Community Activism and Responsive Leadership – the Successful “Fight for 15” Campaign in Montgomery County Maryland

Fight for 15

I got discouraged and depressed in the days and weeks after the presidential election of 2016. In those dark days, my wife Andrea noticed an online posting about a candlelight rally to be held in downtown Rockville.  We called friends and three of us ended up participating in the rally on a cold, damp evening.  There we learned more about the “Fight for 15” — the grassroots initiative to raise the minimum wage in Montgomery County to $15 per hour within a three-year period.

An energetic group of labor union members, Casa of MD activists, and grassroots organizers and members of the Progressive Maryland community organization inspired us with their courage and their spirit.  A group called Jews for Justice were part of the organizing coalition and a rabbi spoke eloquently, and movingly, about the moral dimensions of chronic income inequality.  Montgomery County Councilmember Marc Elrich, the champion of the “Fight for 15” movement on the County Council, spoke confidently about the prospects for legislation that he had recently introduced.  Four of his colleagues on the 9-member Council had co-sponsored the bill.  And the Council had passed minimum wage increases three years ago that would brought the county minimum wage to $11.50 per hour in July 2017.

Thus began a year-long effort to bring the “Fight for 15” to a successful culmination with passage by a unanimous Council vote on November 7, 2017.   I participated in that effort and I’d like to share the process of political education, public discourse, and direct action that took us to victory.

Some weeks after the rally, the Council met to consider the bill that Marc Elrich had introduced.  There was an open discussion among the Council concerning the need for the minimum wage increase, its feasibility, and the timetable for its introduction.  Members cited econoomic studies and projections both supporting and undercutting the bill.  As a friend and I watched, listened, and took notes in the Council chamber, we both substantiated our instinct that the “Fight for 15” had the more convincing arguments.  The moral highground that the rabbi had articulated proved to be well-buttressed by the measurable, positive effects that the first set of three increases had brought to the county economy.  Continuing the course with graduated increases from $11.50 to $15.00 per hour by 2020 seemed eminently desirable and practical, and the data from other localities was mostly encouraging.  The Council went on to amend the bill that day and passed it with a 5-4 majority.

Our legislative victory celebration proved to be short-lived when County Executive Ike Leggett vetoed the bill in January 2017, citing a too rapid rise in the minimum wage rates, and insisting that small businesses needed more protections. Six votes were needed to override the veto and it was not at all clear that another Councilmember would join the majority.  Mr. Leggett also hired a contractor to perform an in-depth study of the likely economic effects of raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour. The matter rested for six months while both sides continued to hold firm to their positions.

In January my wife and I joined forces with two other politically active couples and a few other friends to form a civic group affiliated with the Indivisible movement. We were all energized by the large Women’s March right after the inauguration. One of the issues we decided to key on was the “Fight for 15” effort in our county. We named our group “For the Common Good,” and did a more in-depth study and analysis of the legislation that our County Executive had vetoed.

Last summer, Marc Elrich introduced a new version of his minimum wage bill that incorporated much of what Mr. Leggett had requested.  But this was soon overshadowed by the release of the county’s contracted economic study.  The study predicted dire economic consequences to county jobs and businesses if the previous legislation had been enacted. This report garnered major news stories in the press and broadcast media, all of which accepted the report’s findings without question.  In the ensuing weeks, many local economists began questioning both the assumptions and the methodology of the study.  By summer’s end, even Mr. Leggett had to acknowledge the gaping errors in the report, refusing even to pay for it.  But the public relations damage had already been done, and few media outlets gave more than passing reference to the discrediting of the report.

The Montgomery County Council scheduled a public hearing on the revised minimum wage legislation for late September.  In conjunction with my political comrades, I carefully prepared our testimony for the hearing.  Thirty people spoke to the Council at the hearing, the great majority in favor of the proposed wage increases.  The Chamber of Commerce and owners of some local businesses spoke against, but a few business owners also spoke in support.

After the hearing our civic group decided to lobby two of the holdouts on the Council who had voted “No” back in December.  We set up private meetings with Councilmembers Craig Rice and Sidney Katz and had cordial, engaging conversations with each of them.  Mr. Katz is the district Councilmember for five of us in our group, and we found him very knowledgeable about the nuances of the new legislation.  He told us that he believed some simple compromises could very well ensure unanimous approval.

Mr. Katz’s prediction was borne out on November 7 when Councilmember Tom Hucker proposed an amendment to the bill that was unanimously approved. The amendment created a 3-tier system for implementing the gradual increases to the minimum wage, based on the number of employees in an enterprise. It also pushed forward the endpoint for reaching the $15 goal by one year for each tier. Passing the bill was then a foregone conclusion.  And Mr. Leggett responded that day with an enthusiastic approval.

Witnessing this political drama unfold in such a successful manner has re-awakened my faith in our county government and in the efficacy of grassroots democracy.  Throughout the process, I stayed in communication with a leader in the Progressive Maryland community organization, which organized rallies and spearheaded door-to-door canvassing and large attendance at the public hearing and Council voting sessions.  The raucous celebration that followed the Council vote was an affirmation of how government can work when serious-minded legislators decide to get something done. The compromises agreed-to represent a Win-Win that satisfied both the community activists and much of the business community.  The experience also verified for me that a small group of committed citizens could make a significant difference in local public policy decisions.

John Bayerl, 11/13/17