Article Preview: The Green Team, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s attempt to establish a DC political machine that would bring the levers of local government under her control, suffered a derailment in June more shattering than anything the tottering Metrorail system could have imagined. Bowser went into the June 14 Democratic primary with four of her Council allies running for re-election, and all but one fell to insurgents who promise to meet the mayor’s proposals with a critical eye rather than a rubber stamp.
The Washington Socialist: Midsummer 2016
By Bill Mosley
The Green Team, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s attempt to establish a DC political machine that would bring the levers of local government under her control, suffered a derailment in June more shattering than anything the tottering Metrorail system could have imagined. Bowser went into the June 14 Democratic primary with four of her Council allies running for re-election, and all but one fell to insurgents who promise to meet the mayor’s proposals with a critical eye rather than a rubber stamp.
Trying to determine how the results of the primary play for progressives is as slippery as many of the candidates, both winners and losers. Vincent Orange, for instance, the at-large councilmember who lost to challenger Robert White, lately had tacked to the left and picked up the Metro Council AFL-CIO’s endorsement, in part because of his backing of a $15 local minimum wage. But over the past two decades in and out of elective office, Orange has slipped and slid all over the political map, an opportunist who has been challenged over ethical lapses, although not fatally until now.
If the defeat of one Bowser ally might have moved the council to the left, it would have been Jack Evans, Ward 2 councilmember and the most developer-friendly politician in the District. Alas, Evans ran unopposed, and with at most only token opposition in the general election will extend his 25-year run as longest-serving DC councilmember.
Indeed, there can be found hardly a DC elected official who is not eager to be considered “progressive” – even Evans – to please the liberal-to-left center of gravity of the DC electorate. Unlike states in which Republicans make themselves easy targets for the left, in Democrat-dominated DC one must watch what officeholders do rather than what they say – such as the deals they cut for developers and other big-money interests, and exactly how hard they are willing to fight for workers or DC statehood or the homeless, or to champion other issues to which they give such sincere-sounding lip service.
Elections, then, are often fought out more on the grounds of personality or low-level retail politicking than on substantive differences over issues. Shoe leather and a personal touch were factors in Trayon White’s upset of short-time Ward 8 incumbent and Bowser ally LaRuby May, avenging May’s defeat of him in last year’s special election to succeed Marion Barry in this ward that has long suffered among DC’s highest crime and poverty rates. May lost by eight percentage points despite a large fundraising advantage, and if her alliance with Bowser wasn’t at the forefront of most voters’ minds, it certainly didn’t help.
Nor did Bowser’s support for Ward 7 member Yvette Alexander protect her from being swamped in the Vince Gray landslide. Voters in the ward, which like 8 is plagued by poverty, crime and underdevelopment, looked at what Alexander had done for them in her nine years in office and found her wanting. Whether Gray did any more for the ward during his years as its councilmember, then council chair and mayor, was doubtful, but many voters had faith that Gray’s name and notoriety would be more useful to them than Alexander’s genial fecklessness. They were willing to overlook the campaign finance scandal that sent several of his aides to prison although Gray himself improbably escaped indictment. Gray on the Council will be Bowser’s worst nightmare; the two politicians have been adversaries since Gray defeated Bowser’s mentor Adrian Fenty for Mayor, and it would surprise no one if Gray ran for mayor in 2018 to avenge his loss to Bowser two years ago.
Even Brandon Todd, the one Bowser ally to be re-elected (and her protégé as she was Fenty’s), won by a surprisingly narrow nine-point margin in Ward 4 against lightly regarded competition. The lesson of June 14 for Bowser was just how little clout she really has.
Bowser Constitution Brings Out the Critics
If Bowser thought that her proposed constitution for “New Columbia” – the name the District would acquire if it becomes a state – would be met with the public acclaim that her favored Council candidates did not, she was greatly disappointed. In a series of public meetings, as well as on-line comments, the draft constitution written by the Bowser-chaired DC Statehood Commission came under criticism on a variety of fronts.
At the culminating event of the public-input process, a two day “constitutional convention” at Wilson High School in the Tenleytown neighborhood, few of the dozens of DC residents who testified had unqualified praise for the document. The draft essentially enshrined the current structure of the city government while converting the mayor into a “governor” and the 13 councilmembers into “delegates,” and adopting the first 10 amendments to the US Constitution as its “Bill of Rights.” A number of commenters thought a 13-member legislature too small for a state; there was criticism that it would be too hard to make amendments; and some thought that the legislature should be bicameral rather than a single chamber as DC has now and would still have under the document. But most of the criticism was over the top-down process – that it was undemocratic and not a real “convention,” compared to the 1982 meeting in which delegates were elected by DC voters and collaboratively drafted the document that was put before voters later that year. Anise Jenkins, executive director of the Stand Up! for Democracy in DC Coalition (Free DC), expressed concern that most voters weren’t aware of the constitution and that it should not go before the voters until more of them were aware of its contents.
But a seldom-raised complaint was why the District should even be discussing a constitution at this point. A constitution is necessary for admission as a state, and Bowser is eager to have a current voter-approved document should the political climate be propitious next year – anticipating that the malignant Donald Trump might bring the Republicans to ruin and result in Democratic dominance of the government, which would then be more receptive to statehood. But why push activists through a rushed process before the election is even held? Should the results of the election not be as definitive as Democrats hope, people will feel they have wasted their time, and the end result will only be alienation.
Nevertheless, Bowser and company are barreling ahead to place the constitution on the fall ballot. Many activists are steamed that their participation and comments will be only advisory – the Statehood Commission will write the constitution, which will be submitted to the mayor and Council for further changes. Only then will it go to the voters on a take it or leave it basis.
Sanders’ Loss is Bowser’s Gain
On the plus side for Bowser, Hillary Clinton, whom she endorsed on the presidential line of the June 14 primary, coasted to a landslide win over Bernie Sanders, 79 to 21 percent, in the final contest of the race for the nomination. Sanders gave the DC contest his best shot, holding a well-attended rally at the DC Armory on June 9 (at which Metro-DC DSA made the rounds with the local’s literature). But DC from the beginning was fertile Hillary territory with its minority-majority population combined with a substantial corps of Democratic Party and Hill staffers who tend to support the establishment. Bowser and most DC councilmembers were already plumping for Clinton, and the media line following the California primary that Clinton had clinched the nomination (as debatable as that was) served as the final nail in Sanders’ coffin, despite local DSA members’ flyering at several polling stations on primary day. Bowser’s support had only a minimal effect on Clinton’s voter support, but she’ll take her victories where she can find them.
Fight for $15 Wins – Mostly
At the end of June, Bowser signed a bill bringing to reality one of her priorities: raising the minimum wage in DC to $15 an hour over four years, with increases beyond that tied to inflation. The bill appears to forestall an initiative for a $15 wage that labor and other advocates planned to put on the ballot this November.
Everybody’s happy, right? Not exactly. The bill omits one significant class of workers from the $15 minimum: tipped workers, mostly servers in restaurants. While the initiative would have applied the $15 to everyone, the Bowser/Council bill would raise the minimum for tipped workers only to $5.55 from the current $2.77. The local restaurant lobby brought heavy pressure to bear to ensure the lower tipped-worker wage. Meanwhile, the Restaurant Opportunities Center, which represents many tipped workers in the District, was not on board with the deal cut between local labor and councilmembers, led by Orange, to secure a $15 wage for everyone but their members.
So Bowser can walk away from this June with a few little victories to salve the debacle of the Council election. But she clearly needs more successes under her belt, for the specter of 2018 looms ahead.
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