- Mamo will still rule the pump. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
On Tuesday afternoon, the D.C. Council's gas station bill officially died in a 6-to-6 vote after more than an hour of tense debating. Long live gas station mogul Joe Mamo and his Capitol Petroleum Group enterprise.
Two dozen independent gas station operators had gathered at the Council session to support Bill 19-299, the Retail Service Station Amendment Act of 2011. They sat quietly, once briefly clapping, as their representatives bickered and crushed their hopes of limiting Mamo's control. Independent gas stations have actively pushed for this bill, sponsored by Councilmember Mary Cheh and floating since mid-2011, since fall. The proposed law would prohibit distributors of gasoline from also operating stations and would have, in most of its incarnations, affected a businessman named Joe Mamo who controls about two-thirds of the District's gas stations. Cheh, AAA Mid-Atlantic, and these independent stations contend that such a monopoly drives up gas prices. They want to divorce his role as a distributor from that of operator but the issue has become mired in questions of race and minority entrepreneurship, of lobbying dollars and price-fixing power concentration. This week, Councilmember Cheh even softened the bill's impact by making its rules prospective; any jobber already engaged in what Cheh called the "dual role" of distributing gas and operating stations, which includes Mamo, would have continued to be able to do so. Jobbers simply couldn't acquire new stations. But Cheh's last-minute amendment wasn't even to save her long-floundering legislation.
The Council has split into factions rather dramatically when it came to the jobber bill. On the one hand, there's Councilmembers Cheh, Tommy Wells, David Catania, and Phil Mendelson, who argue that Mamo constitutes a monopoly and find support in independent gas stations and AAA Mid-Atlantic. Hours before the Council voted on Bill 19-299, AAA Mid-Atlantic released a statement condemning the District's "exorbitant gas prices" and supporting the bill. Gas prices average $3.48 a gallon nationwide, AAA said, but are 21 cents higher in the District. On the other side we have Vincent Orange and Marion Barry loudly questioning whether the bill would really lower gas prices and suggesting it would punish individuals like Mamo. They have found support in national figures like the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Post editorial board, which Cheh blasted as a potential "shill for Mr. Mamo" recently in the Post's own pages.
Mendelson went as far as calling Orange a "booster" for one businessman and "an embarrassment to the Council" without explicitly naming him.
"Let's be clear," Orange replied several minutes later, "if you're referring to me, I am an advocate for the people of the District of Columbia, and I've never embarrassed this Council ... You don't have to apologize. I just think it's out of character for even you."
So who voted for what? Yvette Alexander, Marion Barry, Orange, Brown, Muriel Bowser, and Jack Evans voted no. Wells, Cheh, Michael Brown, David Catania, Jim Graham, and Mendelson voted yes. Boom, bill dead.
The Post's Mike DeBonis helpfully tweeted the different contributions that Mamo's Capitol Petroleum Group has made to the councilmembers. It's a striking contrast — Mamo has donated $36,550 to the councilmembers who voted against the bill and only $6,300 to the councilmembers for it. Wells remarked that his opponents appeared to be "supporting one businessman." Others argued that the underlying issues have already been settled in court and that the proposed legislation was unnecessary.
Orange explicitly dismissed the notion that Mamo's lobbying affected his views or his vote. "This isn't someone giving you a contribution and you voting a certain way," he told his fellow councilmembers.
Sekou Biddle, one of Orange's opponents in his Council reelection campaign, has already called out Orange for his position. "If Vincent Orange votes against the Jobber Bill as he has promised, he will make a mockery of his title as Chair of the Small Business Committee," Biddle said in a statement released Tuesday. Orange's other opponent, Peter Shapiro, wasted no time in releasing his own condemnation late yesterday afternoon: "Councilmember Mendelson rightly called Orange an ‘embarrassment’ on this issue. It’s that, and more," he said in a statement. "By putting the interests of a campaign bundler above the interests of the rest of us ... For $9,000 in campaign donations, Vincent Orange apparently wants to help him."