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Swing District Dem Flip-Flops on Minimum Wage

As candidate, Elaine Luria argued nationwide minimum wage would hurt small businesses

Rep. Elaine Luria
Rep. Elaine Luria (D., Va.) / Getty Images
• March 4, 2021 5:00 am

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As a candidate, Elaine Luria backed a regionalized minimum wage hike, arguing that a uniform federal approach "could cause risk" to small businesses. As a congresswoman, however, the Virginia Democrat cosponsored legislation raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour nationwide.

During a May 2018 candidate forum, Luria contended that federal lawmakers should enact a wage hike "based off of different areas of the country that have different costs of living" in an attempt to minimize "risk to my business and other businesses." Less than one year later, though, the Democrat cosponsored the Raise the Wage Act, a Nancy Pelosi-backed bill that would raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour regardless of local economic conditions. She cosponsored the bill again in January after voting to pass it in July 2019.

In addition to her repeated support for a uniform federal minimum wage, Luria opted against supporting a 2019 bill introduced by moderate Democrats that would set a wage floor "based on cost of living" and "regional economic conditions." Her decision to snub the legislation put Luria at odds with some of her top swing-district allies in Congress, including Reps. Abigail Spanberger (D., Va.) and Elissa Slotkin (D., Mich.), both of whom cosponsored the bill.

Luria's flip-flop will likely attract scrutiny from Republicans, who view the Virginia Democrat as a top target in the 2022 midterm elections. Luria campaigned as a moderate in 2018, narrowly defeating GOP incumbent Scott Taylor in a district that former president Donald Trump won by 3 points two years prior. Luria also beat Taylor in a November rematch, which saw Joe Biden carry the district over Trump by 6 points.

Employment Policies Institute managing director Michael Saltsman characterized House Democrats' regional minimum wage variation as "the least bad approach." He criticized Luria for supporting the Raise the Wage Act, calling the move "cynical" given that the Democrat campaigned against such a proposal.

"It's disappointing that when push came to shove, these moderate Democrats did not stand up to Pelosi on this issue," Saltsman said. "I know some have talked privately about how they know it's bad policy, so to see them walk the plank feels like the ultimate cynical vote."

Luria, whose office did not return a request for comment, invoked her status as a small business owner during the candidate forum, noting that she "learned in managing this business that the single biggest cost of overhead is labor." The Democrat went on to argue in favor of a localized minimum wage approach in an attempt to minimize "risk to my business and other businesses."

Alabama Democratic congresswoman Terri Sewell's PHASE-in $15 Act would have done just that, allowing "state and local governments to maintain the ability to supersede the federal minimum wage based on their local economic conditions," according to an April 2019 press release. Twelve Democrats cosponsored the bill, with Rep. Kurt Schrader (Ore.) asserting that "one size does not fit all" when it comes to a wage floor.

"The cost of living is different in rural areas, towns, and large cities," Schrader said. "A new federal wage should take that into account."

After liberal labor allies derided the proposal—the Economic Policy Institute wrote that it would perpetuate "persistent racial hierarchies" in the South—some of the bill's cosponsors defected, voting in favor of the Raise the Wage Act months later. The Pelosi-endorsed bill is now part of the Democratic Party mainstream, with House Democrats voting to pass it as part of President Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill in February. Schrader and Rep. Jared Golden (Maine) were the only party members to vote against the package.

Even with the wage hike's passage in the House, it's unclear how the bill will move forward in the upper chamber. Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough ruled that the legislation cannot be passed through reconciliation, a budgetary tool Democrats plan to use to pass Biden's relief package without Republican support.

Biden has suggested passing the Raise the Wage Act as a standalone bill instead, but it's unlikely that such a strategy would garner adequate support among Senate Democrats. Senators Joe Manchin (D., W. Va.) and Tom Carper (D., Del.) have pushed back on a $15 minimum wage, with Carper stressing the need to "be mindful of the small businesses across our country that have been hit particularly hard this past year."