Key in D.C.’s election: wages for tipped workers, at-large council race

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Election Day likely won’t bring drastic change to the Washington this year, with Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) nearly assured of a third term leading the capital city. But voters will have a second chance to weigh in on whether businesses should be required to pay tipped workers the full minimum wage, and will shape the direction of the city council in an election where at least one sitting member of the legislative body is guaranteed to lose their spot.

Thanks to mail-in ballots sent to every registered voter, drop boxes dotting the city and a host of in-person early voting centers, well over 50,000 residents voted before Election Day. Many who did share a qualified optimism about the state of the District — pleased with the city’s leadership and prosperity in many cases, but often eager for solutions to persistent problems like crime and high housing costs.

“I look at some of the things that are going on in D.C., and I want to ensure that we continue in the right direction. I like the growth in the city, and I want to ensure that we bring everyone along,” said Fannie Barksdale, a retiree who lives in Ward 5. “I love the new apartment complexes going up. I love that you have shopping in your neighborhood. We’ve just got to bring along the less fortunate.”

D.C. elections: What to know about Initiative 82

To that end, Barksdale supported not just Bowser’s reelection, but Initiative 82, a ballot question that asks voters whether tipped workers should receive the full minimum wage paid to other workers or should continue to receive a lesser minimum wage supplemented by tips. Barksdale believes all workers should get the full minimum wage, which was the winning position when the same question was on the ballot four years ago. That time, the D.C. Council repealed the measure; Council chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who is likely to win his bid for reelection, has signaled that he won’t intervene if residents pass the initiative again, after leading a charge against it four years ago. Several other council members have made a similar promise.

“Not everybody gives a tip when you go into a restaurant, and we know that that’s their job — everybody is deserving of a minimum wage,” Barksdale said. Charlene Pierce, a retiree who lives in Ward 7, said she thought long and hard before voting in favor of Initiative 82. “It’s a Catch-22 for everybody. How are the employers going to fare if they raise the wage? And how are the workers going to fare if they can’t get a raise?”

Others struggled with the question for different reasons: Kevin Lambert, a 75-year-0ld Columbia Heights resident, intended to vote against the measure. He is concerned that it could harm businesses by raising costs. But he didn’t realize the question about the initiative was on the reverse side of his ballot. “Dang. It’s too late now,” he said with disappointment.

D.C. servers, restaurateurs battle over ‘tipped minimum’ initiative

On her choice for mayor, Pierce said that when she has called government offices about abandoned cars and other nuisances in her neighborhood, she has found the response to be slow. She worries that government officials, including Bowser, care less about the needs of poor neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River, which have been historically underserved.

“I don’t think we get the respect we deserve as voting, taxpaying citizens,” she said. Still, she voted for Bowser, noting that there were no well-known opponents on the ballot for her to choose. “She doesn’t always make me happy, but she’s doing a good job.”

For Red Grant, D.C. mayoral run is about ‘purpose over popularity’

The most competitive race is for two at-large seats on the D.C. Council. Three incumbent council members — two who currently hold the at-large seats, Anita Bonds (D) and Elissa Silverman (I), and one, Kenyan R. McDuffie, who has represented Ward 5 as a Democrat and is now running for the citywide seat as an independent — are competing with five additional candidates.

That contest has turned on a number of issues. Bonds, who chairs the council’s housing committee, has faced criticism in light of a searing report last month from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development on the city’s public housing. Silverman, a left-leaning council member who chairs the labor committee and has focused on workplace issues including creating the city’s paid parental leave benefit, has long been a target of business owners; many have flocked to support McDuffie, and some to independent Graham McLaughlin.

As the only Democrat on the ballot, Bonds is likely to win one seat, setting up what many see as a contest pitting Silverman against McDuffie for the remaining spot.

D.C. elections: Here’s where the at-large council candidates stand

Both racked up new donations in the final weeks of the campaign, according to campaign finance reports due eight days before the election. Silverman, who is taking public financing — which caps the amount donors can give her but matches the money with city funds — took in just over $75,000 since Oct. 10 and spent more than $142,000 in those weeks. McDuffie — who is ineligible for public financing after using it in his aborted primary campaign for attorney general and thus can accept much larger private and corporate donations — raised more than $72,000 in the final weeks, mostly from donors who gave the $1,000 maximum, and spent more than $152,000.

In comparison, McLaughlin — who has been a strong fundraiser for a first-time candidate, raising more than $280,000 in total with public financing — took in just under $29,000 in the final weeks, and Republican Giuseppe Niosi raised $1,325. Other at-large candidates did not file their last campaign finance reports on time.

Silverman has criticized some of McDuffie and McLaughlin’s donors, arguing that the interests of wealthy developers and corporations carry too much weight in city politics. McDuffie and Niosi, meanwhile, have critiqued Silverman for a recent determination from the city’s Office of Campaign Finance that she should not have used taxpayer funds to poll a ward-level race ahead of the June primary.

She was ordered to pay back more than $6,000 she spent on the poll but has appealed the ruling, which came after a formal complaint from one of her other opponents, Karim Marshall, who touts his experience writing bills as a council staffer.

D.C.’s heated at-large council race is an unusual competition

Race is also a salient factor in the contest: Silverman is White and McDuffie is Black.

“Some people are concerned about the council being majority Black, and want to support Anita and Kenyan, which would help the African American community keep a majority of the council seats,” longtime Ward 8 activist Philip Pannell said. “There has been talk about that — that’s important to political power for African Americans in the city, at least mathematically.”

The council has a Black majority, with seven out of 13 members. The most likely outcome is that the council continues to have seven Black members if Silverman wins or grows to eight Black members if McDuffie wins.

Reginald Wills, a doctor who lives in Ward 5 and voted in-person during early voting, declined to say who he picked in the at-large race, but said he was only interested in Black candidates. “The city’s becoming very gentrified. I’ve been here for 45 years,” said Wills, who believes Bowser and other Black leaders have competently supported local businesses and provided good city services.

The racial dynamic has more prominence to some observers than a left-versus-moderate split, though McDuffie is more moderate on taxation and some other issues.

“At first glance, when I said I supported Kenyan McDuffie, some people might have been shocked,” said Markus Batchelor, a former State Board of Education member known as a leader in the city’s left-leaning activist community. “We’ve got to think about our politics as more nuanced than that. The folks who very often define what ‘progressive’ means, in a very stark way in our city, don’t necessarily look like me or Kenyan … If you go into progressive spaces, they don’t match that aesthetic who clearly, at least from my perspective, would benefit the most from progressive policies.”

Bridget Reavis-Tyler, a retired city government employee, opted for Marshall, a newcomer in the at-large race. “I’m trying to get some new blood up in there, even though I’m old,” she said. She said she worries about gentrification during Bowser’s administration. “She was doing a lot of building up, letting stuff come in, and not doing for the people, forgetting who voted for her.”

Five other spots on the D.C. Council are also up for election, with winners of the Democratic primary favored to win in each race. In addition to Mendelson, incumbent Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1) expects to win reelection. Incumbent Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) is uncontested. In Ward 5, Zachary Parker — the left-leaning former school board member who won a competitive Democratic primary — faces Republican Clarence Lee Jr. In Ward 3, another left-leaning primary winner, Matthew Frumin, is running against Republican David Krucoff, who has trumpeted his endorsement from The Washington Post’s editorial board, which is separate from the news operation.

The same four wards — 1, 3, 5, and 6 — also have races on the ballot this year for their State Board of Education representatives. In the race for attorney general, Brian Schwalb, who was endorsed by outgoing Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) before winning the Democratic primary, is uncontested.

The ballot also includes elections for D.C.’s nonvoting delegate to the U.S. House (longtime delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton is a heavy favorite to hold the seat), shadow representative in Congress and advisory neighborhood commissioner, a hyperlocal office.

Polls will be open Tuesday from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Residents can vote at any polling place in the city, regardless of their home address. A complete list of Election Day polling places can be found here.

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