Sherwood's Notebook: There's ‘There There'

We think U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen last week was channeling a reverse Gertrude Stein.

Stein was famous for saying of changes in her hometown of Oakland, Calif., and reluctance to visit that “there’s no there there.”

Our thoughts of Stein came up when Machen was asked in a public forum about his long investigation into Mayor Vincent Gray’s 2010 campaign for mayor. It was at the Hill Center on Capitol Hill. Your Notebook was hosting the interview.

Why is it taking so long, we asked? It was a question we get three or five times a week on the city streets. Machen had an answer. First, he said, some of the same people who are complaining about how long it’s taking are the same ones refusing to turn over documents or talk to investigators.

And at that point, we got our Gertrude Stein moment.

Some folks on the mayor’s staff, we told Machen, think he has nothing on Gray.

“You’ve got four people associated with a mayoral campaign who have pled guilty to felonies,” Machen calmly responded. “It’s not like we’ve been looking at this for three years and there’s no there there. I mean, there’s there there, and we’re trying to gather information, we’re trying to get documents and we’re trying to talk to people.”

The hourlong interview was wide-ranging, with comments about Machen’s early childhood, his educator parents, his time at Stanford and his family now. We talked about the multi-layered U.S. Attorney’s Office here that handles international and national crimes as well as District prosecutions.

We asked a lot, but it was the taciturn Machen’s comments on the Gray investigation that left our audience wanting more.

■ Happy birthday news? Last Friday, several reporters gave up our Friday night to attend the mayor’s 71st birthday party. It was held at Lost Society, a spacious, multi-level bar at 14th and U streets. There were rumors that Gray, in front of this friendly crowd, might make his political plans known.

No luck. The mayor pointed out the reporters in the room, saying they were all there to write something. (We were.) The crowd sang a few bars of “Happy Birthday” and several chanted “four more years, four more years.” Never mind that many in the crowd were Gray’s own cabinet members — the mayor was having a good time.

But he gave no hint of his soon-to-come decision on whether he’ll run or not.

■ Thank you for tipping. Restaurant workers hope you’re in the holiday spirit — and tip well.
Those workers who depend on tips, especially waiters, are being left out of a plan to gradually raise the D.C. minimum wage from the current $8.25 per hour to $11.50 by the summer of 2016. Tipped workers will remain stuck at $2.77 per hour.

The D.C. Council’s Economic Development Committee voted 6-0 on Monday for the plan. It was less than the $12.50 that committee chair Vincent Orange (at-large) had wanted.
But the $11.50 apparently is a number that’s veto-proof.

Mayor Gray still is supporting a raise to $10 an hour next year, similar to increases supported by business leaders, but with no more increases until a study can be done of impacts on city business.

“Lots of people want to open businesses in the city right now,” the mayor said on Monday in an interview with NBC4. “And we need to make sure we continue to be a place that encourages businesses in the city.”

Orange, who has announced he’s running for mayor, said the booming city is ripe for better treatment of its minimum-wage workers. “Right now the council is ready to move forward,” he told us. “The citizens of the District of Columbia are ready to move forward.”

The council is expected to take its first full vote on the issue next week and may pass final legislation by the end of the year.

All of the council members had indicated they wanted to raise the minimum wage; it’s only been a question of how much and how fast. This debate follows a contentious — and unsuccessful — move to force Walmart to pay a minimum of $12.50 an hour.

The council passed that legislation but Mayor Gray vetoed it. After months of wrangling, the council failed to override the mayor’s veto. Walmart had threatened to cancel plans for six stores in the city. But now, the first two are set to open next week.

The minimum wage change has been much less contentious. “I think everyone knows that living on $8.25 an hour, the current minimum wage, is just impossible in this city,” said Elissa Silverman, a former council candidate and a chief strategist for the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute.

■ New Supercans coming. Mayor Gray has one-upped proposals to make it easier for residents to get new garbage cans. The mayor this week announced that all residents who have Supercans will get a new one by July of next year, along with bigger new recycling bins.

When we caught up with the mayor on Monday, he laughed when we suggested that would be a good campaign issue if he should decide to run for re-election. He expressed mock surprise.
Staring into the NBC4 camera, Gray solemnly said, “I wouldn’t ever talk about the fact that everybody’s going to get a Supercan in the District of Columbia by next July.” And then he laughed.

■ A final word. Joe Grano died this week. A more obstinate optimist you’ll never meet. He relentlessly padded around Washington for the past 30 years-plus, promoting voting rights, statehood and respect for the once-dilapidated World War I Memorial. He button-holed, cornered, cajoled and — some say — corralled journalists and politicians to please pay attention to the issues that burned so bright with him.

Joe Grano, always on the case. He was a living example of my email tag line — “local Washington only is good as the people active in it.” Joe was one of the good guys.

Tom Sherwood, a Southwest resident, is a political reporter for News 4.

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