12/10/2012 02:02 pm ET Updated Feb 09, 2013

A New Low in D.C. Politics

"New low" is such a hard standard to define in a city where you really do need a scorecard to know which public official is in jail, has done time already, is under investigation or is just fixing parking tickets. But leave it to the ever-reliable Councilmember Marion Barry to set the standard for "new low" in his personal attack on Barbara Lang, president and CEO of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce for representing her constituents in opposition to his ex-offender bill.

The D.C. Chamber and other organizations recently opposed Mr. Barry's proposed legislation on ex-offenders, also known as returning citizens. Mr. Barry's bill was rife with serious legal problems for employers, exposing them to significant potential for litigation if they refused to hire someone with a criminal record. A similar bill by Council Chair Phil Mendelson achieved the goal of promoting jobs for returning citizens without the significant legal burdens that Mr. Barry's bill imposed.

Because Councilmember Barry manipulated the timing of a committee vote in order to get his bill before the full D.C. Council for action last week, Mr. Mendelson ruled it out of order, effectively killing the bill in this session. Mr. Barry responded with a tirade against Chairman Mendelson. But that was only the beginning.

Mr. Barry saved his most vituperative attack for Ms. Lang. In a December 7, 2012 letter to members of the D.C. Council, Mr. Barry wrote:

"The leading opponent of the returning citizen anti-discrimination legislation is the President of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, Barbara Lang, a black woman. The Chamber is an offshoot of the National Business League, started by Booker T. Washington, whose goals were to strengthen African-American businesses. As a result, in 1946 the name of the organization was changed to the Negro Chamber of Commerce to reflect the unique needs of black businesses at that time and later changed to the D.C. Chamber of Commerce.

Ms. Lang has not only strayed away from this goal, but also has pushed the Chamber to become more political than its purpose of strengthening African-American businesses. Further, the majority of the 1,700 members do not hire a majority of District residents. Their District resident hiring record is slightly better than the Board of Trade. The members of the Chamber hire 70 percent non-District residents and the members of the Board of Trade fairs the same, discriminating against District residents. Both have an even more dismal record of hiring returning citizens. The business community ought to be the strongest advocates of hiring reformed returning citizens. We all know that the best deterrent to a robbery, even drug selling or other monetary crimes is a job. While the Board of Trade and the Chamber are opposing giving returning citizens an opportunity to work and fight discrimination, these same citizens have no hopes of gaining lawful employment and eventually will resort to recidivism.

Mr. Barry owes Ms. Lang an apology. By calling her out personally by name, race and gender, he engages in precisely the kind of ugly discrimination he claims to be opposing. Demonizing a powerful woman is such an old and discredited political ploy. Why did Mr. Barry single out Ms. Lang when he failed to mention the names of the leaders of other business organizations? His personal vendetta is unseemly and contributes absolutely nothing to advancing his cause.

Moreover, Mr. Barry's general attack on the business community and obdurate refusal to find ways to reform his legislation to remediate the problems it posed for employers only hardens the perception that D.C. is hostile to business.

Insinuating that the business opposition arose only because of blind racism and contempt for D.C. citizens is infuriating and insulting to all of us who manage businesses in the District. A responsible legislator proposing laws about employment owes it to employers to hear and respond to their concerns. In the case of the ex-offender legislation, employers have legitimate concerns about the safety and security of their employees and clients, the integrity of their financial interests and threat of new litigation with associated new expenses.

While many employers can agree on the justice objective of hiring returning citizens generally, the legislative specifics are very important to avoid the kinds of problems that Mr. Barry's proposal presented. Consider the university sector. Universities are among the largest employers in the District of Columbia. We have very serious obligations in federal law to ensure the safety and security of our campuses. Because we have large numbers of relatively young people on our campuses, the issues of safety and security are heightened. Most of us do conduct criminal background checks as part of our hiring processes because we have to be certain that the individuals we hire will not pose a security risk to our students. Our students and staff who volunteer to work with children in various service projects must undergo similar screening. Our students in nursing also have to undergo background checks before they can go into clinical placements in hospitals. This is all part of the responsible effort of employers in education and healthcare to make sure that we're not putting other people at risk, and that's also the law.

We're not focusing on minor non-violent, non-fraudulent crimes, e.g., a college bust for possession of marijuana or not paying old speeding tickets. But we do need to know if someone has a history of violent crimes or serious issues with theft and fraud, selling drugs or engaging in other crimes that indicate behaviors that can pose threats to other people on our campus. Individual rights run in many directions and all need to be on the table in this discussion.

Mr. Barry is just plain wrong to say that business is discriminating against D.C. residents in hiring. He fails to mention the city's appalling adult illiteracy rate (more than one-third), nor does he mention the chronic educational failures of the city's schools. Employers in this city and region are eager to hire as many skilled workers as they can -- the jobs are there and often go begging for qualified local workers -- but the #1 reason why D.C. residents may not get hired is inadequate education. My university, Trinity, is one of the numerous educational institutions trying to address this problem, but it's very hard to do it at the collegiate level when the students coming out of K-12 still do not have the skills required for academic success in the post-secondary programs that are required for many of the jobs that are available here.

Mr. Barry needs to show a modicum of respect for the legitimate processes of governance in this city. Those processes include the right of citizens, including corporate citizens organized in business associations, to express their concerns about proposed legislation. Unfortunately, Mr. Barry's intemperate attack on Ms. Lang is emblematic of a larger problem in the governance of the city. For too long among public officials in our city, underneath the typical smiling and glad-handing of professional politicians is a chronic air of threat, intimidation, disparagement and self-dealing that thwarts the ability of the city government to mature into a well-respected self-governing municipality.

Do returning citizens deserve job opportunities? Yes, of course. Should the city enact legislation to protect their rights against wholesale discrimination? Yes, but with appropriate protections as well for the rights of others -- employers, co-workers, clients and customers of the businesses that will employ them. There are interesting trends nationally around such legislation, a good deal of data and commentaries that can inform the local discussion.

Working with the business community to craft the right technical details in the legislation can be a winning strategy for all. Demeaning, disparaging, threatening and intimidating the business community and its leaders will only drive those businesses that can leave even farther from engagement with the city and its citizens, a sad and completely unnecessary loss for everyone.