When three millenial women took office in January, they changed the dynamic of the Council.
Christina Henderson (At Large), Brooke Pinto (Ward 2), and Janeese Lewis George (Ward 4) turned the 13-member legislative body majority female for the first time in decades. Some also started using social media to communicate policy in ways that have never been done before. George, for example, created a TikTok to engage residents after no one signed up to testify at a DMV hearing.
The new members were also expected to tip the Council left. The victories of Henderson and George, in particular, meant Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen’s proposal for a modest tax increase on D.C.’s wealthiest residents to subsidize housing is possible this budget season.
So what policies have these councilmembers championed in their first months in office? Let’s just say the bills they’ve introduced so far should come as no surprise to the voters who elected them into office. The question becomes, will these lawmakers find success in making them law?
The first four bills that the councilmember introduced focus on health care, schools, and workers. One bill, titled the Maternal Health Resources and Access Act, would create a pilot program where Medicaid would pay for doula services; study the feasibility of creating a birth center east of the Anacostia River (where there are none); and subsidize transportation to maternal health appointments.
[Context: For more reporting on maternal health in D.C., visit our Maternal Health Project]
“For me, this issue is personal, having experienced first-hand the impact of DC not having a hospital that provides obstetrics care east of North Capitol Street,” said Henderson when she introduced the bill. She says a priority of hers will be to reduce the maternal mortality rate, which was 66 deaths per 100,000 women in 2020 (and higher for Black people due to systematic racism). This bill had a public hearing earlier this week.
Her other three bills aim to establish a council within the Department of Behavioral Health that focuses on prevention and treatment related to mental health disorders and substance misuse; create an “Office of Safe Passage” that’ll coordinate efforts across government agencies to improve student safety; and prohibit employers from screening applicants based on their wage history or from seeking this information. Henderson tweeted that these bills were introduced last Council period by At-Large Councilmember David Grosso, whom she used to work for. “Hoping to get these over the finish line this year,” she said. She’ll have introduced two other bills this week, one that would enhance protections for student loan borrowers, and another that would simplify the process for sealing or expunging criminal records.
“My work is guided by the principle that one’s zip code should not define one’s opportunity for success,” Henderson tells City Paper.
Henderson told LL on Election Day that one of the first bills she’d introduce is one about ranked choice voting. What ever happened to that campaign promise? It’s coming. “As for the ranked choice voting bill, it is basically done from a drafting standpoint and I am continuing to work with various stakeholders to ensure a successful introduction,” she says.
Some bills that Pinto introduced this Council period, meanwhile, relate to business and housing. Her first bill—the Expanding Student Access to Period Products Act—also touches on education and health care. The bill, among other things, would require public and private schools to provide free menstrual products in all women’s and gender-neutral bathrooms in middle and high schools, and in at least one bathroom in elementary schools. If a school does not have a gender-neutral bathroom, the school would have to offer free products in at least one men’s bathroom.
Another bill that Pinto introduced earlier this week called the Great Streets Amendment Act would bring D.C.’s Great Streets Program to Ward 2. The program is a “commercial revitalization initiative” that currently supports small businesses in 13 priority areas. The Bowser administration has provided grant opportunities to businesses in these areas, most recently last week. “In my budget ask to the Mayor, I requested additional funding for the Great Streets program to ensure that this expansion would not impact other deserving corridors,” Pinto tweeted when she introduced the legislation.
Pinto is introducing another bill this week that relates to D.C.’s rent freeze during the public health emergency. The COVID-19 Rental Housing Emergency Amendment Act would extend the ban on rent increases from 30 days after the emergency expires on May 20 to one year, but only for tenants experiencing hardship related to the coronavirus pandemic. (Tenants prove hardship by signing an attestation that a landlord has to offer them.) The bill would also allow landlords to increase rent on vacant units during the public health emergency.
“We think it’s a fair balance,” Pinto tells City Paper.
[Context: City Paper reported on the process behind this legislation last week.]
The housing legislation is one of the more controversial bills this Council period. But the latest version no longer limits the moratorium to tenants experiencing hardship during the emergency, nor would it allow landlords of rent-control units to return prices to pre-pandemic rates if they offer concessions right now. This bill is expected to be on the agenda during the Council’s legislative meeting on Tuesday. It’s unclear if there are enough councilmembers who support this emergency bill so it can near-immediately become law.
Janeese Lewis George
The first three bills that George introduced are bolder approaches to education and policing. They’ve all been referred to committees but have not received a hearing. (Only emergency legislation can bypass the committee hearing process.)
The first, titled the District of Columbia Public Schools Technology Equity Act, would require DC Public Schools to develop a comprehensive, multi-year technology plan to ensure one-to-one student and teacher device ratios. The bill also requires a number of other actions, including digital literacy training and internet access for all learning in schools and at home.
George has been a critic of DCPS’ technology investments or, as she sees it, lack thereof. Over the summer, she criticized Chancellor Dr. Lewis D. Ferebee for not requesting more money in the budget for technology. Ward 4 families had been raising money for school devices because teachers said there weren’t enough. She saw the disconnect between the chancellor and teachers as resulting from the mayor’s control of traditional public schools. “What autonomy does he have to say ‘Hey, mayor—who has full control of me and my position and who selected me—this budget is inadequate,’” she told City Paper in July.
This is a nice segue to George’s second bill, the DC State Education Agency Independence Amendment Act. This bill would remove the Office of the State Superintendent of Education from the mayor’s control. Instead, this agency would report to the State Board of Education, an elected board with little power. It is one of several bills that seeks to weaken mayoral control of schools.
Finally, her bill on policing would require the D.C. Auditor to look into ties between White supremacist or other hate groups and the Metropolitan Police Department that suggest officers cannot fairly enforce the law. This piece of legislation should come as no surprise to her constituents. She ran on the idea of eradicating systems of White supremacy, thus earning the endorsement of the local chapter of Black Lives Matter.
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