All the ev­i­dence points to a di­vided Dis­trict

The Washington Post - - FREE FOR ALL - COL­BERT I. KING

The story of the Dis­trict’s paid fam­ilyand med­i­cal-leave law is a tale of two ci­ties. On one side of the di­vide is a city that will soon bask in a pol­icy, which, ac­cord­ing to the law, will pro­vide work­ers with up to eight weeks of parental leave to bond with a new child, six weeks of fam­ily leave to care for an ill fam­ily mem­ber with a se­ri­ous health con­di­tion and two weeks of med­i­cal leave to care for one’s own se­ri­ous health con­di­tion. It is a city with good so­cial pol­icy. The pro­gres­sive Na­tional Part­ner­ship for Women and Fam­i­lies, a non­profit ad­vo­cacy group that pushes hard for such pro­grams across the coun­try, praised D.C. Coun­cil mem­ber Elissa Sil­ver­man (I-At Large) and oth­ers for their highly ef­fec­tive work in 2016 to pass one of the na­tion’s most gen­er­ous poli­cies guar­an­tee­ing work­ers paid fam­ily and med­i­cal leave. At the time, the Na­tional Part­ner­ship spelled out the ben­e­fits of the city’s law ex­plic­itly in a news re­lease: It makes paid leave ac­ces­si­ble to vir­tu­ally ev­ery pri­vate sec­tor worker in the Dis­trict. Em­ploy­ees who must care for a new child or a se­ri­ously ill fam­ily mem­ber or who are se­ri­ously sick them­selves will be able to take “time away from work with­out jeop­ar­diz­ing their abil­ity to cover their ba­sic ex­penses.”

That D.C. city, be­cause of the law, is a more fam­ily-friendly place. A good thing.

On the other side of the D.C. di­vid­ing line is a city faced with a markedly dif­fer­ent chal­lenge. In that city, the over­ar­ch­ing goal: to just find and keep a job, to get work that puts food on the ta­ble and a roof over­head.

That is the city in which I grew up, and where thou­sands still live.

It is a city where the word “leave” means “get out” or “go away.”

A world where get­ting time off from work or an ex­cused ab­sence with pay for fam­ily care or to bury a par­ent is ei­ther un­heard of or a dis­tant dream. Do­mes­tic day work­ers have no such ex­pec­ta­tions. I know my mother didn’t.

Nei­ther did my fa­ther when he found work as a la­borer.

There are peo­ple to­day in that D.C. city who don’t know what it’s like to go out the door to a job that pays, who don’t face the choice be­tween car­ing for a loved one or keep­ing a job, be­cause there’s no job to keep. And there are many oth­ers aged out of the job mar­ket.

The paid fam­ily med­i­cal leave de­bate un­folded against the back­drop of two ci­ties stub­bornly di­vided be­tween those em­ployed full time, and those ei­ther un­der­em­ployed or job­less, and who are also sep­a­rated by in­come, race and where peo­ple live.

Most res­i­dents of both ci­ties, I be­lieve, would not be­grudge ben­e­fi­cia­ries of the fam­ily leave act. It is their good for­tune to have jobs with ben­e­fits. If any­thing, they are to be en­vied, not re­sented.

Yet for many D.C. res­i­dents stuck on the side­lines, the fam­ily med­i­cal leave de­bate was not about them.

In any case, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) re­fused to sign the leg­is­la­tion, crit­i­ciz­ing it as a tax on D.C. busi­nesses that would largely ben­e­fit Vir­ginia and Mary­land res­i­dents who work there. (She didn’t veto it ei­ther, so it be­came law that will take ef­fect in July 2020.) And Bowser sin­gled out Sil­ver­man as the chief cul­prit who helped write and pushed for the pro­posal, say­ing it was pro­moted by out­siders who wanted to use the city as a “petri dish” for their pro­gres­sive causes.

“We have to be care­ful when na­tional groups come into D.C. to move na­tional leg­is­la­tion to demon­strate to the rest of the world that it can be passed,” said Bowser.

Thus, this year’s race for an at-large Coun­cil seat be­tween Sil­ver­man and po­lit­i­cal neo­phyte Dionne Reeder be­came, al­beit un­in­ten­tion­ally, symp­to­matic of the is­sues un­der­ly­ing the fam­ily-leave de­bate. Sil­ver­man and Reeder, whether they liked it or not, were cast as sur­ro­gates.

The Sil­ver­man and Reeder can­di­da­cies rep­re­sented a tale of two ci­ties sep­a­rated by widen­ing gaps in ed­u­ca­tion, wealth and op­por­tu­nity, as well as sep­a­rated by racially chang­ing and de­fined neigh­bor­hoods.

Sil­ver­man be­came the stan­dard-bearer for the city’s well-ed­u­cated, well-housed and wellem­ployed, who see the Dis­trict through a lens of­fer­ing the per­spec­tive of a bright fu­ture.

And Reeder: a stand-in for the poor, dis­af­fected and left-out peo­ple of color who see their city slip­ping away. Sil­ver­man’s city — and pri­or­ity — won. The col­lapse of po­lit­i­cal ci­vil­ity and the fos­ter­ing of sep­a­rate­ness also scored vic­to­ries.

If we have learned any­thing from this dustup, it’s that pet­ti­ness makes for pu­trid pol­i­tics and poor pub­lic re­la­tion­ships.

Am­bi­tious lust for power — clum­sily pur­sued — has given us two ci­ties.

Get­ting the Dis­trict back to one city will re­quire a qual­ity of ma­ture, lev­el­headed lead­er­ship that, sadly, is not in ev­i­dence th­ese days.

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