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Tommy Wells learns about the budget-busting effects of cheese

Living on the District’s minimum wage of $8.25 an hour, Shemethia Butler says she can fit a $13.96 bag of chicken wings into her budget. Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells won’t be joining her.

“I’m not sure if you can afford this chicken right now,” Butler told Wells as they shopped together this afternoon at a Safeway in Southwest. Wells admitted that he couldn’t.

The mayoral hopeful is trying to live on the District’s $8.25 minimum wage as part of the challenge popularized by New York mayor-elect Bill de Blasio. That gives Wells only $98.28 to cover his food and transportation bills for the week, so Wells brought along Butler, a McDonald’s cashier, for shopping advice.

Wells, a frequent visitor to the supermarket’s gourmet cheese bin, said he was struck when Butler told him that she can’t afford to even consider stopping by the gouda and gruyère. His eventual grocery bill—-including eggs, dried peas, and jars of spaghetti sauce—-came to $36.26, a little less than two dollars under his $38 goal.

Wells’ minimum wage challenge is his latest involvement in the District’s minimum wage debate, which has seen him voting against the Large Retailer Accountability Act, then proposing his own bill to raise the minimum wage to $10.25, then backing a D.C. Council bill mandating an $11.50 minimum wage, and now endorsing a ballot initiative effort for a $12.50 minimum wage.

Wells concedes that his week of living modestly is a stunt timed to coincide with his mayoral campaign—-albeit a stunt that he says is aimed at shining some of the mayoral campaign’s spotlight on the plight of low-wage workers.

“I will do another thing after this,” Wells says. “And you can again call it a publicity stunt.”

Photo by Will Sommer