Photo of Valerie Graham (left) and other tipped workers by Darrow Montgomery
Valerie Graham (left) has been involved in the fight against the repeal of the tipped minimum wage for several years now. Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

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There were some early signs that the restaurant industry would lay down its arms in the renewed fight to eliminate the tipped minimum wage. That could be about to change.

Valerie Graham, a local bartender and vocal opponent of past efforts to repeal the tipped wage, has filed a challenge to the validity of petitions seeking to hold another ballot initiative on the issue. A spokesman for the D.C. Board of Elections tells Loose Lips that Graham submitted the challenge Monday, but didn’t have any other details on its contents.

The board now has just under a month to decide whether Initiative 82 (a close cousin of its predecessor, Initiative 77) will appear on the June 21 primary ballot, where it is likely to pass once more. The D.C. Council famously overturned the results of the Initiative 77 in 2018, but the blowback to that vote and the election of several more progressive lawmakers indicates another repeal is unlikely.

That’s a big part of the reason why Initiative 82 hasn’t attracted quite the knock-down, drag-out fights that defined the effort to pass Initiative 77, with even staunch proponents of the tipped minimum wage signaling weariness on the issue. But some industry staples formed an anti-Initiative 82 committee last month, and Graham’s petition challenge could be yet more evidence that hospitality leaders are gearing up to provide more serious opposition.

Graham previously filed a lawsuit to block a separate ballot measure repealing the repeal of Initiative 77, teaming up with the same law firm that works with the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington in the process. Neither Graham nor Kathy Hollinger, the head of the restaurant lobbying group, responded to requests for comment.

Adam Eidinger, head of the Initiative 82-backing D.C. Committee to Build a Better Restaurant Industry, and an experienced D.C. signature gatherer, says he’s aware of the petition challenge and thinks it’s “bogus.” His group secured permission from the elections board last summer to start collecting signatures to put the initiative on the ballot.

The success of Graham’s challenge will turn on whether she can prove enough signatures on those petitions are invalid (say, that a signer isn’t a registered D.C. voter or that they signed the petition more than once) or she can demonstrate that not enough people have signed these petitions. D.C. law requires those petitions to earn signatures from 5 percent of all registered voters (and those need to represent 5 percent of voters in five of the city’s eight wards).

Eidinger’s committee announced back on Feb. 3 that it gathered more than 26,200 signatures to meet that 5 percent benchmark, and then kept petitioning to gain an extra cushion to protect against such ballot challenges. It submitted those to the Board of Elections on Feb. 22, and even tweeted that the petitions had avoided any ballot challenges. Graham’s submission came on the tenth and final day the board would accept such a filing.

The board has 20 days from when the challenge was filed to make a decision and can hear evidence from both sides in making its decision. The losing side can appeal that ruling to the D.C. Court of Appeals.

The outcome will have serious consequences for restaurants and workers either way. Tipped wage opponents argue that the current system leaves workers underpaid (making $5.05 an hour compared to the standard $15.20) and vulnerable to wage theft and sexual harassment. Proponents say tips help restaurants by letting them avoid raising menu prices or imposing “service fees,” and help workers by letting them make well above the standard minimum wage.

If Initiative 82 passes, it would phase out the tipped wage gradually, starting in 2023 and running through 2027.