The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Poisoning democracy’: in a city without representation in Congress, repeal of ballot measure angers residents

D.C. lawmakers took initial steps to overturn Initiative 77. In June, voters passed the law that would increase wages for tipped workers. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

D.C. lawmakers have long complained that residents of the nation’s capital pay federal taxes and serve in the military yet are denied self-governance because they lack a vote in Congress.

But on Tuesday, the D.C. Council reduced even the limited ability of District residents to decide local matters — by repealing a ballot measure that voters passed just four months ago.

The council voted 8 to 5 to overturn Initiative 77, which was designed to end a two-tier minimum-wage system that allows employers to pay bartenders, servers, bellhops and other tipped workers a few dollars an hour as long as customer gratuities add up to the standard minimum wage. The measure would have gradually raised the current $3.89 hourly tipped wage until it matched the standard minimum wage in 2026.

“I feel like our vote doesn’t count and our voices aren’t being heard,” said Richard Jones Jr., a 38-year-old physician who lives in Southeast and voted for Initiative 77.

The move seemed hypocritical to some because local lawmakers howl when Congress uses its power to overturn laws and spending decisions made by the D.C. Council.

In Northwest Washington, Lisa B. Cohen of Takoma has been watching the repeal effort in horror.

“They are acting just like our congressional masters,” said Cohen, a 58-year-old congressional staffer who tweeted her displeasure at D.C. Council Member Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4), one of the eight to overturn the measure. “It completely undermines our efforts for enfranchisement.”

Turnout reaches record low in D.C. June primary

David Joseph, who lives in neighboring 16th Street Heights, agreed.

“The repeal of 77 and ignoring of the voters reinforces the idea we shouldn’t have democracy, and it’s right out of the playbook of the people who are standing against statehood,” said Joseph, a 38-year-old political consultant. “They can point to this and say, ‘Your city council doesn’t believe in democracy, so why should I’?”

The council members who voted for repeal said they acted in the best interests of the city, which is what voters elected them to do. They said Initiative 77 was a bad law that threatened to harm the city’s burgeoning dining industry by driving up labor costs. And they saw no contradiction in repealing a voter initiative while also pressing for statehood.

D.C. statehood gains appeal as a way to cement Democratic power

“Not one resident of the District of Columbia is able to vote for a single member of Congress. That's the difference,” Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who led the repeal charge, said last week. “They voted for me, and I was against the initiative.”

Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) disagreed. Allen opposed Initiative 77 but also opposed repeal. Allen, who has led a “Hands Off D.C.” movement since 2016, said he can’t simultaneously nullify the result of a local election while arguing that Congress should respect the will of D.C. residents.

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the city’s longtime nonvoting representative in the House, said she doesn’t expect the Initiative 77 repeal to hurt the city’s campaign for statehood because local and state governments around the country have been increasingly overturning voter initiatives.

“It’s not as if the D.C. Council was doing something that is inconsistent with the self-governing rights of states and cities,” Norton said.

Still, Norton opposed repeal, and a quote from her to that effect was projected onto a building next to city hall on the eve of the vote. Robin Bell, a “guerrilla artist” known for shining anti-Trump messages on his downtown hotel, did the projections.

“It’s important for me to be consistent on overturning legislation because I don’t want anyone to throw it in my face that I’m for overturning matters when the District does it and not when Congress does it, even though I understand there are differences between the two,” said Norton.

Read about Initiative 77 and the movement to change restaurant worker pay

Bo Shuff, who leads the statehood advocacy group D.C. Vote, counters the notion that repealing voter initiatives undermines the principle of self-determination at the heart of the city’s statehood bid.

“The fight for statehood and fight for equal representation is all about being able to elect representatives who speak for us,” said Shuff. “We have that on the D.C. Council. We may not always agree with what they do.”

Nancy Roth, a neighborhood commissioner in Petworth and Brightwood Park, said the council’s action was more democratic than the ballot initiative process. The council held a public hearing and listened to both sides, while the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, the nonprofit organization behind Initiative 77, took complex legislation directly to the voters without consulting restaurant owners and other affected people, Roth said.

“Engagement is democracy,” said Roth. “If you are trying to effect a change, you owe it to all parties to hear their voices and incorporate their suggestions.”

Mendelson has noted that he, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and other officials easily beat primary challenges in June after campaigning against Initiative 77. But none of them announced they wanted to repeal the ballot measure before the primary, and Mendelson repeatedly declined to say what he would do if the measure passed.

D.C. voters seethe as council moves to overturn Initiative 77

Some voters say they’ll remember who voted for repeal.

“These people are at least still a little accountable in that we can vote them out,” said Will Urquhart, a 34-year-old musician in Foggy Bottom. “It’s not like when Congress overturns what we do, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”

Urquhart said he may vote against council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large), who backed repeal and is on the ballot in November’s general election, as well as his local representative Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), if Evans runs for reelection in 2020.

Other lawmakers who backed repeal include council members Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8), Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7), Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4) and David Grosso (I-At Large). McDuffie faces nominal competition in November, and the rest are up for reelection in 2020.

Mendelson’s staff said his office has received about a dozen calls from residents since Tuesday, mostly opposing repeal. Todd’s staff said calls and emails have been roughly split between repeal supporters and opponents.

Council members who voted against repeal — Allen, Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) — say they’ve gotten dozens of calls, social media posts and emails thanking them. Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1) also voted against repeal.

Activist Travis Ballie said he was particularly dismayed by Grosso, who had been a reliable progressive vote on the council. Ballie, who has volunteered for Grosso in the past, said he will now work to unseat him.

“He has really lost stature as someone who can credibly be called a progressive champion for Washington, D.C.,” said Ballie, 30, of Southeast. “He took the worst path.”

Grosso did not immediately return a call seeking comment. In a statement he issued after the vote, Grosso defended his record and said the ballot measure would have resulted in layoffs.

“Increased wages would help to improve the quality of life for employees, but not if they don’t have a job to begin with,” Grosso said.

Turnout in the June primary, when voters approved Initiative 77, was just 18 percent, among the lowest in decades.

Some say the council’s move to overturn the ballot measure threatens to drive voter participation down even further.

“What they are doing is poisoning democracy,” said Fernando Laguarda, a 52-year-old law professor at American University who lives in Tenleytown. “D.C. should be a role model for a flowering, rampant democracy.”