THE BLOG
05/24/2011 09:58 am ET Updated Jul 24, 2011

High Noon: Tuesday Protests Take on "Fully Loaded" Chairman, GOP-Style Dems Over DC Cuts to Poor

The scandal-plagued chairman of the DC Council, Kwame Brown, best known for asking city taxpayers to pay for a "fully loaded" Lincoln Navigator worth $2,000 a month, is joining with other GOP-style Democrats to slash city services for the poor. At the same time, they're opposing the mayor's proposal to raise $35 million in added taxes from Washington's richest residents -- and, amazingly, the council is moving to give away $19 million in revenue through repealing some taxes for the rich altogether.

With the vote scheduled Wednesday, The Washington Examiner reports that a backroom deal was apparently struck Monday evening with Brown when Marion Barry, the former mayor and still a councilman, agreed to reverse his support for tax increases on the rich in exchange for property tax abatements for some churches in his district.

The pending budget deal could still cut over $100 million from critical services for the poor, disabled and homeless from the social services budget, roughly two-thirds of all proposed cuts. The safety-net is already so tattered that homeless mothers with infants in tow have been given bus fare to ride the buses all night rather than shelter. As a result ,Save Our Safety Net, a group leading a loose coalition of progressive safety-net advocacy organizations, called for protests Tuesday at noon at DC's City Hall, the Wilson Building.

And in the day before the event, they unleashed a series of last-minute videos targeting Kwame Brown, most on the City Council and an otherwise liberal council member, Mary Cheh, for opposing raising taxes on the rich and risking the well-being of the city's neediest. What wasn't mentioned publicly is that these same city council members also pay themselves and their staff the most lavish salaries and expenses in the country when measured on a per-seat or per-taxpayer basis: $1.5 million per council seat.

The biggest target remains Kwame Brown and his lavish lifestyle contrasted with the poor children, disabled and homeless who could be denied services. The latest video ends with an SUV heading for a crash and the tag line: "Don't let Kwame run over our most important public services."

Brown has offered what critics see as vague promises to restore $25 million in proposed cuts, but as the S.O.S. group pointed out, following protests last week:

After our Wednesday action, we had 7 confirmed Council votes in support of the Mayor's income tax proposal, enough to pass it. But yesterday we got word that Marion Barry (Ward 8) and Tommy Wells (Ward 6) have decided they no longer support the Mayor's proposed income tax! We have also heard that Kwame Brown is proposing $25 million in restorations. That is certainly a step in the right direction, but it is not nearly enough. Safety net services are still underfunded by $32 million. By getting rid of the income tax proposal, Chairman Brown, Barry, Wells and other Councilmembers would take away $19 million in resources that could be used to restore funding to critical services.

Even though at least 85% of the city residents in a recent poll back raising taxes to preserve social services, most city council members reject that stance and instead are supporting other accounting schemes and alternative revenue measures, including some that the council has rejected in earlier years -- such as ending DC's unique tax break for those who buy out-of-state municipal bonds helping other cities.

What's especially striking is the way these formerly liberal Democrats, echoing a national right-leaning trend in the party, adopt right-wing talking points and even cite the Chamber of Commerce as "evidence" for their views. As recounted in emails about a tense meeting with constituents held by council member and law professor Mary Cheh, who represents the richest and whitest area in the city, Ward 3, liberal voters there aired their complaints that she was abandoning the principles of the Democratic Party and her campaign promises.

For instance, as Jessie Sigel, a Ward 3 resident, wrote angrily to Cheh after the meeting:

The tax issue aside, I was, quite frankly, shocked to hear someone who professes to be a Democrat, suggest, as her "philosophy," that anyone one on TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] for more than five years doesn't want to work; that their children don't have proper role models, followed by righteous professions about the "dignity of work."

The language you used is akin to the old Reagan demonizing of the poor as "welfare loafers" and of the poor "coming to collect their welfare checks in Cadillacs." If one is going to take a hard line that people should get a job, they need to ascertain that there are jobs -- jobs that enable people to pay the rent and feed their children -- to be had. When I asked you about jobs programs, child care programs and job training, you didn't seem to know to what degree they exist in the district. (and, obviously, revenue would be needed to support these sorts of programs)... But embracing a "philosophy" -- or as I would call it, a stereotyping of people, without making an inquiry into the group's situation and options is reprehensible. It is something I would expect of right wing Republicans who have a particular agenda in mind and who are determined not to let logic or others' needs get in the way.

Cheh, like some other leading Democrats who are moving to slash services, used to be considered a progressive, innovative member of the City Concil.

Kesh Ladduwahetty, an activist with DC for Democracy, also recounted:

Cheh is adamantly against the tax increase, and there's nothing more substantive in her reasoning than "sending the wrong signal" and small [businesses]. When pressed about small biz, she doesn't have any data (she's just repeating Kwame's rhetoric).

Mary Beth Tinker [another DC4D member] called her on the fact that she kept citing the Chamber of Commerce, although nothing specific. Mary Beth also heard her say something to the effect that in order to get some things that she wants done, she has to do some other things (sounds like a blatant statement about trading favors with Kwame).

Bottom line: she's not budging for this vote (not that we can see), but she got the message loud & clear that her progressive base is shocked and disappointed in her.

On Tuesday, groups like Save Our Safety Net hope that some in the city's progressive base will turn out and start calling members of the City Council to support fully funding city services. To that end, some of her young progressive supporters even created a mocking rap video calling on Cheh to respond to the wishes of her constituents on taxes and the safety net: