One of the guaranteed write-in candidates for tomorrow’s local election isn’t a living, breathing human. According to Rev. Graylan Scott Hagler, those who are incensed by the outcome of the long battle over Initiative 77 are planning to write in “Respect The Vote” for any races with a candidate who voted to repeal the ballot initiative. Hagler is among those leading the movement to get a repeal of the repeal on the ballot in the future.
Hagler and others are going to the ballot box tomorrow to make a statement. “There are people that aren’t going to vote for candidates that voted for the repeal,” he says. “It’s not a matter of how you voted [in June], it’s the fact that you voted. The merits of Initiative 77 were debated and decided. The public decided at the voting box, but the Council overturned it. Did they have the right to overturn a vote in the era of Trump when we’re fighting voter suppression all over the country?”
The Council overturned Initiative 77 by a vote of 8-5. Council Chairman Phil Mendelsonand Councilmembers Jack Evans, Anita Bonds, Vince Gray, Kenyan McDuffie, Brandon Todd, Trayon White, and David Grosso voted for the repeal. Mayor Muriel Bowser supported the repeal. Councilmembers Mary Cheh, Charles Allen, Robert White, Elissa Silverman, and Brianne Nadeau voted against the repeal.
Initiative 77 sought to eliminate the two-tier wage system in which employers can pay tipped workers a lower base minimum wage ($3.89)—rather than the standard minimum wage ($13.25)—and count on customer tips to make up the difference. The ballot measure would have phased out the tipped minimum wage in eight increments until it reached $15 in 2025. Starting in 2026, there would no longer have been a tip credit—all workers would have been paid the same minimum wage directly from their employer.
And just as there is likely to be a fresh faction of voters who come out on Tuesday to send a message about their disappointment over their June votes being overturned, a number of restaurant industry workers became interested in local politics while they fought against Initiative 77. Some are voting for the first time, others are working the polls for either McDuffie in Ward 5 or at-large challenger Dionne Reeder, who owns a restaurant in Ward 8 and has voiced support of repealing Initiative 77.
“I didn’t know who was on the Council prior to this,” says Valerie Torres, a bartender at District Anchor and St. Arnold’s Mussel Bar. “I knew Vincent Gray was on the Council, and I thought Mary Cheh was my councilmember. I had no idea who these people were, and now their names are part of my everyday vernacular.” Torres says she’s voting for Bonds and Reeder in the at-large race and asked off work tomorrow so she can work the polls for either Reeder or McDuffie.
Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington CEO Kathy Hollinger says her organization has been providing guidance on how people should vote tomorrow based on Initiative 77.
“We encouraged our members and the tipped employees involved in 77 to support those who supported us,” Hollinger says. “We sent out an email about Dionne and Kenyan in particular, encouraging people to take a couple hours if they could. For Dionne, it’s a different case. She didn’t directly come out to support us, but she’s a small business owner and a restaurateur east of the river. Kenyan, he was a vote. He’s been listening, for years, to the small businesses in his ward, to workers, and he enjoys the industry.”
Torres thinks McDuffie has the race sewn up but she says he’s been getting significant pushback from constituents for repealing 77. “He was such a champion for us during the 77 fight,” she says. “I think he feels it would be helpful for his campaign to see support from the industry.”
Though Torres hadn’t heard of Reeder until a few weeks before the marathon hearing on repealing 77, she believes “she’s somebody that the city needs right now,” arguing Reeder has a good balance of community activism and small business acumen. “She’s about what’s in the best interest of D.C. as a whole.”
“If [Initiative 77] was not repealed, I probably wouldn’t have a business,” Reeder told City Paper in a previous interview. “I would have employees who wouldn’t be employed. I can’t afford all of the new policies: paid leave, increasing my employees’ salaries to something I don’t even get coming in the door.”
Andrew Shapiro, a server at Dino’s Grotto who is also trying to get a small soda company off the ground, is also working the polls for Reeder tomorrow. “I was one of those people who was only politically engaged at the national level,” he says. “[Initiative] 77 became a real exercise in what it takes to be a thriving, successful small business in this city and how closely tied to politics that all is … This has been a moment that people are finally exposed to this large, active involved industry in this city. That means that we have to be really engaged in local politics because of how important policies are.”
There’s a Facebook group where members of the local restaurant and bar industry post information about job openings, events, and issues. Within it, Shapiro says he created a local politics calendar for people to reference and get more involved all the way down the Advisory Neighborhood Commission level. “The biggest lesson is that we are a powerful voice and there are a lot of us … We owe it to councilmembers to be engaged and follow them and challenge them when necessary.”
Restaurant owners and workers are getting bombarded with targeted suggestions on how to vote. One of the same campaigns that raised money to fight the ballot measure is still at it, circulating materials on social media reminding people how each councilmember voted on 77. Mark Lee, who has been working for the “NO2DC77″ campaign, disseminated this example.
Despite feeling victorious after Initiative 77 was repealed, some of the most outspoken workers are still driving home their points to unsuspecting staffers or volunteers with Silverman’s campaign. She is the incumbent running against Reeder.
Silverman took a last minute shot at authoring a compromise amendment to the bill repealing Initiative 77 that split tipped workers into two categories and attempted to salvage the initiative’s eventual full implementation for one group—indirectly-tipped workers in restaurants and bars, such as bussers and barbacks, and tipped workers who don’t work in restaurants. The compromise amendment failed, and some of those who supported the repeal remember.
The following text exchanges obtained by City Paper are between Silverman campaigners and local bartenders.
Three restaurant industry workers who were in favor of Initiative 77 did not return request for comment about whether they’ll vote on Tuesday and how the repeal will impact their vote. Throughout the debate over Initiative 77, there have been workers who are afraid to come forward, fearing retribution from their employers for speaking out against the ballot measure, which almost all restaurant owners and operators opposed.
Another component of the at-large showdown between Reeder and Silverman that touches the restaurant industry is Silverman’s paid family leave program.
The law uses a .62 percent payroll tax on employers to fund paid time off for D.C. workers to care for personal and family medical needs.
Reeder, who owns the restaurant Cheers at the Big Chair, has been an outspoken opponent of the program. With the tax to support paid family leave and the potential elimination of the tipped wage, Reeder says, she would be out of business.
Yet another factor: Reeder has an endorsement from Bowser, and that is a detractor for some.
“Most of the people in my group are leaning towards Silverman because we don’t feel like we should give a seat on the Council to the mayor,” Rev. Hagler says. “We want healthy debate. We want people who have the guts and nerve to criticize one another.”
Reeder has defended herself against claims that she’ll be a rubber stamp for the mayor, highlighting the fact that she’s running as an independent.
“What I’m getting in terms of all of this is: Do we want business to run the social and civic agenda in D.C., or do we want our leadership to have a relationship with the constituency that elected them?” Hagler says.