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Our Business Matters: A year-end update

A look-back at the challenges and concerns of community businesses

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The past nine months have provided this columnist the privilege of sharing observations, information and feature news profiles on some of the issues, challenges, people and perspectives originating with the local business community. The following is a special year-in-review update on several 2011 “Our Business Matters” topics.

A “scandal scarred” D.C. Council reverses vote on taxes by dropping its opposition to raising local income taxes, already among the very highest in the nation, with a new top rate hitting the small business community hard – allowing for yet another District government spending increase.

Year In Review: 2011

As the year comes to a close, the Council rushed last week to mask some of the stench emanating from the Wilson Building by approving a timid ethics bill after more than two months of discussion punctuated by a nine-hour federal raid and property seizure by IRS and FBI agents at the home of D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5).

Meanwhile, criminal and ethical investigations into alleged improprieties by several elected officials drag on, while other Council members suffer the unabated suspicions of residents regarding potential wrongdoing or questionable ethical behavior – in total engulfing a majority of the Council as well as the mayor.

Earlier this month, D.C. Council legislation was introduced addressing taxicab confusions: inferior service, regulatory chaos. Overconfident taxi drivers, believing that their support of Mayor Vincent Gray’s successful 2010 campaign would lead to adoption of their call for a nearly doubling of fares, went ballistic when the D.C. Taxicab Commission instead recommended more modest increases, elimination of most surcharges – including for extra passengers, and a number of service improvements.

Local hospitality industry and business organizations, joined by the grassroots consumer group D.C. Taxi Watch organized by gay Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Jack Jacobson, led the opposition to the huge fare increases requested by drivers and demanded better service, including the ability to accept credit and debit card payments and the forced retirement of aged vehicles.

A hearing on the bill is expected in January. Even if passed, don’t expect to see implementation of service improvements for at least a year.

While the annual “Small Business Survival Index” will soon be issued for 2011, little suspense surrounds whether the District will again rank last among itself and all 50 states – detailing how D.C. small businesses face worst-in-nation obstacles. The release of this nationwide study will undoubtedly herald D.C.’s last place reign again this year – a dishonorable distinction held for as long as anyone can recall and disproportionately affecting the outsized percentage of lesbians and gays engaged in entrepreneurial activities.

D.C. Council member Mary Cheh’s “Scarlet Letter” legislation to post sporadic, outdated, meaningless and arbitrary “snapshot” health inspection “letter grades” at the entrances of all food service and hospitality establishments again languished in limbo with no pick-up of support among her colleagues. Reflective of the folly of this proposal by the Democratic Ward 3 Council member, the city’s meager number of inspectors remains insufficient to conduct timely regular inspections or fulfill required re-inspections.

Washington remained one of the very few locations reflecting on its D.C. bag tax: paper, plastic or puffery? Although neighboring Montgomery County, Maryland, institutes a mandatory fee next month, nearly all other jurisdictions across the country have rejected similar business mandates, some by voter referendum.

While retailer compliance remains a significant and serious problem, local consumers have resigned themselves to either paying the minor nuisance price of paper or plastic bag usage or toting around their own household bags. The city has discontinued its recent advertising campaign reminding residents that “the law remains in effect” and checkout clerks now often wait for a customer to volunteer whether they want a bag without needing to ask — except when serving befuddled visitors and tourists.

The last year saw little let-up in the usual shenanigans by neighborhood citizens associations, tiny cadres of random residents forming business licensing protest groups and many Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) members fighting local economic development, commercial projects and alcohol licensing applications. It became more apparent, however, that these squeaky wheels enjoy less support among their neighbors than ever before.

It became widely known in the Dupont Circle area that VIDA Fitness faces opposition by ‘provocateurs’ protesting a liquor license application for the rooftop pool and lounge atop the new U Street fitness center location that opened in mid-July. Prominent community businessman David von Storch was only days ago ultimately successful in acquiring an Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) license — but not before suffering several hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees, expenses and lost revenue. The unique amenity will be available to neighborhood residents enjoying one of the sold-out pool memberships beginning April 1 upon the return of warm weather.

A 25-year D.C. entrepreneur, von Storch long ago became familiar with the business obstacles easily and often cavalierly posed by “an extraordinarily small number of people agitated by new development and change.” “The irony of this all,” he now says, “is that as much as the license protestants fought it, the first thing they will mention when selling their home will be its proximity to amenities such as a world-class fitness center, restaurants, nightlife and entertainment.”

A few blocks away, disappointment that a foreign government Chancery — replacing a gay-owned community bed-and-breakfast hobbled by operating restrictions urged by a small number of residents — paved over the front lawn and removed three towering trees underscored that Dupont denizens doth protest too much and illustrated the oftentimes unintended consequences following in the wake of neighborhood obstructionists.

For the record, the Chancery recently removed the concrete ground cover, illegal under the District’s applicable “public space” restrictions, at the urging of the U.S. State Department. No word yet on tree replacement.

In the same vein, Eric Hirshfield provided readers with a personal reflection of his business start-up experiences and participation in industry advocacy efforts regarding D.C. regulatory hurdles as the Duplex Diner pioneer hands over the keys to former bartender and new owner Kevin Lee at mid-year. Hirshfield detailed his experience with the exasperating and notorious so-called “Voluntary Agreement” process leading up to a 1998 opening and continuing operation.

The popular community venue enjoys the renewed affection of customer “stakeholders” under Lee’s stewardship, and the business has recently re-instituted a Sunday brunch. Hirshfield currently assists area businesses in navigating the arduous regulatory process as he examines potential commercial and residential development projects in his Adams Morgan neighborhood.

The highly successful second annual 17th St. Festival unites area to promote business in late September, doubling the number of attendees according to festival co-chair and coordinating sponsor Urban Neighborhood Alliance (UNA) vice president Stephen Rutgers. UNA hopes to continue to build alliances unifying Dupont Circle businesses and residents to overcome the legacy of bitter past regulatory battles, allowing the area to create a more favorable environment for enterprise success – such as that experienced to the more business-friendly east where the 14th and U streets ‘Arts District’ blossoms into more.

Despite the fact that D.C. gives ANCs ‘great weight’ on medical marijuana, the city continued a glacial pace toward implementing its uber-cautious and restricted program. Fear of a threatened federal crackdown resulting from President Obama’s assault on medical marijuana laws has not yet stopped the District from preparing to sometime in the next year issue business licenses for the small number of cultivation centers and dispensaries.

Although the D.C. marriage law engages fewer than predicted during the nearly two years since the initiation of marriage equality in the nation’s capital, minimizing the projected revenue benefit for local businesses and the city’s tax coffers, marriage between heterosexuals has certainly fallen out of favor. Barely half of American adults – a record low of only 51 percent – are currently married, continuing a long downward trend in marriage “market share” unrelated to economic cycles, according to a Pew Research Institute analysis of U.S. Census data released on Dec. 14.

2012 will present both usual and unique challenges and controversies affecting community business activities. A celebratory toast to the hardworking and dedicated purveyors of the amenities enhancing our shared cultural lives is appropriate as we enter the New Year.

Mark Lee is a local small business manager and long-time community business advocate. Reach him at [email protected].

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Congress must act, Democrats in Virginia must vote

Fighting to save our democracy from Trump loyalists

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The time has come for Democrats in Congress to vote on both the hard and soft infrastructure bills. Failure to do so will invariably lead to Republicans taking back Congress and that is unthinkable considering where they stand on so many issues.

To stop that from happening the House of Representatives must first pass the trillion-dollar hard infrastructure bill, already passed by the Senate, in time for Terry McAuliffe to stand up in his race for governor of Virginia and show what Democrats in office can do. This bill will bring billions to Virginia. But that is not enough. Virginia Democrats must come out to vote in record numbers to keep Trump stand-in Youngkin from winning. Make no mistake he is only a stand-in for the former president. He is a lacky with a lot of money trying to buy the race with lies and innuendo. He is anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ, and has gleefully accepted the endorsement of a liar, misogynist, sexist, racist pig who is still trying to destroy our democracy. Democrats must come out and vote to show the nation and the world that is not who America is and we aren’t dumb enough to fall for his stand-in lackey. 

All that Democrats really should need to know to vote against Youngkin is his acceptance of Trump’s endorsement. The man who had his top aides and advisers plan to overthrow our government on Jan. 6. One simply needs to read the story in the Washington Post on how Giuliani, Bannon and others had a ‘command center’ at the Willard Hotel, steps from the White House, to plan the Jan. 6 insurrection. As reported, “The effort underscores the extent to which Trump and a handful of true believers were working until the last possible moment to subvert the will of the voters, seeking to pressure Pence to delay or even block certification of the election, leveraging any possible constitutional loophole to test the boundaries of American democracy.”

This despicable collection of people who met at the Willard, and their leader Trump, can truly be called out for treason. These people are homegrown terrorists. They instigated a riot at the Capitol that threatened the lives of members of Congress and the rioters even threatened to hang the vice president if he didn’t do Trump’s bidding. This is the endorsement happily accepted by Trump stand-in Youngkin.

So it comes down to whether Democrats will come out to vote in Virginia on Nov. 2. Will they show the world they care enough to act and vote? Will they convince their family, friends, and neighbors of the importance of this election and of voting for Terry McAuliffe and the entire Democratic slate? If they don’t the headline won’t read ‘Youngkin wins,’ it will read ‘Trump wins’. That has to be an unacceptable outcome for any decent person. 

As reported, “Republicans Christine Todd Whitman (former governor of New Jersey and EPA Administrator in the George W. Bush administration) and Miles Taylor (chief of staff of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in the Trump administration) have an important message they wrote in their New York Times piece, “We Are Republicans. There’s Only One Way to Save Our Party From Pro-Trump Extremists,” stating “Rational Republicans are losing the party civil war. And the only near-term way to battle pro-Trump extremists is for all of us to team up on key races and overarching political goals with our longtime political opponents: the Democrats.” We can only hope decent Republicans will take that recommendation under consideration this year and vote for McAuliffe in Virginia.

The McAuliffe election will be a lens into what can happen in the mid-terms in 2022. If Democrats lose in Virginia it will just motivate Trump Republicans to get out and vote and fund other Trump lackies across the nation. Instead of Trump finally fading into obscurity he will be revitalized and that will be sad for the nation. If McAuliffe wins and Joe Biden can sign those two  infrastructure bills, along with ending the war in Afghanistan, Democrats will know what is possible. They will be motivated to work to ensure Democrats keep Congress. It is what we need to save our democracy.

Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.

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What do the gays do about Facebook?

We are hopelessly hooked on dangerous social media

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Let me just put all my cards on the table — I enjoy Facebook. I get a lot out of it. Instagram, not so much. But I think that’s more of a generational thing. But after recent events, I just feel a little icky about it all. I mean, don’t you? 

After the damning and didn’t-we-know-all-along Senate testimony by former Facebook employee Frances Haugen, being on Facebook just seems, well, a little gross. Yes, I know the irony that I am criticizing Facebook via a column that will ultimately be shared on Facebook, so don’t bother pointing that out. 

The long and short of it — evidence shows that Facebook is lying to us all about making any real progress against hate speech, violence, and the spread of misinformation. And aren’t those all red flags for the queer community? Essentially, Facebook isn’t just harmful to the self, but to whole groups and even societies. The parallels between this and the queer community are obvious ones. Again, aren’t our physical safety and overall wellbeing fairly paramount issues for the queer community? 

Take this one point for example: the evidence of harm to ourselves by ourselves. According to the documents Haugen supplied, Facebook’s sister company Instagram essentially makes 13.5% of teen girls have thoughts of suicide. Have there been any thoughts on how social media might be impacting LGBT teens? According to the Trevor Project’s 2020 study, 15% of LGBT teens attempted suicide in the past year. Forty percent had thoughts about it. Both numbers are staggeringly high on their own and also staggeringly higher than for their straight counterparts. I would like to know what role social media plays in this. But, like Haugen’s Senate testimony, I think we all know the answer to that already. What with bullying and the spread of hate speech, it simply can’t be good. 

And that’s just the issue of self-harm. What about the other issues of hate speech and misinformation? Yes, the queer community has enjoyed greater social acceptance in America. But that is by no means universal. Take the plight of trans teens, last year one of the far right’s go-to punching bags and boogey men — this time for the non-issue of high school sports. Talk about the spread of misinformation. I could enlighten us all by doing a deep dive on the right’s social presence, spreading their general talking points on the trans community, but such an exercise would be both stomach churning and time consuming. 

As for queer adults, I’m not sure if things can be much better. You sometimes hear that life is just high school with money. To that I would add: then gay men can be at times that mean group of eighth grade girls. Yes, it’s true. We can be pretty damn ugly to one another. Facebook and Instagram clearly aren’t helping any of this. But can we let it go? Aren’t we all hooked? Sometimes you’ll hear when someone snaps a picture of a group event or party, post it on Facebook ‘or it didn’t happen.’ Granted you don’t hear this much anymore as so many folks, especially younger gays, have drifted off to other platforms, but honestly is there much of a difference? And to post it or it didn’t happen? Who is that for but those who weren’t there?

Who knows what will happen? I mean, what with octogenarian superstars Sens. Chuck Grassley and Diane Feinstein on this, I’m sure meaningful reform and oversight are just over the horizon. Maybe it’s time we start policing ourselves? Demanding better from our community on social media first? I’m wondering what that might look like. Until then, I guess we’ll just keep scrolling, like we have been doing. Over and over and over. 

Brock Thompson is a D.C.-based writer. He contributes regularly to the Blade.

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McAuliffe YES, Trump NO, for governor of Va.

Youngkin is a stand-in for disgraced former president

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Terry McAuliffe, Equality Virginia, gay news, Washington Blade
(Washington Blade file photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Vote Terry McAuliffe for governor of Virginia because he will be a great governor. Reality is the alternative is Donald Trump who may be calling himself Glenn Youngkin in Virginia, but don’t be fooled, Youngkin is only a stand-in for Trump.

Virginians know and respect McAuliffe. He was a successful governor in his first term and is a decent and honorable man. Had Virginia law allowed him to run for a second consecutive term he would have won easily. He has a stellar record of moving the state forward on equal justice and equal opportunity, civil rights, women’s rights, and LGBTQ rights. 

The first executive order McAuliffe issued upon taking office in 2014 banned anti-LGBTQ discrimination against state employees. He vetoed religious freedom bills, created Virginia’s LGBTQ tourism board, and became the first Virginia governor to declare June as Pride month. He was the first governor of a southern state to officiate a same-sex wedding.

He recently said, “As governor, I will fight my heart out to make Virginia the most open, welcoming and inclusive state in the nation, and break down the disparities that LGBTQ communities, and particularly communities of color, face in education, health care, the economy and more. Together, we’ll move Virginia forward into a better, brighter future for all.”

When it comes to women’s rights McAuliffe staved off attacks by extreme Republicans who controlled the Virginia Legislature during his tenure. He fought for women’s health care rights and fought to keep open every women’s health clinic in the state. He vetoed legislation that would have harmed women, including a bill that would have defunded Planned Parenthood in Virginia. 

On civil rights he said one of his proudest accomplishments was being able to reverse a racist Jim Crow law disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of Virginians. McAuliffe restored the right to vote to more than 200,000 Virginians with felony convictions allowing them to fully participate in democracy after serving their time.

He was good for business and during his term as governor had a record of bringing more than 200,000 good paying jobs to the state and oversaw a lowered unemployment rate and an increase in personal income of over 13 percent. McAuliffe understands early investments in the state’s infrastructure helps the state to be a national leader in clean energy. 

These and so many other positive reasons are why Virginians should vote for Terry McAuliffe. 

But there are also many reasons to vote against Trump stand-in, Glenn ‘Trump’ Youngkin. The first is Trump saying, “he has my complete and total endorsement!” 

Youngkin continues to spread the Trump lie by still fighting the 2020 election and calling for an audit of Virginia election machines. He regularly speaks out of both sides of his mouth. He got caught on tape behind closed doors telling donors he won’t “go squishy” on banning abortion and defunding Planned Parenthood. He added, “As a campaign topic, sadly, that in fact won’t win my independent votes that I have to get.” Then he is still casting doubts on the COVID vaccine. He claims he is telling people to get vaccinated against COVID and then is recorded telling others it is their choice. He is against mandating vaccines for teachers and healthcare workers. His ads feature a teacher, who is a Trumper, endorsing his education program (a disaster) but who is opposed to mandating vaccines for teachers. They feature healthcare workers endorsing him who are against a vaccine mandate for healthcare workers.  Youngkin is trying to buy the Virginia election saying he would raise $75 million but most from his own vast fortune, actually trying to buy it for Trump. 

Virginia Democrats and right-thinking independents and Republicans must come out in large numbers to repudiate Donald Trump once-and-for-all by casting their votes for Terry McAuliffe. 

Let’s hope Trump voters in Virginia stay home this year. But McAuliffe can’t count on that to win. It will take Democrats in huge numbers to give McAuliffe the same big win Joe Biden had over Trump in Virginia in 2020. If that happens Democrats will also keep the House of Delegates and win the other statewide races. 

Remember, when you vote for McAuliffe you vote for the man named “Public Official of the Year” by Governing magazine in his last term. Virginians should give him a well-deserved second term.

Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.

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