As Council considers Initiative 77 veto, activists call foul

Photo courtesy of
Photo courtesy of

By: Carlo Massimo

The Roman historian Appian tells us that in 133 BC, Tiberius Gracchus proposed a law that would reduce the property a Roman could own. And that law would hand over the confiscated land to the poor. Eighteen of the 35 Roman tribes voted for Gracchus’ reform, a clear majority. But the Senate, that club of Rome’s old money, shut down the law before it could be enacted. And the Senate shutdown Gracchus with clubs.

Now might be a good time to remember that story. The D.C. City Council is voting on the September 17 on whether to repeal Initiative 77, which 55 percent of D.C. voters approved in June.

Initiative 77 would grant restaurant servers a normal minimum wage by 2026. Currently, the minimum wage for the so-called tipped professions, including waiters, busboys, and bartenders, is $3.33 per hour. That figure is $12.50 for everyone else in the District.

An investigation by Public Citizen has shed some light on why the Council will consider repealing the Initiative.  

Their report describes a curious pattern on the Council: the more money a Councilmember received in campaign donations from the restaurant industry, the more likely they were to oppose the measure. Mayor Muriel Bowser accepted over $65,000 from individuals and organizations that oppose Initiative 77. She opposed the bill, too. The next biggest recipient, Jack Evans, took $44,920. He opposed the bill and sponsored the appeal legislation.

Furthermore, Councilmembers Vincent Gray, Phil Mendelson, Kenyan McDuffie, and Brandon Todd all took thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from opponents of Initiative 77. They voted against it and co-sponsored the appeal.

Only Mary Cheh of Ward 3 supported the initiative. But she took a scant $1,000 from the restaurant industry. Four others voted no but will not back the repeal. Elissa Silverman, Councilmember at-large, took only $500 but has stayed neutral.

Moreover, Trayon White of Ward 8 took no money at all. He was neutral in June. He has since cosponsored the repeal.

Public Citizen identified some of the major anti-77 donors as celebrated restaurateur José Andrés’ Think Food Group; the Farmer Restaurant Group, subject to a class action lawsuit last year alleging labor law violations; and Clyde’s Restaurant Group, defendant in two similar lawsuits alleging minimum wage law violations since 2010.

“The fact that the will of roughly 160 restaurant owners and corporations is being prioritized over that of the 44,000 D.C. voters who approved the measure makes one thing crystal clear,” said Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs at Public Citizen. Overall, these entities donated $236,013 ahead of the Initiative.  

“What I found to be most striking was that the average contribution was $733,” said Mike Tanglis, author of the report. “Most people can’t fathom giving that much money to a single politician for one campaign.”

Tanglis told The Current that campaign finance reform was making steady progress in the District, from reigning in LLC contributions in 2015 to the Fair Election Act of 2017, which will provide for publicly-financed election campaigns by 2020. But those measures, he said, were clearly not enough.

Voter initiatives and loose campaign finance rules can be a deadly combination. Just look at the UK. The referendum is a deeply flawed mechanism in any democracy.

It boils complicated problems into yes-or-no questions. Referendum campaigns thrive on hysteria and knee-jerk reactions. And they erode public faith in elected government, whose job is to deliberate on bills and make the best possible decision.

And Save Our Tip System Initiative 77 – one of the entities that Public Citizen identified in their report –  offered a spirited, democratic defense of their position.

The figures are alarming. Any D.C. voters present at the September 17 appeal hearing should bear in mind old Gracchus. And they should look out for Councilmembers coming in with clubs.