For three-and-a-half hours last week, the Montgomery County Council worked its way through the complexities of a ground-breaking bill to raise the local minimum wage. Most of the discussion was crisp and on point.
But as the proceedings approached the four-hour mark, the council dais began to look and sound like a Thanksgiving dinner where long-simmering family tensions bubbled to the surface. The measure sponsored by Council member Marc Elrich (D-At-Large), lifting the minimum from $7.25 to $11.50 by 2017, passed 8-to-1 last Tuesday. The decisive final margin, however, belied the level of acrimony and personal animus. [Watch video of the hearing beginning at 4:59:05]
The first unexpected twist came from Council member Craig Rice (D-Upcounty), who for weeks had urged the council to defer action until the General Assembly passed a statewide wage hike. But toward the end of the debate, Rice solemnly announced that he would support Elrich’s initial proposal to raise the county minimum to $11.50 by 2016.
Rice, who concluded that he did not have the votes to delay council action, had been expected to join Council members Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), George Leventhal (D-At-Large), Hans Riemer (D-At-Large), Nancy Floreen (D-At-Large) and Phil Andrews (D-Rockville-Gaithersburg) in an amendment that raised the wage at a slower pace: to $10.75 by 2016 and to the lesser of $11.50 or the state minimum plus $1 by 2017.
“I didn’t come up on this dais to bicker over 75 cents an hour,” Rice said. “If we’re going to do it, and if it’s the will of my colleagues that we want to do something, then my question is, why don’t we go forward with the number? So I’m in support of $11.50....The original proposal.”
Gasps of surprise and applause rippled through the chamber.
Leventhal, who had planned on a strong six-vote majority for the amendment, was clearly stunned by Rice’s reversal.
“Mr. Rice has now come up with what I think is ... I’m losing track of how many times I’ve heard Mr. Rice change his views.”
[Leventhal sent mixed messages of his own, saying at a Nov. 21 committee hearing that while he favored an increase, he was uncertain about the amount. A few minutes later, at a rally with workers on the council office steps, he was much less conditional in his support for Elrich’s bill.]
Without naming her, Leventhal chided Council member Valerie Ervin (D- Silver Spring), one of Elrich’s co-sponsors, for telling The Washington Post that the bill raising the minimum to $11.50 by 2016 was “a vote of conscience” and “a litmus test” for the June 2014 Democratic primary.
“Some colleagues are eager to make this an election issue, as quoted in the paper this morning,” Leventhal said. He noted that he’d spoken to many members eager to find common ground below $11.50 an hour.
Leventhal, who once employed Ervin as his chief of staff, but who has had personal and political clashes with her since, said:
“We’re all members of the same political party. I would hope we would all try to come together. But if we’re seeking to score a partisan victory ... then we will be here for a long time.”
Ervin took exception to Leventhal’s implication that he’d reached out to a majority of council members to build a consensus. She said they’d never spoken.
Ervin: “What you just said is not correct ....You also stated something about a partisan victory? What partisan victory? We’re all Democrats. We’re all supposed to be progressive Democrats. That’s the partisan victory we’re trying to establish here today. But I never spoke to the majority of the council on this bill.”
Ervin: “That’s right, George. Did I speak to you? Did I forget that?”
Leventhal: “Are you addressing a question to me, Council member Ervin?”
Ervin: “You have cast some aspersions here about who spoke to who ... I didn’t speak to five council members.”
Leventhal: “Are you interested in dialogue?”
Ervin: “No I’m not, as a matter of fact.”
Leventhal: “Not interested in dialogue with other council members, for the record.”
Ervin: “Not right now.”
Leventhal: “For the record. Got it.”
Ervin: “Got it, got it, got it.”
Before the vote on his amendment, Berliner asked Economic Development Director Steve Silverman, who was at the hearing representing County Executive Isiah Leggett, if Leggett supported an increase to $10.75 an hour by 2016. Silverman said yes, and added this slightly mangled testimonial to Leggett’s humble roots:
“I don’t think anybody in this county can take a back seat to the county executive when it comes to his support for underprivileged and poor people, given where he came from, abject poverty in Louisiana.”
This was a little much for Council President Nancy Navarro (D-Midcounty), a native of Caracas,Venezuela:
“Sometimes I find it very amusing when we try to compare who knows poverty better, and who stands for poverty more than others and who has experienced it more ... If anybody ever wants to compare poverty stories, I’ve a lot poverty stories to share with you that I have witnessed and experienced myself as well as all my family members.”
The question of who speaks for Montgomery’s poor has been a recurring point of tension on the council, most recently played out over Riemer’s proposal earlier this year to raise the Working Families Income Supplement, a county payment that intended to piggyback onto the federal Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor. Riemer’s bill passed, but not without pushback from Navarro and Ervin, who questioned whether it was the best use of county funds.
Riemer, speaking in support of Berliner’s amendment, underscored the importance of aggressively lobbying the General Assembly to raise the statewide minimum.
Riemer: “We are going to have to take the battle to Annapolis, and get the state to raise the minimum wage.”
Ervin: “Good luck.”
Riemer: “Well, we’ll see if you’re there on the front lines.”
Leventhal, calling for calm, said: “Let’s get through this civilly. People have strong views on this. Everybody’s views are sincere, everybody’s views are appropriate.”
But Leventhal followed up his appeal for comity by taking another poke at Rice, citing his previous insistence that the council should wait for the state.
“That was a couple of hours ago, before his most recent change in position,” he said.
Berliner’s amendment was approved, 5-4. But a motion by Elrich, to phase in the increase from $7.25 to $11.50 across four years instead of three, won 6-3.
Council members, perhaps not wishing to be seen voting against an increase in the minimum wage just after approving a healthy raise for the council that will be seated after the 2014 election, approved the final measure, 8-to-1. Only Andrews, who also voted against the council pay hike, remained in opposition.