Will Another D.C. vs. Disdain Democratic Norms? When is a free and open election invalid? Apparently, when elected officials don’t like the result.
That’s the philosophy of Maine’s Trumpier-than-Trump Republican Governor Paul LePage, who has refused to expand Medicaid in his state despite the legally binding vote of Maine’s citizens, who passed a Medicaid-expansion initiative. LePage has been ordered by the courts to implement the expansion, but still refuses. Mercifully, LePage is termed out of office at year’s end.
Something like that could never happen in the nation’s most liberal jurisdiction, right? Well, maybe it could.
On Tuesday, voters in Washington, D.C., passed an initiative that would raise the minimum wage of tipped workers—currently, only $3.30—to the same level as the city’s non-tipped workers: $15, to be phased in over the next eight years. Unlike the Maine initiative, this one (Initiative 77 by name) was only advisory, but avowed liberals on the D.C. Council and the avowed liberal who’s the mayor wouldn’t thwart the decision of the city’ voters—or would they?
In fact, in the run-up to the election, both Mayor Muriel Bowser and ten of the 13 Council members came out against the initiative. I realize the dust is still settling from Tuesday’s vote, but so far, none of those ten has said that they’ll be bound by the voters’ decision or that they’ve reversed their position. One has even said that due to the relatively low voter turnout (17 percent of registered voters), the Council should feel free to ignorethe voters’ preferences.
The low turnout was chiefly the result of the fact that in the only race that people really focus on and that the media cover—that for mayor—Mayor Bowser drew no serous opponents whatever. Of course, by the logic that low turnouts invalidate results, Bowser’s re-election on Tuesday should also be tossed into the ashcan.
In opposing the initiative, council members aligned themselves with the local restaurant owners’ association and the National Restaurant Association, which in state after state is customarily the only organization that campaigns against minimum wage hikes not just for restaurant employees but for anyone. As the Prospect’sManuel Madrid has noted, the restaurants hired some dillies of right-wing consultants to run the No campaign.
The campaign the consultants ran was couched in the language of saving servers’ tips. Many servers in thriving restaurants opposed the measure, fearing that their tips would vanish in the wake of its passage. That hasn’t been the case in California, which enacted just such a measure—raising tipped workers’ hourly minimum to $15 over a long period of time—a number of years ago. In California, the amount servers make in tips remained essentially the same.
Nor were the tipped workers opposed to the measure a representative sample of the District’s tipped employees. Their ranks didn’t include the hair and nail salon workers, the valet parkers, the folks who deliver meals to your door, and the servers in less affluent neighborhoods. The net income of these workers—the $3.30 an hour plus generally modest tips tips—don’t add up to all that much, which is likely why they were strikingly absent from the servers’ rallies against the initiative.
But this merely addresses the manifest merits of the initiative. What’s now before the council and the mayor is a more fundamental question: Do they accede to the will of the electorate, or do they accept the premise that low turnouts negate election results—notwithstanding the fact that they themselves have often won and re-won offices in low-turnout elections. If that’s their argument for reversing the voters’ decision, the only way they could do that in good faith would be to simultaneously resign.
Their real reason for opposing the measure, of course, is that politicians frequent restaurants and hold events there, and restaurant owners routinely make contributions to their local elected officials. In the cosmic chain of campaign-finance abuses, the restaurant-owner-council-member link isn’t really one that should excite reformers all that much. And there’s no question that some restaurants that operate on the margins may have to make some changes if the ordinance is adopted—though they have fully eight years to adjust.
But there are thousands of servers in restaurants that aren’t overflowing with affluent diners, or who work trimming hair and nails and delivering pizzas, who are the mayor and council’s constituents, too, even if they don’t make campaign contributions. For all their hard work, they are struggling to survive in this high-cost city. For reasons both moral and economic, the voters just decided to give them a raise. There’s already one government based in D.C. that pays scant attention to voters’ preferences and democratic norms, but that’s what we’ve come to expect from Trump-era Republicans. That’s no reason why the District’s elected (and Democratic) government should join them in disdaining democracy.