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In October, At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman dropped the legislative equivalent of a progressive bomb from the D.C. Council dais. The legislation from Silverman and At-Large Councilmember David Grosso would guarantee 16 weeks of paid family leave for District employees, the most generous mandate of its kind in the country.
All that paid leave would come with a hefty bill to be funded, according to the legislation, by a tax on District employers.
It’s the kind of lefty idea that, in previous years, would have garnered a few token co-introductions from councilmembers before dying in committee. This time, though, Silverman’s sweeping paid leave bill won support from a majority of councilmembers.
Take pity on the District’s titans of industry, if you can stomach it. They’ve got the money and the campaign contributions, but lately, their influence at city hall is at a low. So why is the District’s business lobby having such a hard time down at the Wilson Building?
Wilson Building watchers, speaking on background to LL, blame the decline in the business community’s weight at the Council with the lack of a coordinated effort tying different industries together. Their ebb coincides with a low point for the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, traditionally the business lobby’s muscle. In December, Chamber President Harry Wingo resigned after less than two years on the job.
Wingo told the Washington Business Journal that his exit was “amicable,” but he had clearly failed to achieve the pro-business heights of previous president Barbara Lang, who helped defeat the Walmart-targeting Large Retailer Accountability Act in 2013.
(Ironically, Wingo’s greatest success came after he quit the Chamber. A February ruling in his lawsuit over a proposed $15-an-hour minimum wage has thrown the initiative’s fate into question.)
That’s not to say every business is locked out at the Wilson Building. To use one example, District power utility Pepco recently managed to defuse an attempt by Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh to study potentially replacing the company with a publicly-owned electric company.
More broadly, though, the District’s business interests are playing defense at city hall, facing down both paid leave and a bill that would mandate more regular scheduling for hourly workers.
Indeed, the most effective opposition to the 16-week family leave bill has come from inside the government—Mayor Muriel Bowser opposes it in its current form, and the District’s chief financial officer issued a report on its staggering expense.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, meanwhile, has pared down the legislation to 12 weeks, but is still backing it.
Mark Lee, the executive director of the D.C. Nightlife Hospitality Association and inveterate booster of the business community, blames something else for business woes at the Council: a purported ignorance on behalf of councilmembers.
“Operating a small business is a pretty foreign activity to councilmembers,” Lee says. “They don’t get it.”
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery