after three former council members pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges.
But perhaps the new council members are most aggressive around economic issues and a commitment to use government to address inequality in a city with a growing income gap.
They have embraced a $15 minimum wage and are poised to approve legislation requiring employers to provide paid family leave. They want to enact regulations to create more predictable work schedules for hourly workers as well as new laws aimed at tightening rent control in a market with skyrocketing housing costs.
The shift is fueling anxiety among the city’s business leaders. Landlords are worried that their potential to earn a profit will be limited, and employers are concerned that new regulations will drive up costs and push down earnings. They fear that the council’s taste for spending, taxes and regulation will drive away investment.
Business leaders say the new D.C. Council needs to be more pragmatic and heed lessons from the District’s budget crisis of the 1990s.
“You’re definitely seeing rapid turnover [on the council], with a move toward members who are responding to younger voters with less of an institutional memory of hard times that the District faced,” Kevin Clinton, chief operating officer of the Federal City Council, said. “There’s less collective memory about what can happen if you don’t have restraint, if you overpromise as a government.”
The council’s new activism has also created challenges for Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D). She worries that the council’s actions will hamper business, discourage companies from creating jobs and strain the city’s finances. She has recently created a task force aimed in part at analyzing whether the council’s actions put D.C. at a competitive disadvantage with Maryland and Virginia.
Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), elected in 2014 and viewed as a leader of a bloc of new progressives, sums up their goals as “good government and economic fairness.”
The current council is often described as among the most liberal since Congress granted the city the authority to govern itself in 1973.
The trend partly reflects the idealism of new, younger residents who have moved into the District in the past decade, analysts say.
A 2014 Gallup poll found the percentage of people living in the District who consider themselves liberal is higher than the national average and significantly greater than in any of the 50 states.
“The biggest growing demographic in D.C. is college-educated whites, aged 25 to 35,” Ed Lazere, executive director of the Fiscal Policy Institute, said. “Those are Bernie Sanders voters, right? They care about public safety, but they also are very interested in income inequality.”
Some worry that the council has lost connections with the real needs of low-income people in the city.
“There is a disconnect on the council with people who are progressive, and have these great and brilliant ideas, but at the same time, they’re not from D.C.,” said Dyana Forester, a union activist who lives in Ward 7. “On the surface, they say the right things, but the implementation isn’t equivalent.”
Forester welcomed the minimum wage increase and favors the paid leave and fair scheduling bills, but she said they are inadequate because too many people are working part time and don’t benefit from those measures.
“What about the people who have been here all their lives?” said Forester, who is lead political and community representative for the United Food and Commercial Workers 400. “I just think there’s an extreme disconnect between the new legislators and the population that is underserved.”
Beginning with the arrival of David Grosso (I-At Large) in 2013, seven new D.C. Council members have taken office.
The new arrivals heralded a dramatic generational shift. All of them have been born since 1971, and they’ve changed the racial makeup of the body by a seat, giving whites a 7-to-6 majority.
Four of the newcomers belong to the progressive bloc: Grosso, Silverman, Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1) and Charles Allen (D-Ward 6). Many think they will gain a fifth ally with the arrival of Robert White Jr. (D-At Large), who took office in September after ousting longtime council member Vincent B. Orange, a quintessential old-school pol.
Grosso and White are candidates in the Nov. 8 election and are heavily favored to win. Two other nearly certain winners will be former mayor and council chair Vincent Gray (D), who is poised to take his old council seat representing Ward 7, and newcomer Trayon White (D), 32, set to represent Ward 8.
The progressive group gets support from other council members, depending on the issue. While the entire council is considered liberal, the bloc of five is seen as embodying a new approach and style that includes emphasizing honesty in government.
“I was trying to clean up the council [in seeking office], and make sure ethics is something we can believe in,” Grosso told a recent candidates forum in Chevy Chase. “Today, we’re in a better place than we’ve ever been, because other people have risen up and run for office, people like Robert White, Brianne Nadeau and Charles Allen.”
White beat Orange in the Democratic primary in June partly because of public concern about the incumbent’s ethics. The city’s ethics board had admonished Orange for intervening in a health department inspection of a campaign donor. While finishing his council term, Orange took a job as president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, insisting that he could represent residents and businesses simultaneously. After complaints from the public and some council colleagues, Orange resigned his seat, and White was appointed to replace him until the general election.
“Above anything else, people were looking for candidates who would be focused on results and not on themselves,” White said. “I don’t think voters trusted [Orange’s] motives.”
Silverman said the new members mark “a power shift in the city” that threatens the existing political structure.
As the demographics of the city have changed, many new voters lack attachments to long-standing political networks in the African American community. Two council members replaced in recent years — Michael A. Brown and Harry Thomas Jr. — were sons of influential black politicians.
New D.C. Council members reject the old ways in which relationships drove decision-making, Silverman said. Instead, they want metrics and measurable results to undergird policy and contracting.
“We are focused on campaign finance reform, for instance, and that is threatening to the entrenched political powers who have generally relied on relationships and money to keep their power and contracts with the District government,” Silverman said.
White said the council’s new efforts are focused on social and economic problems that cross race and class divides.
“The consensus for a new style of leadership isn’t restricted to any single demographic,” White said. “There are a lot of young people [of all races] who cannot afford to live in D.C. They are bunked up in one- or two-bedroom apartments and can’t afford to pay rent.”
The cross-racial appeal was apparent when White attended a meet-and-greet event with constituents on a recent Saturday morning on Capitol Hill.
It was at the home of Graham McLaughlin, 35, a white activist who chairs the board of Changing Perceptions, a nonprofit group that assists felons when they are released from prison. McLaughlin was hosting a pancake breakfast, and many of the guests were African American.
“We see folks who have been in D.C. for a long time falling further and further behind, and that is not right,” White said.
Kawan McCoy, 26, recently released from jail, told White, “It’s a blessing to have your support for this program.”
McLaughlin said several new council members support the nonprofit, including Grosso, Nadeau and Allen.
“They represent me, but I also think they represent all the other folks who are here, who are different from me from a race, class, economic perspective,” McLaughlin said.
Showdowns between the council and the mayor are looming over economic issues, beginning with the family leave bill.
The original bill, proposed by Grosso and Silverman, would have provided the most generous paid leave in the nation: 16 weeks a year, funded by a tax on D.C. businesses.
The bill is being revised under the direction of Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D). But Bowser thinks it’s still too expensive. Her administration claims that D.C. businesses would bear all the cost while most of the benefit would go to people who work in the city but reside in the suburbs.
“Our reading of the Chairman’s discussion draft is that more than 60 percent of the beneficiaries will be from Virginia, Maryland or elsewhere,” said John Falcicchio, Bowser’s chief of staff. “While we’re not suggesting we build a wall, we are guided by the principle that District resources should be used to give District residents a fair shot.”
Council members expect the bill to pass, however, and next year is likely to bring more battles over regulating workers’ schedules and rent control.
It’s not just ideology that makes the council willing to spend tax dollars or to require businesses to treat workers differently. It’s also the city’s prosperity.
Grosso contrasted the current environment with the time he worked on the staff of former council member Sharon Ambrose from 2001 to 2007.
“When our economy was in the dumps, you couldn’t talk about what was best for your values,” Grosso said. “Every week you were thinking about what you could cut. But now we’re in a time of plenty.”