The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. candidate promised a plan for paid family leave. Now she says to wait until after Election Day.

Dionne Reeder, left, who is challenging D.C. Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), said the law Silverman championed for paid family and medical leave threatens small businesses. (Rachel Chason/The Washington Post)

Dionne Reeder launched a bid for the D.C. Council more than a year ago with harsh criticism of a law on paid family and medical leave, winning support from Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and the business community in what has become the most competitive race of the Nov. 6 election.

But with 12 days to go until Election Day, Reeder has yet to propose a plan for her signature issue and says it’s unfair to ask her for one.

“I have not had the experience to actually sit and be able to create a policy document on every issue across the city,” Reeder said at a media meet-and-greet organized by her campaign on Thursday.

Reeder, a restaurant co-owner in Southeast Washington, is trying to unseat Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), a progressive lawmaker who co-wrote the 2016 law that will impose a 0.62 percent ­payroll tax on private employers to fund paid family leave for workers in the city. Tax collection begins in July, and benefits are supposed to be available by July 2020.

D.C. Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) and Council candidate Dionne Reeder (D) debated the city’s paid family leave law during a hearing on Oct. 9. (Video: D.C. Council)

Reeder said that she supports the idea of paid family leave but that the law passed by the council is burdensome on businesses and will benefit suburbanites who work in D.C.

Earlier this month, she said she would propose an alternative plan by Oct. 7 but didn’t. Two days later, Reeder testified at a council hearing convened by Silverman that she wanted the paid-leave program to succeed without hurting businesses, but she offered few specifics. In subsequent forums and interviews, Reeder said she didn’t want to “speak out of turn” by proposing an alternative.

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Asked Thursday about her plan for an alternative to paid family leave, Reeder changed the topic.

“Now the focus is on GOTV,” Reeder said, using an acronym for get-out-the-vote. “Let’s get me across the finish line, and then you’ll see my platform.”

And she criticized a reporter for asking about the matter.

“I’m not your council member yet,” Reeder continued. “What I am going to say to you is, you know, we often place unfair expectations on people that you want to. I’m not going to let you do that to me. I’m smarter than that.”

Bowser, who faces nominal opposition in her bid for reelection and has a flush campaign account, jumped into the council race in September to help Reeder unseat Silverman after another business-backed candidate, S. Kathryn Allen, was removed from the ballot because of fraudulent signatures on her nominating petition.

The mayor has loaned her donor network to Reeder, who raised more than $40,000 at a Wednesday fundraiser on U Street that drew the mayor and a throng of business executives.

Reeder’s Wednesday fundraising haul follows $192,000 she reported raising as of Oct. 10, much of it from real estate developers, restaurateurs and other business interests. Before Bowser’s help, Reeder’s campaign account had less than $5,000.

Silverman, who does not accept corporate donations, says she has raised an additional $59,000 since the last fundraising period, bringing her total to $227,000.

Business groups say the paid-leave law will hurt companies that already provide benefits by creating a new tax and a city bureaucracy to administer it. The mayor let the program become law without her signature and has continued to argue that the expected $250 million annual costs to administer the program are better spent elsewhere.

Bowser flexes mayoral muscle in unprecedented attempt to oust a lawmaker

Silverman called Reeder’s handling of the paid-leave issue deceptive.

“This is a classic bait-and-switch. You can’t say you are for family leave, but not this law, and not come up with an alternative,” said Silverman, who is seeking a second term. She worked as a policy analyst at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute and was a reporter for Washington City Paper and, briefly, The Washington Post.

“The job of a legislator is to craft public policy that will benefit our residents and our workers and to take clear positions on them, and not the kind of smokescreen approach that Dionne has chosen.”

The window for changing the paid-leave law may have closed.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who shepherded the law to passage, said last year he was willing to revisit how the law is financed.

But negotiations collapsed, and he dropped those efforts in February.

At a news conference earlier this month, Mendelson suggested the results of the at-large race would have no bearing on the future of the paid-leave program.

“To revisit it, the way the rhetoric is going, over my dead body,” Mendelson said. “And I’m still alive.”

Voters in November can choose two candidates for at-large council seats; one of those seats is reserved for someone who is not from the party in power — in this case, Democrats. Council member Anita Bonds (D) is widely expected to take one of the seats and win reelection. Independent candidate Rustin Lewis, Statehood Green Party candidate David Schwartzman and Republican Ralph Chittams Sr. are also on the ballot but have raised little campaign cash.

Robert McCartney and Paul Schwartzman contributed to this report.