Emails Reveal Collaboration Between Gray Administration and Walmart on Living Wage Bill
Today is Day 3 of the 10-business-day deadline for Mayor Vince Gray to sign or veto the living wage bill delivered to him by the D.C. Council last Friday. Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro says Gray has not yet made up his mind, and that once he does, he'll immediately make his decision known.
But this isn't just the third day that the Gray administration has pondered the Large Retailer Accountability Act of 2013, which would require large retailers to pay a living wage of $12.50 an hour, minus benefits. Supporters and opponents of the bill have lobbied the Council and the administration hard for months. And according to emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, Walmart—the legislation's leading opponent—has been a key source of not only lobbying, but also information for senior administration officials.
The emails show that the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development has turned to Walmart for information about the bill's legislative process, with members of the team asking a company official for Walmart's whip count of the votes to assess the bill's chances of passage.
Deputy Mayor Victor Hoskins, who has made clear the "chilling effect" he thinks the living wage bill would have on D.C. business, is clearly a fan of Walmart and the business it would bring to the District. In November, he emailed Nina Albert, Walmart's director of community affairs (and herself a DMPED official from 2006 to 2010), to tell her, "We are so excited about the designs, jobs, products and services that your organization will be delivering to DC under served communities."
In January, Albert emailed Hoskins and his then-chief of staff, Brian Kenner, with news of the committee introduction of the living wage bill. Hoskins responded, "This is news to us."
On May 30, Albert emailed Hoskins, Kenner, Hoskins' business development director David Zipper, and Director of the Office of Policy and Legislative Affairs Janene Jackson to inform them of the bill's progress in committee:
Hi Victor, Janene, Brian and David – I am not sure if you are aware of this, but the Large Retailers Accountability Act is moving forward quickly. Vince Orange is marking up the legislation tomorrow morning at 10:30am, and will likely be able to move the bill out of committee. We’ve also heard that he will likely seek a waiver of rules, so that the Council of the Whole could have its first reading on the Bill June 4th and the second reading in July. We believe that if this bill leave’s the Committee tomorrow, that the rest of the Council will vote for the bill.
Jackson responded a few minutes later that she was aware of the markup, and asked Albert for a favor:
I assume Wal-Mart is working to oppose and is counting votes. If you’re comfortable, would you mind sharing who is opposing the legislation and who is supporting? he has to overcome
We’ve been focusing on the Committee at this point. Here are the votes as we understand them:
Mary Cheh: Against, BUT will not be in attendance tomorrow, so her vote won’t count
Jim Graham: For, not likely to change
David Grosso: For. He was on WAMU this morning stating so. We are still working on him to change this.
The trouble at this point is that we only have one “Against” (Yvette). If we get Grosso, that’s 2-2, which is only enough to slow the bill, not stop it.
Yes, I figured the committee would vote it out so I’m really asking what are your votes on the full Council.
We’ve been hearing differently.
Not sure I follow. What are you hearing differently? That it will die in committee?
Sorry – no, I have not heard it will die in committee.
On June 4, Kenner (who would soon depart DMPED for a job as city manager of Takoma Park) sent Albert a blank email with the subject line, "we have not seen large retailer on agenda for today's session, have you?" Albert responded:
No. Expected for June 18th, with a potential delay to July 9th, depending on Mendelson’s desire to reserve June 18th for more budget discussion. We’re now working toward the June 18th date. When’s your last day? Did I miss your going away party?
Unfortunately, the emails I received only go through June, when I filed the FOIA request. I've submitted a followup request for communications up to the present date.
Of course, it's not unusual for a company to be in close contact with city officials regarding legislation that will affect that company's future business in the city. But the extent to which senior Gray officials relied on Walmart for information hints at a closer-than-usual relationship.
Ribeiro says this is only one side of the equation, and that the administration has also had frequent conversations with labor leaders and other supporters of the bill. "We’re not denying that we talk to Walmart and they give us their opinion," he says. "They wouldn’t be doing their job if they didn’t. But we’ve also talked to people in support of the bill."
Gray will take Hoskins' advice into consideration, Ribeiro says, along with the other input he's been getting. "The mayor hires people for their background and experience and for their opinions," he says. "Victor has said exactly what he thinks about it. Now it’s the mayor’s turn to take that advice and couple it with the other advice he’s been getting and make a decision."
Update 3:15 p.m.: Mike Wilson of Respect DC, a union-backed anti-Walmart group and a leading supporter of the living wage bill, calls to dispute the notion that unions and bill supporters have had equal face time with the mayor as Walmart. "I can assure you with respect to labor and Respect DC that there has been nothing like that with us," he says. "We haven't even been able to get a meeting with the mayor since the bill passed." Wilson says the mayor's office suggested one meeting time on short notice that the labor groups couldn't make.
Wilson adds, "We haven’t been counting votes for the mayor’s office."
Update 5:25 p.m.: Ribeiro contests the idea that the mayor's office didn't make every effort to meet with labor leaders, and forwards a few emails to back up his claim. Sure enough, a mayoral staffer set up a meeting with labor leader Joslyn Williams for Aug. 21, a date of Williams' colleague's choosing, before Williams backed out and wrote, "Not your fault. We take responsibility for this."
Photo by Darrow Montgomery