D.C. Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) on Thursday sparred with Dionne Reeder, an independent challenger who recently gained the backing of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), over the sweeping paid family and medical leave law that Silverman co-sponsored.
Their contest, the most competitive race of the November general election, has turned into a referendum on the 2016 law, which levies a 0.62 percent payroll tax on employers to fund a government-run benefits program.
It was one of Silverman’s biggest achievements since her election to the council in 2014 but has been opposed by Bowser and business groups.
Reeder, who owns the restaurant Cheers at the Big Chair in Southeast Washington, says the law is burdensome on small businesses and is a waste of tax dollars because many of the beneficiaries will be suburban residents who work in the city. She said the money would be better spent on housing for D.C. residents but offered no suggestions for changing the paid leave law.
“The way the tax bill is set up, I am not going to be able to function in Ward 8 where there is a food desert,” said Reeder, 47. “I don’t know every answer or how to restructure it, but I know the current way it is, it would possibly put me out of business.”
Silverman, 45, defended the law, saying constraints on the city’s tax powers meant benefits had to apply to workers regardless of where they live. She also noted that the legislation had been widely debated by lawmakers and the public.
“It has been a three-year discussion. There’s been plenty of time for people to propose alternatives,” said Silverman, a former Washington Post reporter and analyst at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. “Anyone who says they don’t support this current form of paid leave doesn’t support paid leave.”
The law, which is set to take effect in early October, provides up to eight weeks of paid time off for new parents, six weeks to care for an ill relative and two weeks of personal sick time. Earlier this year, the council considered — and abandoned — proposals to overhaul the law.
Voters can pick two candidates for two at-large seats in November. Six candidates are on the ballot.
Council member Anita Bonds is expected to easily win reelection as the Democratic nominee in a deep blue city, while Silverman is more vulnerable as an independent.
Republican Ralph J. Chittams Sr., Statehood Green Party Candidate David Schwartzman and independent Rustin Lewis were also at a forum hosted by the D.C. Bar’s D.C. Affairs Community.
Reeder is considered the strongest of the challengers because she has the endorsements of Bowser, which comes with fundraising and canvassing help, and Southeast Washington community leaders.
Business and civic leaders originally lined up behind insurance agent S. Kathryn Allen, who was disqualified from the ballot this month after it was determined her qualifying petitions contained fraudulent signatures. Some have since flocked to Reeder as a way of ousting Silverman, one of the most progressive members of the council.
On Thursday, Reeder touted her local Washington roots while Silverman highlighted her oversight of the mayor’s administration.
“I’ve been criticized for that, but I think spending our taxpayer dollars well is critical,” Silverman said.
Silverman and Reeder agreed the council should not overturn Initiative 77, a ballot measure passed by voters in June to increase the minimum wage for servers, bartenders and others who depend on tips.
They disagreed on whether the city should ban campaign contributions from city contractors. Silverman supports the proposed ban, Reeder said it would be “divisive” to block local companies from the political process.
Reeder also suggested she would add to the diversity on the council, noting Bonds was the only black woman on the legislative body.
“The voice that’s missing on our city council is an African American woman business owner, and I fill that,” Reeder said.