D.C. Working Families coalition launches, targets minimum wage hike

D.C. Working Families coalition launches, targets minimum wage hike

By Mike DeBonis, Updated: October 30 at 12:01 pm

A new coalition of labor unions and other progressive-minded activist groups is launching this week, promising to move elected officials toward a significant minimum wage hike and comprehensive campaign finance reforms.

D.C. Working Families is an offshoot of a national Working Families group that has seen success promoting social justice issues in New York, Connecticut and Oregon. The District launch comes after a push to require a “living wage” for employees of large retailers narrowly failed, and as local officials ponder an across-the-board hike in the city’s $8.25 minimum wage.

The group includes some the city’s most largest and most progressive labor groups: Local 25 of UNITE HERE, the hotel workers union; locals 32BJ and 1199 of the Service Employees International Union; and the regional Laborers union. Also involved are non-labor groups including Jews United for Justice and Our D.C., who were deeply involved in the fight for the large-retailer wage bill, and clergy leaders.

The Rev. George Gilbert Jr., pastor of Holy Trinity United Baptist Church in Deanwood and the leader of D.C. Jobs or Else, an employment justice group, said D.C. Working Families will work to “make sure the poor and the middle class have a level playing ground.”

“We represent and serve a lot of people who feel like they don’t have a voice any more in the city,” Gilbert said. “They feel like big business is basically calling the shots and motivating the politicians to make their decisions. … I just feel like the city has moved away from hearing the people’s voice.”

The group has hired a full-time D.C. director, Delvone Michael, a veteran political operative who previously helped lead the Working Families efforts in Connecticut, where the group helped pass legislation guaranteeing paid sick days for workers.

Michael said the new D.C. coalition expects to get involved in the upcoming 2014 election campaign very quickly, advocating for progressive issues but also recruiting and promoting “real progressive” candidates. “We think the folks in the Wilson Building have done some good things over the years, but we think they could do a little bit better,” he said.

Jon Green, the national deputy director for Working Families, said the group has had success in identifying candidates who are strong on their issues, then “elevating” their profiles in races against more establishment-minded opponents. ”We’ve been finding really strong progressive, passionate candidates and elevating those folks so those people are seen as strong viable strong contenders,” he said.

Both Green and Michael said the defeat of the large-retailer bill and the inability of the council to move forward on serious campaign finance reforms — including proposals to create a public financing system — show that District politicians too often pay lip service to progressive politics but don’t actually legislate that way.

“Progressives have been ignored for far too long,” Michael said. “It’s time to band together.”

At private meeting, supporters tell Vincent Gray to run again

At private meeting, supporters tell Vincent Gray to run again

By Mike DeBonis, Updated: October 29 at 2:12 pm

The effort to “convince Vince” reached a new stage Monday night, when a group of business and political figures gathered in Northwest Washington to urge Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) to run for a second term.

The meeting of about 20 took place in the Forest Hills home of Aviva Kempner, a filmmaker and philanthropist active in statehood causes. The attendees, according to two people present who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the private nature of the meeting, included Gray and prominent business figures, as well as others active in District voting rights and Democratic politics generally.

Also there, the attendees said, were Gray’s chief of staff, Christopher Murphy, and the top lawyer for his 2010 campaign, Lloyd Jordan.

Kempner declined to comment on the meeting, but the attendees said several people there urged Gray to run despite the ongoing federal investigation into his last campaign and the unanswered questions about what he knew about the wrongdoing and when he knew it.

One attendee, developer Michele Hagans, was particularly direct in speaking with the mayor, telling him he needed to end his seemingly endless deliberating and launch a campaign, others present said. But not all who spoke were so straightforward in their comments, they said. A couple cited the unfinished investigation as a continuing obstacle, while most said they were inclined to support Gray based on their dim views toward the leading declared candidates — D.C. Council members Muriel Bowser, Jack Evans and Tommy Wells, as well as former State Department official Reta Jo Lewis.

Those who came hoping to hear Gray announce a decision left disappointed: the mayor showed little outward indication he was leaning one way or another, the attendees said. “I think it was good for him to hear a lot of what was said,” said one. “But he didn’t tip his hand.”

Gray said in a Oct. 18 interview on WAMU-FM’s Politics Hour that he would make an announcement “within the next few weeks.” Ballot petitions for the April 1 primary will be made available on Nov. 8, but Gray on Monday said he did not consider that date to be a hard deadline for his decision, one attendee said.

Pedro Ribeiro, a spokesman for Gray, declined to comment on Monday’s event or Gray’s decision. Another senior aide to Gray, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, said the meeting was not part of a “listening tour,” but said another similar event has been scheduled for later this week in Ward 5, and other meetings are likely to be scheduled.

There is some indication that Gray’s political operation, such as it is, is sputtering to life: On Friday, select political donors were asked to save the date of Nov. 19 for Gray’s 71st birthday party, which will double as a fundraiser for his constituent services fund. It also could, rather easily, become a campaign fundraiser, as well.

Nikita Stewart contributed to this post.

D.C. Health Link: Online pricing feature on track for next month

Oct 25, 2013, 2:52pm EDT Updated: Oct 25, 2013, 4:53pm EDT

D.C. Health Link: Online pricing feature on track for next month

Ben Fischer

Staff Reporter- Washington Business Journal

The D.C. Health Link says its delayed online pricing feature is on track to be working by early November, which would allow more users to complete the entire insurance shopping process as originally envisioned by Obamacare.

Just before its Oct. 1 launch date, the District’s locally created exchange said it would not calculate final price quotes for customers who needed to check their Medicaid eligibility or inquire about available tax subsidies.

The software to verify eligibility generated errors in 15 percent of test cases, which led to the exchange launching without the pricing feature. It was a significant blow, because it meant that only people who were willing to forego premium help could actually complete the buying process.

Exchange spokesman Richard Sorian said the fixes are proceeding as planned. Meanwhile, experts are verifying subsidy and Medicaid eligibility through more traditional means.

Contractor IBM Curam was in charge of the eligibility system, but Sorian declined to answer questions about its performance.

"We have confidence in the product that’s going out to the public," Sorian said. "I don’t intend to comment on particular contractors."

Sorian said that people who have already signed up for an account and requested a final, offline price quote and invoice should receive them by early November.

Separately on Friday, the Obama administration said the federal healthcare.gov — which has been beset by technical challenges far more severe than those in D.C. and Maryland — will be fixed by late November.

"By the end of November, Healthcare.gov will work smoothly for the vast majority of users," said Jeffrey Zients, Obama’s appointee to fix the numerous problems with the site. "The healthcare.gov site is fixable. It will take a lot of work, and there are a lot of problems that need to be addressed."

For the moment, the delays in the exchanges is a technical one. But if widespread problems persist past late November, it could jeopardize the individual mandate — the component of the reform law that requires everybody to carry health insurance starting Jan. 1.

Ben Fischer covers health care and law.

D.C. exchange enrollment continues gradual growth

Oct 21, 2013, 2:57pm EDT

D.C. exchange enrollment continues gradual growth

Ben Fischer

Staff Reporter- Washington Business Journal

The D.C. Health Link, the District’s locally created online insurance exchange, continues to report strong interest in its opening weeks, though relatively few website visitors have actually purchased insurance.

Through Monday, 164 individuals or families have finished signing up and requested an invoice, according to new data released by the exchange. That’s up from 89 two weeks ago.

All told, 12,294 people and 426 small businesses have created accounts on the website, designed to link shoppers with both private insurance options and Medicaid for those eligible. Of those, 1,894 people have completed an application and 321 have selected a health plan, according to officials.

D.C.’s pace appears to be lagging behind a target set by the Obama administration, according to the Associated Press. An internal document put the October target for D.C. at 3,010 enrollees in commercial insurance plans, not counting Medicaid. (The White House denied these figures are targets, but rather projections.)

Health Link spokesman Richard Sorian said D.C. officials haven’t received any targets from the feds or anybody else, and they remain encouraged by the numbers in the early going.

"I don’t know where those numbers came from, but they’re not relevant to what we’re trying to do here," he said.

The entire concept of online insurance exchanges depends on enough people signing up to keep them viable — nationwide, the Obama administration has said at least 7 million people need to enroll by next March. However, keep in mind it’s only three weeks into a six-month open enrollment period.

Ben Fischer covers health care and law.

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Vincent Gray revives denials of campaign wrongdoing

Vincent Gray revives denials of campaign wrongdoing

By Mike DeBonis, Washington Post, Updated: October 18, 2013

Mayor Vincent C. Gray, in a radio appearance Friday, made his most unequivocal statement in months about his messy 2010 election campaign, saying he “did nothing wrong” as federal authorities continue their investigation.

Gray (D) phoned in to WAMU-FM’s Politics Hour, where co-host Tom Sherwood pressed the mayor on whether he would run for a second term and whether, if he did, he would address unanswered questions about illegal activities in his previous campaign.

“Well, I think there are questions that will be asked, Tom, and we’ll be prepared,” Gray said. “I have said I did nothing wrong from the very beginning. And I’m not going to change that position. There’s no reason for me to change that position. … I have said that, and I will say it again and again.”

In fact, for the past year or so, Gray has said not much of anything about the ongoing investigation — which is indeed ongoing, with a grand jury meeting as recently as last week to review evidence.

In the period between when Sulaimon Brown first made his allegations of secret cash payoffs in March 2011 to when a “shadow campaign” was detailed during court proceedings in the summer of 2012, the mayor’s denials of any wrongdoing were routine. Since the investigation broadened to implicate businessman Jeffrey E. Thompson, he has steadfastly refused to comment on the investigation.

So is the new round of denials an indication that he will soon launch a re-election campaign?

Gray stuck to his old talking points on that one, highlighting the accomplishments of his administration and making note that ballot petitions will be made available for pickup on Nov. 8.

“Obviously, the time is becoming more compressed, and we are going to get to a decision within the next few weeks,” he said. “I don’t have a specific date as yet when I’m going to make an announcement.”

Should that announcement indeed be that Gray will seek a second term, he offered a preview of his pitch to divorce his previous campaign’s shenanigans from his administration’s accomplishments: “There really have been no issues with this administration in terms of untoward activity. You look at the things that we said we were going to do, those are the things that we have done.”

“It’s very unfortunate things happened during that campaign,” he added, “but they did happen during the campaign and not during this administration’s work on behalf of the people of the city.”

Wrestling with re-election decision, Jim Graham polls Ward 1

Wrestling with re-election decision, Jim Graham polls Ward 1

By Mike DeBonis, Updated: October 18, 2013

Jim Graham is, by most measures, in an enviable position for a politico seeking reelection. Over four D.C. Council terms, the Democrat has earned unmatched name recognition (also, bowtie recognition), built a network of community supporters across his Ward 1 bailiwick and established a fundraising base matched by few ward council members.

And yet.

As reported this week by Washington City Paper, Graham filed papers Tuesday, not for a full-blown reelection campaign but rather an exploratory effort. That’s the sort of toe-in-the-water effort typically reserved for candidates seeking a particular office for the first time.

The decision to opt for an exploratory campaign raises some questions, none more succinct than this one, posed in a statement from already-declared Ward 1 candidate Brianne Nadeau: “What does Graham have left to explore?”

Well, among other things, he’s exploring whether his involvement in ethics controversies have harmed his reelection chances. That’s the takeaway from a telephone poll fielded Friday by Ward 1 voters — including, as it happens, Bryan Weaver, another already-declared candidate for Graham’s seat.

Weaver said the poll asked about both Graham and Mayor Vincent C. Gray, before offering biographical information about Graham, Nadeau, Weaver and a third declared candidate, Beverley Wheeler, and then asking for respondents’ preferences.

The automated poll then turned, Weaver said, to Graham’s ethical controversies — most prominently, his involvement in an alleged contracting quid pro quo that ended in his being criticized by the city’s ethics board and reprimanded by his council colleagues.

Among the questions, Weaver said: “How important to you is the endorsement of The Washington Post?” (The Post editorial board has been deeply critical of Graham’s role in the contracting deal.)

Graham acknowledged Friday that he is polling — “I’ve always polled,” he notes — and said it was “important for me to get that kind of sense of the political situation.” The survey, he said, is “just one factor” in his ultimate decision.

In an interview earlier in the week, Graham said the exploratory committee is a way to publicly acknowledge that he is still wrestling with whether to run again. At 68, he would be well into his 70s by the end of a fifth term. He also would be running against adversaries who have made clear that they will make an issue of his ethics record.

Graham said he doesn’t doubt he would win if he ends up deciding to run — a decision, he believes, he can put off until December — and he is already hinting that he is leaning toward seeking another term.

Since he announced his exploratory panel this week, Graham said Friday, he’s heard from “dozens of people” weighing in on whether he should run or not.

“It’s mostly been run, I must say,” he said.

Aaron C. Davis contributed to this report.

Second Group of DC Health Link Assisters Now Trained to Help Residents Sign Up for Health Insurance

Second Group of DC Health Link Assisters Now Trained to Help Residents Sign Up for Health Insurance

Nearly 200 People Will Assist Consumers with Health Coverage Options

DC Health Link | 10/11/2013, 11:33 a.m.

The second graduating class of DC Health Link Assisters (Courtesy of DC Health Link)

Nearly 100 DC Health Link Assisters have completed 30 hours of comprehensive training and are ready to help residents use DCHealthLink.com to shop for quality, affordable health insurance. These women and men bring the total number of trained Assisters to approximately 200.

“DC Health Link Assisters are already hard at work helping residents across the District to get answers to their questions and help them enroll,” said Mila Kofman, J.D., executive director of the DC Health Benefit Exchange Authority. “With this new group of trained experts, we will be able to provide help to every person who wants in-person, top-notch personalized assistance. Assisters are trusted voices and sources of information in their communities and they are our boots on the ground.”

In September, the first group of Assisters completed the five-day training course and is helping residents already. Assisters are working closely with DC Health Link registered insurance brokers who are available to provide advice, including recommendations for specific health plans, depending on a person’s needs.

All DC Health Link Assisters completed more than 30 hours of coursework and training developed and provided by Whitman-Walker Health and Families USA. Assisters were also trained in privacy and security procedures to protect residents’ personal information and all Assisters must pass criminal background checks – including fingerprinting – before certification.

In August, the DC Health Benefit Exchange Authority awarded grants totaling $6.4 million to over 30 community-based organizations to support training the Assisters, and to enable them to further help the uninsured and hard-to-reach District residents and small businesses learn about their health insurance options through DC Health Link.

District residents and small business owners are now able to shop for health insurance through DCHealthLink.com, and those who sign up for insurance and pay their first premium by Dec. 15 will have coverage beginning Jan. 1, 2014. Small businesses must pay by Dec. 12 to have coverage become effective Jan. 1, 2014. Open enrollment will continue through Mar. 31, 2014. Small businesses with 50 or fewer full-time equivalent employees can go to DCHealthLink.com to create an account, choose plan options for their workers, provide employee information, and establish an open enrollment period for their company. During open enrollment there are no minimum contribution requirements toward employee coverage. Since DC Health Link opened for business on October 1, nearly 10,000 individuals and families and another 300 small businesses have created secure accounts that allow them to shop for health insurance coverage.