Council Fails to Override Veto on “Walmart Bill”; Votes to Censure Marion Barry

It was a busy and, at times, noisy day for the District of Columbia City Council, but in the end it made two significant (if controversial) decisions.

The council could not find enough votes to override Mayor Vincent Gray’s veto of the Council’s proposed Large Retailer Accountability Act—known everywhere now as the “Walmart bill”—which would have brought about a so-called “living wage” requirement for of $12.50 an hour (or less, with benefits) to large, non-unionized retailers opening in the District. The bill was aimed at future and current retailers with corporate sales of $1 billion or higher with stores of at least 75,000 square feet.

The debate had been raging off and on all summer, since it came to be associated with the future and fortunes of Walmart stores, which are open shops and which in many instances pay non-living wages to employees. When the council passed the legislation, Walmart, which had been slated to open several stores in the District of Columbia, threatened to pull out of development of all area stores, including a highly touted one in Ward 7.

The issue for the council members who proposed the legislation, like City Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, was that it would lead to more under-paying jobs in the District. Mayor Gray in his veto said the bill was a “job-killer.” In effect, the debate often became frame in terms of “no jobs” or “low paying jobs” or “living wage jobs.” Organized labor, already in retreat in many parts of the country where similar issues are being debated, supported the bill forcing many council members into hard decisions. Opposing the measure were two city council members who had already announced they would be running for mayor: Muriel Bowser (Ward 4) and Tommy Wells (Ward 6), whose opposition was active and vocal, and included a proposal to raise the District’s minimum wage based on inflation numbers. Ward 2 Councilman Jack Evans, who has also declared his mayoral candidacy, voted for the legislation. New member Anita Bonds changed her vote from supporting the bill to opposing it, saying there were issues of fairness.

The council needed nine votes to override the veto. They got only seven. About 100 supporters of the bill had gathered outside the Wilson building to express their support of the Council bill.

Later in the day, a council — increasingly aware and worried of its past ethical problems and lack of support on that front from the general public — voted 9-4 to censure Ward 8 Councilman Marion Barry and to strip him of his Chairmanship of the Committee on Workforce and Community Development for taking gifts from DC construction companies in two instances totaling over $6,000. THe council disciplinary panel was led by Ward 5 council member Kenyan R. McDuffie. Barry had admitted the charges and took a $13,600 fine from the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability.

It is the second time in three years that Barry has been censured, in addition to having longstanding tax problems and being convicted in 1990 of cocaine possession charges (during his mayoral appointment) in the wake of a sensational trial which landed him in jail.

Council members seemed cognizant of Barry’s often reported legal troubles, the ongoing cloud that still seems to hang over the Mayor’s election campaign, and the fact that three high profile council members—Harry Thomas Jr, former City Council Chairman Kwame Brown and Michael Brown—have pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges.

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