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Fixing D.C. elections to let independent voters play

voting, District of Columbia, independent voters, gay news, Washington Blade

D.C.’s dilemma might best be remedied by “non-partisan” elections. All candidates would compete in a single primary open to all voters, with the top two candidates proceeding to the general election.

In D.C., independent voters don’t really get to play the game come election time.

Not only that, the current system allows the dominant Democratic Party’s primary candidates to proceed to the general election winning only a plurality of votes. It will likely happen again on April 1 in the historically determinant Democratic primary for mayor.

These are separate problems. But there may be a single solution.

Due to overwhelming Democratic registration at nearly 75 percent, winners of local elections are decided in the dominant party’s primary election. The only exception is a requirement that two of four At-Large D.C. Council seats be held by a non-majority-party. This provision is intended to prevent absolute single-party control but is both easily and commonly overridden by Democrats changing affiliation to “independent” as if changing socks.

Despite being primary participation outcasts, slightly more than 17 percent of the District’s registered voters have selected “No Party” as their political affiliation. This reduces voting eligibility to general elections, being prohibited from any party’s “closed primary” election.

The percentage of independent registrations would undoubtedly skyrocket if D.C. election rules were revised to eliminate participation restrictions. Independent voters are a fast-growing phenomenon in places with broader participation rules. In addition, nearly half of Americans now self-identify as “independents” – even if mostly in attitude while retaining a party preference – an all-time high in 25 years of Gallup polling.

Of course, both local Democratic Party officials and incumbents are not eager for any change weakening the incentive to register with the party. Why would they? There is no upside to surrendering the power of a determinant process exclusively involving party registrants or offering other parties a potential path to victory.

It’s partly understandable, in reference to the “open primary” system used in Virginia and other states where voters are not required to register by party and independents may vote in any party primary. Even those registered with a political party may vote in another party’s primary upon making a declaration they intend to support that party in the general election. There is an argument for letting political parties restrict primary voting to the party-registered. This prevents the possibility a party would have to “associate” with a winning candidate that did not adhere to particular political positions.

The rules for voting in primary elections vary by state and there are differing systems in place. And, yes, various protocols lead to multiple types of strategic mischief. In a fully “open” primary, for example, competing party members switch over to vote for candidates perceived weaker as general election opponents, especially if their own party’s primary is already sewn-up by a strong or single candidate or popular incumbent.

Neither “open” nor “semi-closed” primary systems that allow only independents to choose a party primary are perfect alternatives. Another option, determining a winner by ranking preference in “automatic run-off” primaries is also subject to strategic “gaming” by voters and introduces an unduly complex “poker game” mentality into the process.

D.C.’s dilemma might best be remedied by “non-partisan” elections. All candidates would compete in a single primary open to all voters, with the top two candidates proceeding to the general election.

One or both of the top two candidates might still win only a plurality. All voters, however, would have the opportunity to choose among all candidates, with a final selection available to voters in the general election. After all, no system is perfect.

A non-partisan system would provide for the least political disruption in a city with single party dominance. It would yield freedom from needing to register with the dominant party to attain electoral equity while also requiring candidates to compete side-by-side, as we already do for special elections.

It may be time to allow D.C. residents to register and fully participate in election outcomes without forcing affiliation with a political party.

It could be the best possible first-step election reform most appropriate for D.C.

Mark Lee is a long-time entrepreneur and community business advocate. Follow on Twitter: @MarkLeeDC. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.

22
Jan
2014

Graham, Nadeau fight for LGBT votes in Ward 1 race

Jim Graham, Brianne Nadeau, Ward 1, D.C. Council, gay news, Washington Blade

Gay D.C. Council member Jim Graham and challenger Brianne Nadeau face off in the Ward 1 Council seat primary April 1. (Washington Blade photo of Graham by Jeff Surprenant; Blade photo of Nadeau by Michael Key)

Gay D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and challenger Brianne Nadeau are attracting citywide attention as the two battle over the LGBT vote and the vote from other diverse population groups in Ward 1 in a hotly contested race in the city’s April 1 Democratic primary.

Most political observers say Graham is facing his toughest re-election campaign since first winning the Ward 1 Council seat in 1998 as an openly gay man.

Nadeau is a former advisory neighborhood commissioner and vice president of a local public relations firm that specializes in promoting progressive causes. She’s an outspoken supporter of LGBT rights and has vowed to be a champion for the LGBT community if elected to replace Graham.

Graham has argued that his status as one of two openly gay members of the Council brings an important insight and sensitivity into his work on behalf of the LGBT community that straight allies, no matter how committed, don’t have. He also notes that his out gay colleague, David Catania (I-At-Large) is giving up his Council seat to run for mayor.

Thus if he were to lose his re-election bid, Graham has said, it would leave the Council without an openly gay member for the first time in 16 years.

In addition to his role as a strong advocate for LGBT equality, Graham has long been viewed as a champion of progressive causes such as tenants’ rights, low-income workers, and the needs of the highly diverse immigrant population of Latinos, Asian-Pacific Islanders and Ethiopians, among other immigrant groups, that have settled in Ward 1.

He has had longstanding support from these demographic groups as well as support among longtime black residents of the eastern part of the ward. Combined with past support from younger professionals moving into refurbished neighborhoods Graham says he helped bring about normally would have made him the odds-on favorite to win the Democratic nomination for a fifth term in office, according to Ward 1 political activists.

But the same activists and Ward 1 observers now say all bets are off due to a flurry of negative media reports about Graham over the past several years stemming from an allegation in 2008 that he interfered with the contract approval process for a Metro development project while serving on the Metro board.

Based on findings of an investigation by Metro, the D.C. Council voted 11-2 in February 2013 to reprimand Graham for violating a city ethics rule by improperly mixing his role as a Council member and Metro board member.

The investigation concluded that Graham favored one developer over another to receive a contract to develop a residential and commercial complex in his ward. He then urged the developer he didn’t favor to withdraw in exchange for Graham pushing for that developer to receive an unrelated city lottery contract, the investigation found.

Graham has long asserted he did nothing wrong, saying the developer he opposed was unqualified for the project and he acted in what he believed to be in the best interest of his constituents. He told the Blade he never favored the other developer and noted that ultimately a third developer emerged to carry out the project.

“If you look at the facts, there was no crime committed, there was no law broken, there was no money exchanging hands,” Graham told the Blade.  “And what we have is a conflict between two roles of a Metro Board member and Council member.”

Graham points out that the Metro contract matter happened nearly six years ago and that he was re-elected in the interim.

Nadeau has attacked Graham over the ethics issue since entering the Ward 1 race last year, saying the Council’s decision to reprimand Graham has decreased his effectiveness as a Council member.

She raised the issue again on Monday in a debate with Graham on News Channel 8’s Bruce DePuyt Show, saying Graham’s actions were another in a series of ethical lapses by D.C. Council members over the past four years that resulted in the criminal prosecution of three of Graham’s colleagues on corruption charges.

Her candidacy received a boost last week when the Washington Post endorsed her following earlier endorsements she received from the Current newspapers and Council members David Grosso (I-At-Large) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who’s running for mayor. She also received an endorsement from former Ward 6 Council member Sharon Ambrose, the prominent feminist group Emily’s List, the Women’s Campaign Fund and the D.C. Association of Realtors.

The Post endorsement of Nadeau was expected because it came on the heels of a series of Post editorials criticizing Graham over the Metro contract and ethics allegation.

Graham, meanwhile, has received endorsements from prominent labor organizations including the Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO; the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (ASCME); the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union; the Service Employees International Union (SEIU); National Nurses United, and the Teamsters. The Hotel Association and the Sierra Club also endorsed Graham.

Graham has also received the backing of Ron Simmons, president and CEO of the Ward 1-based AIDS advocacy and service organization Us Helping Us, which reaches out to black gay men; and of Kurt Schmoke, the former Baltimore mayor who since 2003 has served as an administrator at Howard University in D.C.

Schmoke, who currently holds the position of Interim Provost and Chief Academic Officer at Howard, told the Blade he contributed to Graham’s campaign as an individual, not in his official capacity, to express his “thanks” for Graham’s support of Howard.

“My perception is that Councilman Graham has been very supportive of the university on a variety of issues that have arisen” over the past decade, he said.

Graham has said he believes his support remains strong among LGBT voters. But doubts over that assumption surfaced last month when Nadeau finished ahead of Graham at the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club’s endorsement meeting by a vote of 70 to 64. She didn’t receive the endorsement of the Stein Club, the city’s largest LGBT political group, because she fell short of capturing a required 60 percent of the vote needed to endorse.

However, her strong showing raised eyebrows among LGBT activists, who view Graham as a leader on LGBT issues for more than 30 years as a Council member, attorney, and past executive director of the city’s Whitman-Walker Clinic during the height of the AIDS epidemic.

Graham’s supporters say the Stein Club members voting in the Feb. 27 meeting aren’t representative of the LGBT community in Ward 1, which they predict will turn out for Graham in large numbers on Election Day.

Nadeau supporters, however, say the Stein Club vote reflects the view by many in the LGBT community that Nadeau would be a strong advocate for LGBT equality on the Council and that LGBT voters are now focusing on a wide range of non-LGBT issues on which to base their vote. They argue that just like all other Ward 1 residents, LGBT residents are also troubled over Graham’s alleged ethics breach.

Nadeau disputes arguments by Graham supporters that Graham’s motive in intervening in the Metro contract matter was to push for the best possible deal for his Ward 1 constituents, which boosted his reputation as a fighter for the interests of his ward.

Some Graham supporters have said Nadeau would be far weaker than Graham on constituent services issues because, unlike Graham, she wouldn’t be as aggressive and unafraid to step on toes to get things done as Graham is. Nadeau bristled over that claim in an interview with the Blade earlier this month.

“I will tell you, I will throw elbows,” she said. “I will fight. I will be tough. But I will never cross the lines that he has crossed,” she said. “And I will never – you will never, ever read about me for ethical lapses, quote unquote, which, by the way, are politician-speak for corruption.”

Graham’s supporters say the ethics matter, in which no law was violated, is being used by Graham’s critics to unfairly put him in the same category as three former Council members – Kwame Brown (D-At-Large) and Harry Thomas (D-Ward 5), who were forced to resign after facing criminal prosecution on corruption related charges, and Michael Brown (I-At-Large), who was prosecuted on bribery charges after losing his re-election bid in 2012.

“This is the only plank in my opponent’s platform,” Graham said in an interview with the Blade. “She is unable to point to anything that is significant that she’s accomplished in the ward. And so this is what I expect her to take advantage of.”

Graham also challenged Nadeau’s stated record of accomplishments for Ward 1 residents as an ANC commissioner.

“She has been an ANC member, but I went over my email during her time of service and it’s just email after email after email from her,” he said. “Council member, will you help me with this? Council member, will you set up this meeting? Council member, will you intervene on this matter?”

According to Graham, Nadeau benefitted personally from his constituent service work when she sought his help in obtaining a city subsidy under the D.C. Home Purchase Assistance Program, known as HPAP, to assist in her purchase of a condo. Graham said she encountered a bureaucratic “roadblock” that his office helped her resolve.

“I was happy to do it because I always respond that way to everybody who contacts me,” Graham said. “But she’s never acknowledged all the help she got from me as an ANC commissioner, which was very substantial and frequent.”

Nadeau fired back when asked to respond to Graham’s comments.

“It’s the job of a Council member to respond to constituent service requests and to work with ANCs to resolve issues in the community, and I’ve never suggested that Jim hasn’t done that,” she said.

“But we deserve to have a Council member who can deliver constituent services while also behaving ethically in office,” she added. “Jim has demonstrated his inability to behave ethically and his corrupt behavior led his colleagues to reprimand him and strip him of a leadership role that is important to our community.”

She was referring to a decision by Council Chair Phil Mendelson to remove from the portfolio of the committee that Graham chairs jurisdiction over of the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) at the time Graham was reprimanded. Nadeau said losing direct jurisdiction over ABRA reduced Graham’s ability to have a say over issues involving liquor licenses, which directly impacts Ward 1.

Graham has said he has continued to play a key role in ABRA matters as an individual Council member with years of experience working on liquor-related issues.

Prominent LGBT advocates have lined up behind both Graham and Nadeau, and without polling data measuring the gay vote it’s impossible to predict which of the two will capture a majority of that vote or whether the LGBT vote will split evenly between them.

Veteran lesbian activist and Ward 1 resident Barbara Helmick, who supports Nadeau, and gay businessman and Latino community advocate Jay Haddock, who is backing Graham, appear to represent the view of many in the opposing camps within the LGBT community over the Graham-Nadeau race.

Helmick is among those who believe Nadeau’s overall qualifications and strong commitment to LGBT equality outweighs the loss of an openly gay Council member if she wins her race for the Ward 1 Council seat.

“Brianne will bring a fresh new energy that the Council desparately needs,” she said in a statement to the Blade.

She notes that when Graham successfully challenged 16-year Council veteran Frank Smith in 1998 he argued that 16 years was a long time to serve and that it would benefit the ward to have a new face on the Council.

“I thought Jim was right then and now that Jim has served 16 years, I think it is apt today,” Helmick said. “Sometimes after so long, some politicians become more of the system than of themselves.”

Haddock, a native of Puerto Rico who serves as president of Capital Hotels and Suites, said he witnessed first-hand Graham’s dedication and effectiveness in the fight against AIDS during Graham’s tenure as head of Whitman-Walker Clinic. At the time, Haddock, among other things, served as chair of the city’s Latino Commission under then Mayor Anthony Williams.

“The Jim Graham I know would run to people’s side to do a will because they were dying,” he said. “The Jim Graham I know has really been on the first line of defense for minority communities.”

Graham was especially helpful to Latino community projects during his tenure on the Council, Haddock said, including with La Clinica del Pueblo, a health clinic that treats many LGBT clients.

“If some people don’t feel he should be around any longer in his ward, that’s entirely up to them,” said Haddock. “But I completely feel that he is very effective, very dependable and a good friend to the minority communities of Washington, D.C. And it’s very important to have that representation on the Council.”

18
Mar
2014

Is city funding complaint by D.C. gay groups valid?

funding, money, gay news, Washington Blade

In the case of gay service groups, a dearth of public funding will further exacerbate competition. The city will seek to address a wide range of needs for the broadest number in the most effective manner.

Is it legitimate for LGBT organizations to advocate deferential consideration or funding favoritism when seeking D.C. government financial support?

Asked another way, is it valid for gay groups to demand dedicated earmarks?

The answer is no.

Some of the D.C. gay organizations unsuccessfully applying for city grants released a statement last week lamenting that no LGBT-specific organizations received funding in the first of four rounds of awards. This prompted them to renew a call for set-aside allocations.

“A dedicated public funding stream needs to be made available for programs and services for the LGBT community,” concluded the statement released by the D.C. Center for the LGBT Community, the Center for Black Equity, Casa Ruby, SMYAL, Us Helping Us, HIPS and the Human Rights Campaign. Also not funded but not joining in the statement were Whitman-Walker Health and Food and Friends.

The complaint by the six organizations raises questions about their reaction and demand for special consideration in the distribution of government monies.

The real question is whether LGBT groups should be treated differently when competing for limited government funds alongside a large number of other non-profits. If they receive preferential status, other demographic-focused organizations would justifiably clamor for the same.

When the City Fund announced the winning proposals on April 16 it was evident that the decision-making process had been rigorous in evaluating the huge number of submissions. The Community Foundation for the National Capital Region, administering the city-funded program, received 315 proposals requesting more than $30 million.

The foundation was able to award grants to 58 groups, or less than one-in-five applicants, distributing more than $3.5 million. Established last year with $15 million in District tax revenues by Mayor Vincent Gray and approved unanimously by the D.C. Council, the City Fund’s mission is to “grow and diversify the District’s economy, educate and prepare the workforce for the new economy, and improve the quality of life for all.”

Terry Lee Freeman, president of the Community Foundation, told the Blade in a statement last week that the D.C. government instructed that grants “target issue areas rather than specific populations.” Mission focus includes the arts, education, environment, health, job readiness, public safety and senior services.

“Funding in each area is intended to serve as wide and diverse a population as possible, including District residents in the LGBT community,” Freeman added.

Of note, at least two non-LGBT-specific organizations did receive funding for services of gay community interest, including Metro Teen AIDS. TrueChild, an organization educating the public on gender role discrimination, also received a grant to develop programs to prevent violence against transgender women of color.

In defending the evaluations used to determine awardees, Freeman indicated that some of the gay organization requests were deficient in complying with proposal requirements, were outside the guidelines or funding criteria, or sought funding for programs generating concerns over ongoing project viability or staffing-to-service expenditure ratios.

In other words, in a highly competitive grant making process with submission protocols and utilizing industry-standard evaluations to distribute finite resources, applications by at least some of the gay groups proved deficient.

Disappointment, however, is not justification for returning to the days of government earmarks.

It might just be that the same effects of cultural assimilation and community integration that have reduced the number of gay-centric local businesses are the newest challenge for gay non-profits. While there remains intrinsic benefit in maintaining both, gay-centric organizations are subject to new realities.

In the case of gay service groups, a dearth of public funding will further exacerbate competition. The city will seek to address a wide range of needs for the broadest number in the most effective manner.

D.C. should not return to a system of public grants driven by politics and favoring connections and influence. All organizations should welcome the opportunity to compete on a level playing field.

After all, being treated equally in D.C. is the community’s greatest achievement.

Mark Lee is a long-time entrepreneur and community business advocate. Follow on Twitter: @MarkLeeDC. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.

01
May
2014

Most mayoral hopefuls favor liquor-licensing reform

Mova, gay news, gay politics DC, alcohol, ANC, Adams Morgan, liquor license, licensing

This campaign cycle candidates have been asked a specific question regarding the next step in reforming the city’s alcohol licensing system for bars and restaurants. (Washington Blade file photo by Pete Exis)

Every election the non-partisan Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance elicits candidate positions on issues of interest to the LGBT community. GLAA’s policy brief and questionnaire is the basis for ratings assigned to D.C. vote-seekers. GLAA will soon release scores for candidates competing in the April 1 party primaries.

This campaign cycle candidates have been asked a specific question regarding the next step in reforming the city’s alcohol licensing system for bars and restaurants. Repairing regulations to ensure the process is fixed to be fair for local businesses has long been of compelling concern to the gay community. LGBT residents have witnessed how existing rules allow infamous “Gang of 5” ad hoc license protest groups and small “citizens groups” to directly intervene, attempting to delay or deny licensing.

With LGBT voters comprising 10 percent of the District’s adult population, and likely a higher percentage of voters, candidates covet a high rating.

The question, one of 12, is as follows: “Will you support strengthening Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) reforms by eliminating license protests filed by citizens associations and ad hoc groups, requiring stakeholders to participate in the community process provided by the Advisory Neighborhood Commission?”

While all candidates, including those competing for Council seats, were asked to respond, here’s how the seven-of-eight questionnaire-returning Democratic mayoral candidates measured up:

• Best Answer: Mayor Vincent Gray. He’s a “YES” and demonstrates his keen understanding of the need for reform while clearly enunciating why: “Frivolous licensing protests filed with the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) stand in the way of businesses operating free of special operating protocols. Protests by ad hoc groups…should not interfere with the issuance of ABC licenses to businesses.”

• Great Answer: D.C. Council member Jack Evans. He’s a “YES” and provides a rationale: “I have heard from both residents and businesses that the ABC Board takes too long to make decisions. I think this needs to be a more decisive process…Dragging out some of these cases months and months really can be very unfair to everyone and unnecessarily divisive.”

• Good Answer: Restaurateur Andy Shallal. He’s a “YES” and utilizes his direct experience with the licensing scheme: “I am familiar with the problems that face the owners of restaurants that serve alcohol. My restaurants all serve alcohol, and I have had to deal with the ABC’s regulations for each of them.”

• Straightforward Answer: D.C. Council member Vincent Orange. He’s a “YES” – his solitary affirmative response.

• “Gets It” Answer: Reta Jo Lewis. Although beginning, “I will have to study this issue with greater detail,” she notes, “I am the daughter of entrepreneurs – small business owners. I have a tremendous respect for creating great communities through small business, innovation and entrepreneurship. The current regulations…caus[e] significant barriers for small businesses…all of our processes are convoluted and outdated. I know we can do better.”

• Most Disappointing Answer: D.C. Council member Tommy Wells. He declines to answer the question, instead stating, “This is a proposal that needs further study.” He goes on to contort the issue, failing to reprise his passionate arguments in favor of this specific proposition from the dais during Council debate leading to modest initial reforms in Dec. 2012 limiting “Gang of 5” protests.

• Worst Answer: D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser. She fails to answer the question, utilizing a politician’s “dodge,” but indicates she is “not inclined to limit their ability to protest licenses,” albeit incorrectly referencing ANCs. While Bowser has consistently exhibited reluctance, ambivalence and lack of leadership on licensing reform, she notes joining a Council majority approving “some limitations” of protest groups. Trying to play both sides, however, she “continue[s] to think they lend value to the process.”

With long-overdue reforms supported by most mayoral candidates, it is hoped that courage will strengthen Council candidate backbones. Down ballot, some remain fearful of a diminishing few shrill voices while the broader electorate grows intolerant of fealty to their shenanigans.

Mark Lee is a long-time entrepreneur and community business advocate. Follow on Twitter: @MarkLeeDC. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.

12
Feb
2014

Let’s end corruption, stagnation in D.C. politics

Pete Ross, gay news, Washington Blade

Pete Ross attended the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club’s candidate forum on Mar. 6. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

By PETE ROSS

My candidacy for the office of U.S. senator — and my pledge of a new way forward in the struggle for D.C. statehood and full representation — received a tremendous boost from the March 6 candidate forum hosted by the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club. I personally want to thank Club members, and particularly those who helped my candidacy win the straw poll that evening.

Now I need all members of the LGBT community to vote for me between now and Election Day on April 1, and to urge your friends and neighbors, through social media and personal contact, to cast their ballots for my candidacy. This contest will be at the bottom of a crowded ballot, and D.C. voters have been overlooking its importance because of the inaction and lack of respect for the office displayed by the incumbent during his 18-year tenure.

I have been a member of the Stein Club for many years, and have personally supported its activities financially. As the father of an openly gay son, I understand and appreciate the important role that a strong, organized and diverse GLBTQ community can fulfill in supporting both parents and children in these moments. I will always seek the advice and counsel of leaders and members of this community as we move forward in a more energetic, inclusive and activist campaign to achieve our goal of national equality and justice for the 640,000 residents of D.C.

If elected as the District’s Shadow U.S. senator, my main mission will be to advance D.C. statehood, budget autonomy and full voting rights in Congress. I want to re-examine all of the paths taken during the past 40 years, including the possibility of reviving the D.C. Voting Rights Amendment to the Constitution, as we renew and reinvigorate this struggle, not only among the residents of the nation’s capital, but also among the citizenry of all 50 states.

I will reach out to our youth, our seniors and our returning citizens for the vision and valuable contributions they can make to our struggle. Unlike the incumbent, I promise to work with all supporters of statehood and D.C. voting rights, and to shun lone-wolf, election year stunts such as hastily flying off to Hollywood to secure one statement of support from one actor, as the incumbent did in the midst of this campaign.

I will be a full-time, year-round advocate on Capitol Hill, and won’t use the office to further my business interests. And I vow that I will never flash my U.S. Senate ID to try to get out of parking tickets and a drunk-driving arrest. I will not use the office to shirk my civic responsibilities.

These antics by the incumbent have demoralized and depleted the momentum for statehood and full representation. It is time to change.

In addition to my mission outlined above, I will work hand-in-hand with the District’s congresswoman, Eleanor Holmes Norton, to protect the interests of the LGBT community and of all D.C. residents, including fighting discrimination against LGBT federal workers, funding of the Ryan White HIV/AIDS law, protecting undocumented gay residents and advocating for justice and equality for the District of Columbia.

This election is about ending stagnation and corruption in DC politics, from the highest to the lowest office on the ballot.

Vote for change, action and integrity. Vote for Pete Ross for Shadow U.S. senator.

26
Mar
2014

Outdoor café fee hike hot as a summer sidewalk

fee, gay news, Washington Blade

The popular patio at Hank’s Oyster Bar in Dupont (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

It might have seemed like a good idea to D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray to scheme up a proposal to hike city fees for outdoor cafés by $1 million in the dreary days of winter. But it sure looked silly when the public caught wind of it last week in the run-up to the Memorial Day holiday weekend.

When D.C. Council members sat down at an all-day meeting to review Gray’s Fiscal Year 2015 Budget Support Act, incorporating Council recommendations, a previously little-known proposal to more than double sidewalk café fees for most businesses and nearly double them for the remaining few dominated public attention.

Dupont Circle eateries on 17th Street were featured on NBC4 News with reporter Tom Sherwood. Hank’s Oyster Bar manager Jeff Strine and Floriana Restaurant owner Dino Tapper pointed out that ever-increasing fees and taxes were a growing hardship for local establishments. D.C. Council member Tommy Wells pledged his opposition to the increase, saying, “It really sends a message to small business that we’re raising the fee for the sake of raising the fee.”

Mayor Gray wants to increase annual fees by 66 percent – although a companion provision eliminating prorated fees for partial-year seasonal operation converts it to a much higher amount for all but about 30 businesses among hundreds.

Reaction was equally swift and harsh to an additional element of the legislation. A D.C. Council committee, chaired by frequent enterprise nemesis Mary Cheh, had approved a new penalty stipulating that business owners could face imprisonment of up to 10 days or a fine of $1,000 for each day of a regulatory violation.

Local restaurateur and industry advocate Geoff Tracy remarked on social media, “I’ll never understand why politicians keep restaurants perpetually in the crosshairs.”

At-Large Council member David Grosso – not always a friend to local small businesses but proven when provoked to possess common-sense reactions to the most egregious excesses – took to Twitter to call the idea of locking up business owners for regulatory infractions “ridiculous.” Logan Circle neighborhood advisory chair Matt Raymond sardonically commented on Facebook, “We MUST get these dangerous scofflaws whose sidewalk cafés encroach one inch beyond their permit off the streets and behind bars, where they belong!”

You could envision neighborhood naysayers rustling around in kitchen drawers for tape measures. Cheh sensibly demurred, suggesting she was willing to remove the prison provision.

Gray’s proposal, along with Cheh’s committee, also relinquishes future D.C. Council control of regulations and fees – instead giving the executive exclusive authority to determine all licensing approvals, rules and permit costs. Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington President Kathy Hollinger had earlier written to Council members arguing against investing sole authority with the mayor.

“Sidewalk cafés contribute greatly to the ambiance of our city, create jobs and provide substantial revenues…through sales and employment taxes,” Hollinger wrote. “In addition, sidewalk cafés contribute to public safety, by encouraging ‘eyes on the street,’ a known inhibitor of criminal activity. Given these important contributions…the rental rates paid for the use of public space for cafés should be part of larger policy discussions before the full Council…”

D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson, however, astonishingly revealed he thought the proposed fees weren’t set high enough.

David Garber, a neighborhood advisory commissioner in the rapidly developing Navy Yard area where residents gleefully cheer the opening of each new outdoor dining and drinking space, offered a succinct retort. “D.C. already has a reputation for being a difficult and costly place to start and run a business. When businesses and entrepreneurs are considering where to open, grow, and succeed, I hope that in the future our reputation is a little more friendly than it is today. Proposed fee increases like this won’t bring us there, and will ultimately cost us more than we hope to earn.”

D.C. Council budget deliberations get underway this week. As quick as an egg fries up on a hot summer sidewalk, the Council should reject these proposals.

Mark Lee is a long-time entrepreneur and community business advocate. Follow on Twitter: @MarkLeeDC. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.

28
May
2014

Victory Fund endorses Catania for mayor

David Catania, Catania for mayor, D.C. Council, gay news, Washington Blade

David Catania won the Victory Fund’s endorsement even though he hasn’t yet announced his candidacy for mayor. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, an influential national group that raises money for LGBT candidates for public office, created a stir among local activists this week when it announced it has endorsed D.C. Council member David Catania (I-At-Large) for mayor.

With many LGBT activists supporting Mayor Vincent Gray’s re-election bid and others in the LGBT community supporting one of the four other City Council members running for mayor, some are asking why the Victory Fund would endorse Catania before he has formally announced he’s running for mayor.

Catania has formed an exploratory committee for a mayoral race and has said he most likely would run if Gray wins the Democratic primary on April 1.

Victory Fund Press Secretary Steven Thai said that while the group doesn’t endorse unannounced potential candidates very often, it has taken this step before. He noted that the Victory Fund endorsed former U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) for the U.S. Senate in 2012 before she officially announced she was running for the Senate.

Baldwin went on to declare her candidacy for the Senate and won that race, making history by becoming the first out lesbian or gay person to become a U.S. senator.

“David Catania brings an incredible amount of passion and commitment to his job,” the Victory Fund’s chief operating officer, Torey Carter, said in a statement released by the group on Tuesday.

“He helped guide Washington through a period of unprecedented growth and revitalization,” Carter said. “He is ideally positioned to lead a city with such a diverse and dynamic people.”

The Victory Fund also announced on Tuesday its endorsement of gay Virginia State Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) in his race for the 8th District U.S. House seat being vacated by retiring Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.).

Ebbin is running in a hotly contested Democratic primary scheduled for June 10 in which two other openly gay candidates are running in an 11-candidate race.

“Adam Ebbin has distinguished himself as an outspoken voice of progressive values,” Carter said in a separate statement on Tuesday. “After ten years in the state legislature, he has remained committed to his goal of increasing equality and opportunity for those who are often left behind.”

Virginia State Del. Mark Sickles (D-Fairfax), who came out publicly last week in a column in the Washington Post, emerged as an unexpected ‘out’ candidate in the 8th District congressional race. Also running is gay rights attorney and radio talk show host Mark Levine, who worked as a legal counsel for gay former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). Levine says he’s been out as gay since the 1980s.

As of this week, the Victory Fund has endorsed 71 out LGBT candidates in national, state and local races and expects to endorse more than 200 out candidates across the country in the 2014 election cycle, the group says on its website.

Among those endorsed so far are at least nine gay or lesbian candidates running in D.C., Maryland and Virginia, including Catania and Ebbin.

But missing from its endorsement list so far are lesbian Maryland Del. Heather Mizeur (D-Montgomery Country), who’s running for governor, and gay D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who is running for re-election to a fifth term.

Spokesperson Thai reiterated the Victory Fund’s longstanding policy of not disclosing why the group has not endorsed a candidate. However, he said many more candidates are in the endorsement pipeline and the group could very well endorse candidates not on the list in the next few weeks and coming months.

He said the group’s criteria for endorsing any candidate, as posted on the website, include a demonstration that the candidate is viable and can show a path to victory; a record of support on LGBT rights; and the completion of a detailed application seeking an endorsement. Thai said an endorsement for a prior election doesn’t carry over to the next election and all incumbents must re-apply each time they run.

Graham couldn’t immediately be reached to determine if he applied for an endorsement in his Council race.

The Mizeur for governor campaign didn’t say specifically whether the campaign formally applied for a Victory Fund endorsement.

“We are in close communication with the Victory Fund and we would welcome their support,” campaign spokesperson Steven Hershkowitz told the Blade.

Meanwhile, in a little-noticed development, Del. Peter Murphy (D-Charles County), one of eight openly gay members of the Maryland General Assembly, announced last month that he is not running for re-election to that position. Instead, Murphy said he decided to run for president of the Charles County Board of Commissioners, a position equivalent to a county executive.

“Whether you’re a state legislator or a county commissioner president, it’s all about the quality of life for all people,” Murphy said in a Feb. 3 statement. “I’ve always been accessible and responsive as a delegate, and I look forward to the opportunity of continuing to serve all our residents with the same enthusiasm and dedication.”

As a candidate for governor, Mizeur is giving up her seat in the House of Delegates. Records with the state board of elections show that she did not file for re-election to her delegate post prior to the filing deadline of Feb. 25. The election board lists Mizeur as an “active” candidate for governor in the June 24 Maryland primary.

The departure of Mizeur and Murphy from the House of Delegates would lower the number of out gay or lesbian members of the Maryland General Assembly from eight – the highest in the nation for a state legislature – to six if all six remaining lawmakers are re-elected this year.

The others running for re-election are State Sen. Richard Madelano (D-Montgomery County) and Delegates Maggie McIntosh (D-Baltimore City), Luke Clippinger (D-Baltimore City), Mary Washington (D-Baltimore City), Anne Kaiser (D-Montgomery County) and Bonnie Cullison (D-Montgomery County).

All except Kaiser have been endorsed by the Victory Fund.

Other out gay or lesbian candidates in Maryland that have received the Victory Fund’s endorsement this year are Evan Glass, Montgomery County Council; Byron Macfarlane, Howard County Register of Wills; and Kevin Walling, Maryland House of Delegates, Montgomery County.

Walling is running in a different district than that of Mizeur and Kaiser’s districts in Montgomery County.

26
Feb
2014

Lengthy lame duck period is lame

Vincent Gray, gay news, Washington Blade, lame duck

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

In last week’s Democratic primary election, several challengers defeated incumbents. Some attribute the victories to the election being held in April rather than later in the year, among other factors. Those who assert this viewpoint are seeking excuses, as the mayoral and Council races were all won by double-digit percentages, so it is highly unlikely that the timing of the races impacted the results.

Sure, it is possible that the winning percentages may not have been as great if the primary was held later in the year, but the belief that it would have impacted the outcome of some of the races is wishful thinking by those who are unhappy with the results.

More than likely, if the primary was held later, some of the candidates may have waited longer to enter the race, so there is no guarantee that there would have been a longer campaign period. The main benefit that may have slightly shifted the winning percentages would have been the ability to campaign in the spring, rather than in the winter. That said, there is no evidence that the low turnout in the primary is the result of the election’s timing. There was plenty of information about the election in the media. Rather, it is more plausible that the electorate willingly chose not to participate for a multitude of reasons.

Nevertheless, in future elections, the primary should be held closer to the general election. By holding the primary in April, incumbents who were defeated have a nine-month lame duck period. That is simply too long and can potentially be disruptive to the District accomplishing its goals during this time. We now have a lame duck mayor presenting a budget to the D.C. Council. That’s quite an incentive for Council members to disregard some of the priorities that the mayor presents. Mayor Gray simply does not have the same power post-election as he did prior to the election. It also gives the mayor almost a year to implement changes as he sees fit, with no regard for how the electorate might react.

In addition, we have lame duck Council members in Wards 1 and 6. It will not have an impact in Ward 6 since Council member Tommy Wells’ chosen successor, Charles Allen, prevailed in the Democratic primary after Wells chose not to seek re-election to his Council seat to run for mayor. Thus, the transition between Wells and Allen will be seamless and I do not believe that Ward 6 residents will disregard Wells during the lame duck period. It may, however, impact Wells’ ability to negotiate with his Council colleagues.

In Ward 1, where Brianne Nadeau defeated Jim Graham in his Council re-election bid, Graham’s lame duck status may have more of an impact. Though Graham publicly pledged to ensure that there is a smooth transition between him and Nadeau, constituent services may be murky over the next nine months. Graham is highly regarded in the area of constituent services, but after a contentious race, there may be a portion of the electorate that is confused about whom to contact in constituent service matters. Highly engaged voters may understand that Graham is still the Council member for the next nine months, but lesser engaged residents, who often are the ones that need the most assistance, may not understand. There also is not much incentive to introduce legislation or to build coalitions with colleagues over legislative or budget battles.

Hence, the nine-month lame duck period will result in a lengthy timeframe in which some elected officials do not feel beholden to other legislators or to the voters. In reality, the negative impact will probably be limited because all three lame duck elected officials—Mayor Vincent Gray and Council members Jim Graham and Tommy Wells—have too much integrity and care too much about their legacies to not work hard until their last day in office. All the same, to be on the safe side, the primary date should be moved back in future elections, so we never have to deal with a lengthy lame duck period again.

Lateefah Williams’ biweekly column, ‘Life in the Intersection,’ focuses on the intersection of race, gender and sexual orientation. She is a D.C.-based political operative and LGBT rights advocate. Reach her at lateefah_williams@msn.com or follow her @lateefahwms.

10
Apr
2014

BestBus steers market

Asi Ohana, Richard Green, BestBus, gay news, Washington Blade

BestBus co-founders Asi Ohana and Richard Green are celebrating seven years of the successful business this month. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Less than a decade ago, the launch of independent bus services providing low-cost travel between D.C. and New York City was an evolving and unreliable transit option. Two local entrepreneurs set out to correct deficiencies plaguing prior start-ups.

Now named BestBus, co-founders Asi Ohana and Richard Green pioneered many of the protocols and amenities later adopted by others. Eliminating the practice of overbooking due to chronic no-shows with the introduction of guaranteed seats and advance ticketing, no longer would frenzied first-come curbside “cattle calls” leave passengers stranded. From a starting date that sold out three weeks in advance on the wildfire word-of-mouth promise of enhanced service, BestBus has continued to set the standard for customer satisfaction.

That distinction has fueled the long and strong marketplace popularity of BestBus as an industry leader and has allowed the enterprise to expand pick-up stops and travel destinations. Formerly known as “DC2NY” until a recent rebranding reflecting new service locations, an enduring commitment to customer service and traveler enjoyment has been as much a key to the company’s success as a full tank of diesel.

Offering convenient and affordable travel, BestBus is the discriminating rider’s choice. Often referred to as the “upscale bus,” the company counts among its clientele professionals from local corporations and trade associations to political staffers and luminaries toiling in the White House and on Capitol Hill. Bookings are available on weekdays and weekends, with variable low-cost competitive rates.

The company pioneered on-board WiFi service and at-seat electrical outlets, complementary bottled water, and passenger voting on whether to watch a movie and schedule a rest stop. Critical to this type of enterprise, a singular focus on maintaining immaculate interiors and well-stocked bathrooms earned patron acclaim. Utilizing charter coach buses, cooperatively trained accredited drivers and on-call relief operators for all routes ensures both customer comfort and a spotless safety record.

Celebrating its seventh anniversary this month, BestBus now serves six cities with 10 routes, including seasonal service to the Delaware beach towns of Rehoboth and Dewey from both Washington and Manhattan. Building on the five-year popularity of its two-way sun-and-sand transport from the District, last year BestBus inaugurated service from NYC.

“We always had requests for service from New York to the Delaware beaches,” says company president Ohana, “but were surprised how quickly it took off.” Ohana and his now-husband Green, company CEO, rode one of their buses in last weekend’s New York Pride Parade – as they did last month in D.C. The Logan Circle couple of more than eight years will celebrate their one-year wedding anniversary the same week they commemorate the annual inauguration date of the only gay-owned bus business.

This week, BestBus general manager Avi Cohen opens a new Dupont Circle operations office at 2029 P St., N.W., as BestBus prepares to expand service stops. Designated bus stops off Dupont Circle and at Union Station in Washington, Times Square in Manhattan, Vienna/Fairfax and Franconia/Springfield Metrorail stations in Virginia, and its seasonal dual beach destinations will soon include new service stops in Manassas, Silver Spring and Baltimore.

BestBus plans to add destination cities Philadelphia and Boston in coming months. Green, a recently retired 27-year veteran of global corporate hotel sales, notes that “planned, gradual growth and service expansion was always part of our vision.”

VIP and regular memberships offering high-value frequent-rider discounts and booking deals are available on the company’s website. Most BestBus riders purchase tickets online or on mobile devices.

Whether planning a last-minute trip or an affordable alternative to the hassle of driving or the expense of the train, BestBus distinguishes itself with each mile and every happy traveler.

Mark Lee is a long-time entrepreneur and community business advocate. Follow on Twitter @MarkLeeDC or reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.

01
Jul
2014

Pride Reveal

The Capital Pride Alliance held the 2014 Pride Reveal event at the P.O.V. Lounge of the W Hotel on Thursday evening to announce the theme for Pride 2014: “Build Our Bright Future.” (Washington Blade photos by Michael Key) buyphoto 

24
Jan
2014