Most questions asked of the Democratic candidates for DC Council chair – incumbent Phil Mendelson and his opponent Ed Lazere – have centered on public policy issues: affordable housing, improving the quality of education and tax cuts, for example. Those are all important concerns, but is policymaking all there is to the chairman’s job? Does the position require a unique set of skills and talents?
“A chairman must have leadership skills, integrity, an ability to balance competing interests and build consensus, a good sense of humor and strong interpersonal skills,” said Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd, who served on then-Councilmember Muriel Bowser’s staff for seven years. He has been a ward representative in his own right for three years.
The chair “must care more about the District than his own personal interests,” added Todd.
Not inconsequentially, the chair also must be able to count to seven. He must whip the votes in the 13-member legislature to help ensure passage of bills or to serve as a bulwark against a possible mayoral veto. Drilling down into that part of the job description, which is arguably the most significant aspect of the position, isn’t sexy, however. It doesn’t evoke passionate rants and vehement rebukes.
When the person holding the post of chair has the right skills for the job, good things can happen, including having that strong, organized check on the executive. District voters need only look at the current Congress as indisputable evidence of what can go wrong when the legislative branch is rudderless.
At a recent forum, sponsored in part by Capital Community News, at least two queries probed this area: how the chair could ensure the executive spends money as intended by the council and how the council might be restructured for maximum effectiveness.
“I bring a lot of experience and leadership from the advocacy community. The council needs a bold leader to face the issues confronting us,” Lazere has said, boasting that he has met with every member of the council and the mayor. He made those forays as lobbyist and executive director of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute (DCFPI), a division of the national nonprofit Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.
Mendelson has described his style closer to that of Linda Cropp, who was chair during the era of the congressionally mandated financial control board and through the eight-year tenure of Mayor Anthony A. Williams. She ran for mayor in 2007 but was defeated by Adrian M. Fenty. Interestingly, Cropp is the chair of Mendelson’s reelection campaign. He has said that his responsibility as chair is to help councilmembers reach consensus, to create an environment for collaboration and to ensure a high standard of integrity and ethics.
“I have been a leader, not just a leader but an effective leader,” said Mendelson.
Mendelson may have had his eye on politics long before arriving at city hall. He came from Cleveland, Ohio, in the 1970s to pursue a political science degree from American University. By 1978, he had been elected as an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner, where the adage “All politics is local” gets played out at its most micro level. Before that he made himself a household name in Ward 3 during the fight to prevent the razing of McLean Gardens, a 43-acre housing complex.
Later, he was hired as a staffer for Ward 3 Councilmember Jim Nathanson and former chair David Clarke, the first white person to lead the local legislature. In 1998, Mendelson was elected at-large councilmember. In 2012, when then-chair Kwame Brown was forced step down after pleading guilty to federal bank fraud charges, councilmembers selected Mendelson as their interim leader. In a special election, District voters concurred. In 2014, he was reelected to a full four-year term.
The father of a teen daughter, Adelaide, and a Capitol Hill resident, Mendelson is no stranger to District voters. He has a long record from which they can assess his leadership and management skills. Ads he has run on social media include a host of people – all ages, races and classes – praising him.
But he also has critics, including a few of his own colleagues and the mayor, who have cursed him, sometimes literally. People may remember Mayor Bowser famously used the F word in accusing Mendelson of misrepresenting her homeless shelter proposal. After concluding, with the help of disgruntled residents, that the mayor’s shelter plan was too costly, advantaging developers and property owners, the council followed Mendelson’s push to have the facilities built on government land. That saved the city as much as $165 million. Nine members signed on initially to the change; that super majority was a signal to Bowser that Mendelson had enough votes to override any mayoral veto she might have been contemplating. By the final vote, Mendelson had corralled the entire council to follow him, not the mayor. Bowser subsequently went along for the ride.
Mendelson has steered the council through other controversies including gun control, securing minimum autonomy over the local budget, creation of an independent attorney general, tax reform and paid family leave. The latter two have prompted some to accuse him of playing to the rich and the business community, a charge Mendelson has strongly denied. Nevertheless, it hasn’t stopped Lazere from repeating the accusation on the campaign trail.
The Circuitous Route
A 30-year District resident, Lazere arrived in the nation’s capital from Sioux City, Iowa. Like Mendelson he came for college and stayed. He lives in Brookland with his wife of 28 years. He has two adult sons, who in their youth attended DC Public Schools. During those years, Lazere and his wife were very active in school affairs. He was on the local School Advisory Team at School Without Walls, an application high school that is considered the cream of the crop. He was a scout leader in his community for 15 years, and he has been president of Temple Micah.
While Lazere has never run for office, he hasn’t been far from the political scene as the executive director of the DCFPI. He and his staff have conducted research around the city’s finances and advocated for certain public policies, especially affordable housing. He has served on several government-established commissions including the Tax Review Commission created by the council under Mendelson and led by former mayor Anthony A. Williams.
Though Lazere voted for the recommendations made by the commission, he fought hard against tax breaks for wealthier District residents. As the council began to implement the changes proposed by the Williams commission, Lazere became one of its most consistent critics, pushing hard to prevent cuts.
“I have long been a supporter of having a progressive system,” Lazere told voters gathered last month at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Southwest. “I was opposed to the estate tax cut. I was opposed to cutting income tax,” he continued, adding that money to finance those cuts could have been spent to provide additional services to low-income residents.
Policy Wonks Singing Together
Lazere and Mendelson may differ about taxes but on most public policy issues they mirror each other. Their approaches diverge at times, but they are essentially interested in accomplishing the same things.
If a resident attending one of the forums closed her eyes during the discussion, she couldn’t be faulted for getting confused about who was talking. The candidates agree that the system of public education in the nation’s capital is badly broken. Separately, they agonize over the best method to provide more low-cost housing. They want more input from residents into the comprehensive plan developed by the Bowser administration.
Each has declared himself “a progressive” Democrat, although Mendelson is somewhat more fiscally conservative than Lazere. Truth be told, however, the title of progressive is a distinction truly without a difference in the District, where the heart of every politician bleeds for the poor and working class.
The Road Divides
How are voters to decide whom to choose when there is such commonality around critical issues? The measure for judging who should or shouldn’t be chair may settle around experience and leadership. “I know how to get things done,” Lazere has said, touting his advocacy experience and the fact that he has been at the helm of an organization for 20 years.
The District government may seem like a nonprofit, but it is a $14 billion corporation, charged with state, county and city functions. The executive is responsible for daily operations. As equal partner, the council must know how the pennies are being spent, where abuse is occurring and whether a policy it approved is actually being implemented with fidelity and effectiveness.
The council’s budget alone is $20 million. In his role as chair, Mendelson manages the overall budget approval process. He takes the annual plan submitted by the mayor, divides it among committee chairs, then reviews the recommendations they make. He develops a final, multi-year plan that must be approved by his colleagues and the Congress. It is a beast of a job, which requires, as Todd has noted, the ability to traverse varied terrains and negotiate competing interests.
Lazere is not worried by that piece of the job, however. He knows and understands government financing. Each year his organization prepares an analysis of the mayor’s plan; he also has worked with a coalition of nonprofits to advocate for certain changes. Still, some residents are disconcerted by his stated intention of spending more taxpayer money as the fundamental solution to challenges facing the city and the council.
For example, when asked about restructuring the council to strengthen the check on the executive branch, Lazere asserted the legislature needs more staff. He proposed establishing an office of research and oversight. “I am looking to strengthen oversight.” From his description at several forums, the new office could operate like an in-house DCFPI, researching best practices around the country while drilling down in government agencies to determine what is happening and how services could be improved.
That idea isn’t so new. Vincent C. Gray, during his tenure as council chair, created an Office of Public Policy charged with a similar mission. Within a year or two, it dissolved without any fanfare.
Lazere has said that as chair he also would use his “advocacy skills and energy to hold the mayor more accountable.” As an example, he cited the problem at Ballou Senior High School where students graduated in 2017 although they lacked the requisite academic and attendance requirements. “I would hold a press conference at the school to call the mayor out for not spending the money the way she should have.”
Mendelson countered that “when it comes to oversight, I don’t shy away from that at all.” He also has been willing to tussle with the mayor. There were four houses, for example, that residents in the Anacostia neighborhood of Ward 8 wanted renovated. They were deteriorating with each year and were a blight on a community struggling to improve its reputation and the quality of life for its residents. With Mendelson leading the charge, the council forced the mayor to act. “We got the [ownership of the] houses transferred, and they’re being renovated now.”
Further, he said the council doesn’t need another office. “There are 10 or 11 staffers per member,” enough for legislators to get their work done. He said he has put more resources into the Office of the General Counsel; a lawyer from that office is assigned to work with each council committee, extending the expertise beyond existing staff. Mendelson said he has strengthened the budget office for the council. The most important hire the council has made under him to enhance oversight has been former councilmember Kathy Patterson. As city auditor, she works for the council and, by law, can probe any government agency or assess any public policy, including examining what other cities and states are doing.
So, it looks like the choice in the Democratic primary on June 19 may boil down to how residents answer these simple questions: Does more guarantee improved leadership, greater accountability from the executive, better oversight and higher quality of life for citizens? Or is more just that – more?
Jonetta Rose Barras, a freelance writer based in Washington, DC, is the executive producer of The Barras Report television show.