The Jaffe Report: D.C. Council's Leftward Lean

Harry Jaffe, a longtime chronicler of the people and politics of Washington, D.C., writes a column for NBC Washington's First Read DMV blog.

In a few weeks voters across the nation will go to the polls and determine whether the country follows a progressive or conservative course.

Here in the District our course is set; we are about to venture down the most progressive path in the Home Rule era.

Voters set that leftward lean in the last few D.C. council elections when they replaced experienced, centrist candidates with young progressives. Six decidedly liberal members have been elected in the last few years.

They will join Chairman Phil Mendelson, who leans left on most matters.

“In a way they are very different progressives,” says Jack Evans, who’s represented Ward 2 on the council for 25 years. “Progressive issues in the 1990s were civil rights. Now it’s social justice programs.”

The council’s progressive majority is likely to drive the District’s politics and legislation for the next two years, during the second half of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s first term. If Bowser had any sway over the council, she squandered it in the last primary election when her three candidates lost to members who now owe her nothing.

“She has one vote,” says a political consultant, referring to Brandon Todd, her handpicked replacement in Ward 4. “That’s it.”

It gets worse for Bowser. Her nemesis, former Mayor Vincent Gray, will assume the Ward 7 seat in January. He still believes Bowser knocked him off in 2014 only after federal prosecutors alleged -- but never proved -- he knowingly took dirty cash in the 2010 campaign.

“Every day people plead with me to run for mayor against Bowser,” he said. “I won’t rule it out.”

Add it up and you have a volatile political brew that could be hard on business and great for social service programs. Tobacco free zones are in. The council is considering one that will ban smoking at Nationals Park. The Redskins coming to D.C. is out. No way this council will allow a football team with a name many consider offensive to return to the nation’s capital.

It’s good for commissions on climate change. Ward 3’s Mary Cheh proposed one this week. It could be bad for private sector employers.

“Some of the things the council is considering could put the District in a competitive disadvantage with Maryland and Virginia,” says Jim Dinegar, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade.

One of those things is family leave. No doubt the council will adopt laws and regulations that will allow employees to take paid leave for health and family emergencies, as it should. But many businesses are balking at up to 16 weeks off, paid for by a tax that would be administered by a new government agency.

“Create a new government agency to handle the money?” asks Vince Gray, who supports the concept of family leave. “I don’t think that’s a good idea at all.”

He’s not sure about allowing 16 weeks, either.

At-large member Elissa Silverman, perhaps the most progressive of all, ticks off a series of legislative goals to make life in the District “fair for everyone.” That means a generous paid family leave package, fair scheduling for employees so that part-time workers have the benefits and choices of full-time employees, stronger consumer protection laws, more subsidized child care, mentoring programs for job seekers and increased welfare for poor families.

The District has plenty of cash. Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey DeWitt recently revised local fund revenues up by $180 million for this fiscal year and projected increases through 2020.

“Whatever extra money should be invested in ourselves,” Silverman says.

Jack Evans was on the council in 1995 when D.C. rang up a $750 deficit. Congress neutered the local government and put a federal control board in charge of the cash.

“You have to be able to afford all these entitlement programs,” he said. “Where do you stop? If revenues fall, you can get into a death spiral where you’re forced to raise taxes. The city went under in 1995. That should be a cautionary note.”

Evans, chairman of the Metro board, cautions that D.C., along with Maryland and Virginia, will be asked to increase subsidies to the transit system by $100 million next year. “Where’s that going to come from?” Evans asked.

Meanwhile, Mayor Bowser will propose her own set of projects, such as more affordable housing and body cameras for police – all of which cost big bucks.

John Falcicchio, Bowser’s chief of staff, called Bowser's relationship with the council “outstanding” and adds: “Whether with the current council or the next, we will continue to find ways to work together to best serve the residents.”

Sounds swell, but Bowser has made enemies in the Wilson Building, below her fifth floor chambers. She called Chairman Mendelson a “f—king liar” outside council chambers after a contentious fight on housing for the homeless. Vince Gray is still angry and sore.

Ward 5 council member Kenyan McDuffie is a potential challenger. Evans still wants to be mayor. She campaigned hard against Treyon White who won in Ward 8, and Robert White who took an at-large seat. She wanted to slay Gray, who beat her candidate in Ward 7.

In the next two years Bowser has to convince voters she’s a leader worthy of a second term, but the council’s progressive majority might be more inclined to minimize her role, render her irrelevant, and put her mayoralty in play.

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