D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser on Tuesday called for increasing the city’s minimum wage to $15 by 2020, dedicating her second citywide address to what she called a “bold” plan to make good on her motto to create “pathways to the middle class” for residents.
In her State of the District address, Bowser (D) said the city would assume all operations at the D.C. jail next year, allowing the District to bring back inmates from federal prisons more quickly and provide more support to inmates when they are released.
The mayor also pledged to make “the largest investment in public education” in the city’s history and promised to fully modernize every school that has not yet received a renovation since the city began that campaign a decade ago.
Calling affordable child care a problem from Cleveland Park to Anacostia, Bowser said she had directed city officials to study ways to lower costs.
Together, Bowser’s proposals offered her a chance to retake the agenda after a year in which she acknowledged that events overtook some of her initial plans.
Bowser spent the past year dealing with a dramatic rise in homicides, trying to overhaul the District’s approach to housing homeless families and negotiating terms for a troubled merger of the city’s electric utility, Pepco, with the nuclear energy giant Exelon.
Addressing the city’s 54 percent homicide spike last year, Bowser offered a dig at the centerpiece of the D.C. Council’s response — a measure calling for paying suspected criminals to engage with mentors to turn their lives around. Bowser is expected to not include funding for the plan, but key council members have promised to take money from her other initiatives to fund the experiment.
Those “left out of prosperity are not looking for a handout, they just want a shot, a chance, and they need help,” Bowser said, arguing that city jobs programs are where the District should invest resources.
The mayor’s proposal for raising the minimum wage promised to grab the attention of an increasingly liberal D.C. Council and possibly to give her leverage to secure votes for her plan to create a network of shelters for homeless families across the city.
“With grocery bills, child care . . . and the other expenses of everyday life . . . an hourly minimum wage of eleven dollars and fifty cents will only stretch so far,” said Bowser, who delivered her remarks at Arena Stage in Southwest Washington. “Low wages create an invisible ceiling that prevents working families from truly getting a fair shot.”
Bowser’s decision to push for a higher minimum wage was surprising, because she had until recently expressed skepticism about further increases. It also appeared likely to preempt a ballot-measure fight over a $15 minimum wage, which is tied up in the courts but could still appear on the November ballot if supporters gather enough signatures.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who has been lukewarm to increasing the minimum wage above that in neighboring counties in Maryland, said he would have to see details of Bowser’s wage plan before deciding whether he would support it.
Bowser also offered a blueprint for her expected $13 billion spending plan, scheduled to be released Thursday. She promised continued record spending on affordable housing and to dedicate a greater share of the city’s borrowing capacity to finishing the job of renovating nearly all city schools by 2022. Bowser also stressed anew that she would fulfill a campaign promise to close the city’s dilapidated family homeless shelter at D.C. General Hospital.
The mayor’s speech followed a rocky rollout of her plan. She was criticized last month for withholding information about how she selected the shelter sites.
Last week, council support also appeared to weaken, with some lawmakers questioning the mayor’s plan to lease the sites for proposed shelters from developers, including several who have made political donations to Bowser.
Bowser has declined to answer questions about the developers who have either directly donated to her campaigns or to political efforts on her behalf.
“People have said vicious things. They’ve clouded the mission,” she said, imploring the D.C. Council “not to be distracted by arguments that are based on fear or convenience.”
“Make no mistake, if we fail to act . . . we will not be able to close D.C. General,” Bowser said.
A small group of protesters Tuesday evening said Bowser wasn’t living up to a pledge she made during her first State of the District address in 2015, when she promised a new era in transparency in city government. “Accountability is embedded in everything this administration does,” Bowser said at the time.
About 10 people gathered outside Arena Stage to protest, holding signs and distributing fliers opposing her plan for new homeless shelters across the District.
Gabriel Serrato, 37, who lives in the vicinity of Bowser’s planned Ward 6 homeless shelter at 700 Delaware Ave. SW, said he saw the plan as keeping homeless people displaced and benefiting connected developers.
At that site, developer Bryan “Scottie” Irving is listed as the registered agent of a new corporation that would lease the site. The city lease would increase the value of the property tenfold, according to an analysis for the D.C. Council.
“When it looks like campaign donors are making a massive windfall with taxpayer dollars, she has to answer for that,” said Serrato, who held a sign saying “Mayor Bowser Stop Hiding” and depicted her as an animated character cowering under a desk.
The mayor also dedicated a substantial portion of her remarks lamenting the District’s lack of voting rights in Congress. She opened her speech with a rebuttal to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who had recently questioned the city’s ability to manage itself because of the $200 million it had spent to open the streetcar line. And she finished with a lofty appeal for greater autonomy, invoking the civil rights battles of the 1960s.
She called the District’s recent court victory in the controversy over how its budget is approved by Congress “one step closer to becoming the 51st state.”
Bowser said there is unfinished business from the 1960s.
“Maybe people didn’t think that we had to protect people of the nation’s capital,” she said. “But 154 years after President Lincoln abolished slavery, in Washington D.C., we remain at the mercy of those we did not elect to office. It’s not right and let’s stand together until everyone recognizes it.”