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Will D.C. repair licensing and open door to all voices?

Council weighs reform of ‘legal standing’ in bar, restaurant license process

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Anita Bonds, gay news, Washington Blade
Anita Bonds, gay news, Washington Blade, liquor-licensing system

D.C. Council member Anita Bonds (D-At-Large) (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

It all boils down to basic fairness, to repairing an out-of-balance D.C. business licensing system residents across the city have long lamented and more often than not cursed.

Current regulatory protocols deny a common desire to allow all community voices an equal opportunity to have input absent bestowing special “standing” and intervention powers to self-anointed groups representing only a few.

The D.C. Council is currently weighing reform of the liquor-licensing system for the District’s largest hometown business segment – the bars, restaurants, and nightclubs that are enthusiastically supported as popular amenities enlivening the city and filling government tax coffers. The outcome will determine whether there is sufficient commonsense to fix a byzantine and broken system.

It’s actually a simple proposition: Will the D.C. Council broaden the regulatory reforms initiated a half-decade ago and designate advisory neighborhood commissions (ANCs) to serve in their intended role as micro-area advisers conveying community input for consideration by city agency administrators and licensing adjudication boards?

Under current law, ad-hoc “gangs of five-or-more-persons” and “community associations” sometimes formed exclusively to file regulatory protests opposing neighborhood development and business licensing continue to wield a veto-like power over everyone else by abusing the system and gaming the process. Small businesses endure unnecessary delays and incur both substantial legal costs and lost revenues as a result of such shenanigans.

In my role as director of the local nightlife hospitality trade association, I hear the never-ending complaints from both business operators and community supporters.

Residents usurped of meaningful input are left pondering why they are essentially “frozen out” and their opinions cast to the sidelines, a result of the procedural hijacking through outside-lane licensing protests filed by these small groups.

Those who have witnessed the lengthy licensing battles endured over the years by well-regarded neighborhood spots such as JR.’s Bar, Hank’s Oyster Bar restaurant, Compass Rose Bar & Kitchen and The Left Door cocktail bar, and legions of other dining and drinking venues citywide, know exactly what’s at stake.

D.C. Council member Anita Bonds, who chairs the committee overseeing ANCs, spent nearly a year meeting with commissioners throughout the District and has introduced legislation to remedy this situation.

Bonds hopes to affirm the legitimate and beneficial advisory-input role ANCs can contribute. Included in the lengthy bill, which primarily addresses ANC organizational support and assistance while also establishing commissions as the agency-required “go-to” groups for channeling community input, are two provisions that remedy lingering licensing problems that plague local hospitality entrepreneurs.

These components would eliminate the special legal standing of “citizens groups” and “gangs-of-five” allowing them to file independent license protests. The bill would also require that conducting ANC business, negotiating with businesses, and voting in committees on licensing agreements be reserved for elected commissioners only and not unelected volunteers.

The extramural groups are predictably upset about losing their special status and are pressuring Council members to preserve their outsized powers to separately intervene.

These special-interest entities portray the proposed reforms as taking something away from them, excluding them, tossing them to the curb. Instead, they’re only being asked to participate in an open and transparent discernment process on equal footing with other stakeholders.

Elected ANC representatives, accountable to their neighbors, would determine the ANC’s advisory recommendations to city licensing and regulatory agencies.

In this way, the doors would be flung open with everyone allowed equitable engagement in community discussion and collective discernment, without special powers and privileges for some.

The Council is on the right track. It should permit the nonpartisan elected commissioners to serve in their unique capacity for providing the open and accessible forum at which all stakeholders can voice their opinions and express their concerns. ANCs are the appropriate arbiters to weigh those community considerations in determining an advisory recommendation to city officials on licensing matters for community hospitality establishments and other enterprise.

The proposed reforms provide a long-overdue dose of fresh air and should be adopted.

Mark Lee is a long-time entrepreneur and community business advocate. Follow on Twitter: @MarkLeeDC. Reach him at [email protected].

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Trump thinks he can say anything — even quote Hitler — and win

Listen to his words and be very afraid

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President Donald Trump

Trump believes he can say anything, even using Hitler’s words, and be elected. My faith is in the decent people in America; they will reject him. It was reported “a video posted on Trump’s social media profile featured mock-up headlines and newspaper clippings envisioning coverage after a Trump victory. One headline read: ‘What’s next for America?’ with text underneath that referred to “the creation of a unified Reich.”

The word “Reich” is associated with Germany under Adolf Hitler, who designated his Nazi regime the “Third Reich.” Then it was reported in an interview with political analyst Jon Delano on KDKA-TV of Pittsburgh, “Trump was asked whether he supports any restrictions on a person’s right to contraception?” He responded, “We’re looking at that, and I’m going to have a policy on that very shortly, and I think it’s something you’ll find interesting. I think it’s a smart decision. We’ll be releasing it very soon.” 

This despite polls showing nearly 8 in 10 Americans believe contraception should be legal, and available. After the backlash, he appeared to backtrack. Blaming someone else for the post on his website, and saying he supports contraception, but adding, it should be left to the states. I say believe what he says first, and be afraid. Women should be very afraid, if Trump is elected. Leaving it to the states gets you this: Louisiana lawmakers voted to classify abortion pills as controlled substances. This would make possession of the drugs without a prescription a crime in Louisiana, punishable by jail time. This when the Guttmacher Institute reports 63% of all abortions in the U.S. in 2023 were medication abortions. Yes, Trump is scary. 

While Trump continues to say these crazy things and seems to get away with it, the mind-boggling thing is most of the media continue to focus on Biden’s age, and a few misspoken words. Where is the rationale for that? We see misleading polls in this election cycle, in every race. Recently, Joe Scarborough had major questions about the New York Times/Siena polls, and the methodology used. It appears some respondents listed as most likely voters, actually hadn’t voted in a couple of years. Many of the polls where Trump is leading are within the margin of error. If we look at polls over the last couple of years on legislative races, and abortion, they have been wrong. Democrats ended up winning even if the polls said they were even, or behind. Maybe people just don’t want to talk to pollsters anymore, or maybe even lie to them. I haven’t responded to a pollster for at least five years. I get calls from pollsters on my land line (yes, I still have one), my cell phone, and get surveys and polling questions by email. I never respond. My advice is to disregard the public polling. 

I know candidates do internal polling, and that is fine for their purposes. But the general public would do better to listen to the candidates, hear what they say, read what they write, and believe them. Trump actually says he wants to become a dictator, and uses terms like ‘The Reich.’ He watches what states are doing about abortion and contraception and continues to say that’s fine by him. He calls the people who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, great patriots, and says he will pardon them. He invites a known white supremacist, Nick Fuentes, to dinner with him at Mar-a-Lago. He opposes doing anything about the border now, telling members of his party to vote against the first bipartisan bill to do something about immigration in years. He uses the slogan ‘America First’ and thinks naively, in this world, we can pretend the rest of the world doesn’t exist. He wants to cozy up to Putin, and thinks that is good for America. 

Young people need to be scared because he is a climate denier, and they will live with the results of that the longest. Just look at the estimate of the hurricanes for this coming season, you see what will happen if we do nothing. Trump promises a group of energy billionaires if they raise a billion dollars for him, they can “drill baby drill.” Bloomberg reports, “A victory by Republican Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential election threatens $1 trillion in energy investments and future support for low-carbon energy sources,” according to a Wood Mackenzie report.

Americans must simply listen to what Trump says. That should scare, at a minimum, every woman, African American, Latino, member of the LGBTQ+ community, and young person. If we hear him, we must believe him; and we must soundly defeat him.

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

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Urgent concerns arise when congressional staff face ethics investigations

We need safeguards to mitigate risk of unfair outcomes

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Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Congressional staff tend to avoid engaging in conduct that could reflect poorly on the members they represent or that which would otherwise bring them out from behind the scenes and into the spotlight.

Last week, however, was the second time in which I broke a story about a chief of staff on Capitol Hill who found himself the subject of a complaint to the U.S. House Ethics Committee, the body whose primary responsibility is investigating reports of unethical and unlawful conduct by America’s elected representatives.

In the first, Marjorie Taylor Greene filed a report against Democratic Rep. Jake Auchincloss’s top aide because he had placed stickers over a transphobic sign that the far-right Georgia congresswoman had displayed outside her office. 

The second complaint came from an official with the Biden-Harris administration over an especially combative and anti-trans email that was sent by the highest-ranking deputy in a West Virginia Republican’s Congressional office.

The two cases are not otherwise analogous. As the emissaries of lawmakers who are responsible to their constituents, staff should be held accountable for out-of-bounds behavior like sending offensive emails to harass colleagues on Capitol Hill or in the federal government. 

By contrast, decorating a poster in the Longworth House Office Building without permission is hardly a crime that should be escalated to the Ethics Committee, particularly not when the poster is offensive to members of a marginalized community and was hung in the first place to provoke a colleague across the hall who has a trans daughter.

If a monthslong probe exploring whether a career Hill staffer had brought discredit upon the House of Representatives with his stickers was not absurd enough, it was kicked off by none other than Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has been guilty of that charge virtually every day since she was elected. (Recall, for instance, that she has called for violence against her political opponents, including by publishing a video on social media in which she said then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi deserves the death penalty.)

A member of Congress wields a tremendous amount of power relative to even the seniormost Capitol Hill staff, a fact that was brought into sharp relief for Auchincloss’s chief of staff as he sought to defend himself against not just the committee’s investigation but also an affidavit by the Capitol Police in support of an arrest warrant along with threats and harassment so severe that his home was monitored by law enforcement.

The House Ethics Committee declined to comment when I reached out last week to confirm receipt of the complaint filed against the GOP staffer, just as they had refused to provide information about the status of the case initiated by Greene’s report.

The committee’s Senate counterpart is even more of a black box.

An article by the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan government accountability group, notes that in the recent indictment of New Jersey Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, “the shocking details revealed by the allegations seemingly had no end.”

The evidence against him was sufficiently flagrant and longstanding, the article argues, to “beg the question: Is the Senate incapable of finding and rooting out potential corruption before it becomes a crime?”

Part of the problem, according to CLC, is that the Upper Chamber’s ethics committee provides no means by which a complaint can be seen through to its investigation and resolution. The public knows very little about what the committee does, perhaps because the committee does very little: a study in 2023 found that none of the 1,523 reports that were filed over a period of 15 years resulted in any formal disciplinary sanctions.

Obviously, full transparency is impossible when sensitive information must be kept confidential to protect the integrity of an investigation. However, and especially if we are going to continue seeing complaints against Congressional staff rather than the lawmakers they serve, the committees should provide more insight into their processes and decision making.

Measures could include safeguards designed to mitigate the risk of unfair outcomes when investigations are brought by members of Congress and target those who have far less power. A mechanism requiring the investigators to share more information about cases under their review, to the extent possible, would also be wise — because even when the alleged conduct by a staffer may warrant a complaint, time and resources might be better spent rooting out misconduct by members of Congress, which is almost always far more consequential. 

We should also contend with the question of whether ethics committees are ever the appropriate place to explore and adjudicate allegations against staffers, since members are fully capable of enforcing the rules in their offices. 

As demonstrated by the long and tortured process through which George Santos was finally booted from Congress, getting rid of an elected lawmaker is far more difficult than, say, firing a chief of staff. 

Ultimately, perhaps the right question is: how can we hold elected representatives to a higher standard such that they model good behavior for their employ as well as for their constituents and Congressional colleagues?

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Biden must be more direct when talking to young people

Educate them about futility of third-party candidates

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President Joe Biden (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

President Biden is doing a great job. But reality is, some young people are wavering in their support. I suggest when talking to young people, the president be more direct. What prompted me to write this was reading what some Morehouse College students are saying. Here is a suggested short speech.   

“I want you to know how honored I am for the opportunity to speak with you today. I will speak from my heart, and be very direct. I know you have disagreements with me. Some of you may even think I am actually too old to be president. But I am a candidate for reelection, because I believe I can still make a difference. I know you are very smart. You know only two candidates running have a chance to win. The next president will be either Donald Trump or me. 

You must figure out what issues are the most important to you. Then determine which one of us will be better for your future. Do the research on all the issues you care about. Recognize, no candidate is perfect, surely, I am not, but then no person is. I know many of you care about issues including climate change, student debt relief, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and civil rights. Issues like how the United States deals with the Israel/Hamas war, inflation, voting rights, abortion. Donald Trump and I disagree on how to handle each of those issues. We have vastly different views of the world. I believe the United States has a responsibility to lead. Our military, and our economy, are both the strongest in the world. We cannot hide, as he likes to say, behind the slogan ‘America First.’ We cannot close our eyes, and our borders, and pretend what happens in the rest of the world doesn’t impact us. 

I believe we must deal with the Iran-China-Russia axis. We must support Ukraine and continue sending weapons to help them win. If they do, we can keep our young men and women off the battlefield. Remember, we aren’t sending money, but weapons, which are made here, providing high-paying jobs to our own citizens. Some of you have issues with how I have dealt with the Israel/Hamas war. While I support Israel, I do hear you, and will do everything I can to move toward a free Palestinian state. Trump will not. He even moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, to make that point. I am pushing Israel to change its tactics, to protect the innocent women and children, in Gaza. We must do that.

I know many of you want more progress on student debt forgiveness, on fighting climate change, protecting a woman’s right to control her own healthcare and body, and equality for the LGBTQ community. You want to see an end to the structural racism in our country. You must know by my actions that I share those goals with you. I also share the feeling all this is not happening fast enough. But you are all smart. You know our government was formed with a system of checks and balances; three branches of government — legislative, judicial, and executive. While I may want to wave a magic wand to make these things happen, no one can. However, I commit to you, I will fight for them every day. 

Some of you may be thinking, ‘Third-Party’ candidate. I ask you to remember, no third-party candidate has won since 1856, and our structure of the two-party system tells you one cannot win in 2024. In fact, for 36 years, none has ended up winning more than 5% of the vote. Then remember a few facts about Trump. He was found liable for sexual abuse. He has shown by words and actions, he is a racist, sexist, homophobe, who is also a climate change denier. He opposes student debt relief. He also tried to stage a coup after losing the last election. 

Again, like it or not, it’s either me or him. And again, while you may think I am too old, remember, he is my age. If you intend to vote for Trump, that is of course your choice. But if you don’t want him, and his MAGA cult, controlling your future, your choices are to stay home, vote for a third-party candidate, or vote for me. Two of those choices will help elect Donald Trump. So, I ask respectfully, after you do the research, that you give me your vote. Again, I am not perfect, but I will never stop working to make your, and your family’s, life better. I will always work for a more just, and safer world, for all of us.  

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