The move has outraged many voters — even some who voted against the measure — who say their elected officials have no business negating the will of the people.
Hundreds have called or emailed D.C. Council offices. Several neighborhood email groups have erupted in anger. And some residents are vowing to punish lawmakers who support repeal.
“It enrages me,” said Cosby Hunt, a 46-year-old North Michigan Park resident who is considering changing his Statehood Green Party affiliation to vote out Democratic incumbents in future primaries. “If you voted to overturn this, just out of principle, you have to go.”
Current law allows employers to pay $3.89 an hour and count tips toward the standard minimum wage of $13.25. Initiative 77 requires employers to gradually increase hourly wages for tipped workers until they reach what will be the new standard minimum for all hourly workers of $15 an hour by 2025.
Supporters of the ballot measure said it guarantees reliable income for workers, while opponents said it will raise labor costs for restaurants, forcing some to cut jobs or even close. And some servers, who earn more than $15 an hour now with gratuities, worry that patrons will stop tipping and their income will drop.
At a Friday rally outside the D.C. government building, pro-Initiative 77 activists — joined by actress Jane Fonda — argued that lawmakers were trampling on civil rights. The most heavily African American parts of the city — wards 5, 7 and 8 — passed Initiative 77 by the greatest margins, although the lawmakers representing them favor repeal.
“This is about protecting democracy,” said Diana Ramirez, who leads the D.C. branch of the Restaurant Opportunities Center, which sponsored the ballot measure. “This fight is about who gets to decide what women of color make in the District: The big business lobby across the street, or constituents of D.C.”
Council members Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) and Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8), who back repeal, did not respond to requests for comment. White made clear he doesn’t fear constituent backlash, telling detractors on social media that “I know Ward 8 pretty well” and that the “vote is irrelevant.”
Before last month’s election, 10 out of 13 D.C. Council members opposed the initiative, many arguing that a complex issue shouldn’t be decided at the ballot box. After it passed, some lawmakers insisted there wasn’t a clear voter mandate because of record-low turnout in the June 19 primary and confusing language on the ballot.
Amanda Wethington voted against Initiative 77, but she doesn’t agree with the arguments made by D.C. Council members who want to repeal it.
“You shouldn’t assume an electorate, the people who are voting, don’t know what they are voting for,” said Wethington, a 37-year-old human resources consultant who lives on Capitol Hill. “It doesn’t give you a right to overturn it.”
Not every voter is up in arms.
Martha Bolner, a resident of Ward 3 in Northwest Washington, said she’s ambivalent about repealing an initiative she supported with “some trepidation.”
“There are distinct points of view on the subject on whether it’s really good for people in the food and beverage industries,” said Bolner, who has lived in Washington for more than 50 years. “The size of the voter turnout was not indicative of the voting public at large, and that also bothers me.”
The will of voters is a sensitive issue in the District, where Congress can overturn the city’s laws and control its spending — and has done so. Federal lawmakers used this power to hamper a 2014 initiative legalizing marijuana.
In an ironic twist, members of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus on Wednesday proposed an amendment to block Initiative 77, placing them in rare agreement with left-of-center lawmakers.
To underline the contradiction, the campaign behind Initiative 77 released an online video with clips of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) railing against Congress for interfering with the marijuana legalization initiative. Mendelson is leading the charge on repeal. Bowser opposed the tipped-wage measure but hasn’t taken a position on repeal.
“In a district where we have limited representation already . . . I’ll do everything in my power to ensure every one of them who supports this initiative to overturn 77 will not have a comfortable political life in D.C.,” said Mondale Robinson, a Ward 3 voter who works for the liberal Democracy for America.
Some council members have dismissed complaints that repeal is anti-democratic.
“I’m a little puzzled by someone saying, ‘Oh, my gosh, the people voted for this,’” said council member Jack Evans (D), whose downtown Ward 2 narrowly favored the measure. “Well, the people also voted for me to exercise my best judgment, and that’s exactly what I’m doing.”
A lawmaker for nearly three decades, Evans has seen the council overturn voter initiatives that imposed term limits and tightened campaign finance rules without lasting political fallout.
But other council members seem to recognize the danger of going up against their constituents.
In a statement defending his support of repeal legislation, Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) noted he was a former civil rights attorney at the U.S. Justice Department but didn’t think Initiative 77 would lead to “equitable outcomes.”
Council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large) said she is “committed to upholding the will of our residents” but that “it is also my responsibility to interject or intercept on their behalf when any action or measure will bring about unforeseeable hardships in the future.”
Council member Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4) appears to be under the most pressure.
He hails from one of the most civically engaged parts of the city with some of the highest voter turnout rates. Residents on both sides of the issue lashed out against him on Petworth, Shepherd Park and Chevy Chase neighborhood email groups. Hundreds more have called, emailed or asked Todd about Initiative 77 in person.
The lawmaker responded with a lengthy statement he shared on Facebook, Twitter and in his weekly newsletter trying to explain that hearings on the repeal would result in “nuanced deliberations” and a potential compromise.
“Certainly I take very seriously the will of voters, but I think the introduction of this legislation is really a way to enhance the democratic process,” Todd said in an interview.
“You know every time you have anything like this you’ll hear from voters. We want to make sure we are being as open and transparent as possible.”
Some appreciated his responsiveness. Margery Goldberg, 68, said she understood the case for repealing Initiative 77.
“It was ill-explained, ill-conceived and probably shouldn’t have been on the ballot in the first thing,” said Goldberg, a 68-year-old art gallery director in Shepherd Park. “But I don’t think D.C. voters like being told they are not smart enough to figure this stuff out.”
Count Reva Schwartz among them.
“He has this condescending, paternalistic attitude that we don’t know any better, that we’re just these stupid voters taken along for a ride or something,” said Schwartz, a 45-year-old social science researcher in Petworth who said she would volunteer for Todd’s challenger in 2020 if he votes for repeal. “I wasn’t hoodwinked. Even if I was — which I wasn’t — it’s still my vote, and you shouldn’t throw it away.”
The council is expected to hold hearings on repeal this fall when it returns from summer recess.