Kris Hammond, GOP lawyer, steps up to run against Phil Mendelson

Hammond, 41, spent 10 years as a civil rights lawyer in the Justice Department. (Photo courtesy of Kris Hammond)
Hammond, 41, spent 10 years as a civil rights lawyer in the Justice Department. (Photo courtesy of Kris Hammond)

Phil Mendelson’s path to a full term as D.C. Council chairman got at least slightly bumpier Wednesday.

Mendelson, who easily dispatched Calvin Gurley in the Democratic primary, now has a general-election foe: Kris Hammond, a 41-year-old former Justice Department attorney, who has gotten the D.C. Republican Party’s nod to fill a ballot line that went uncontested in the GOP primary.

Hammond, a Trinidad resident who left DOJ’s Civil Rights Division in May, said he’s running to give residents a “real choice” against a incumbent who hasn’t faced a legitimate challenge from a non-Democrat since joining the council in 2008.

Voters, for instance, unhappy with Mendelson’s successful move to extend the 5.75 percent sales tax to health club memberships (aka the “fitness tax” or “yoga tax”) might like the sound of this: “When the people rise up, and the people are very organized against an unpopular tax, I think it’s important for representatives to listen to the people,” said Hammond, who said he was otherwise pleased with the council’s tax cuts but expressed some concerns about their sustainability.

Said Mendelson of his newly competitive race, “It’s part of the democratic process. It makes for a better election to have a choice.”

Hammond said he was expecting to run for mayor, not chairman, until Carol Schwartz entered the mayoral race last month. “We decided that our message would be obscured if I was in a race with nine candidates,” he said. “It didn’t make sense for me to get in a race where I would be be attacking, or shall we say, drawing a contrast with Carol Schwartz and David Catania” — both former Republicans running as independents.

The focus of Hammond’s campaign, he said, will be government accountability, education reform and pruning “overbearing” business regulations — like the tour-guide-testing requirement struck down by a federal appeals court last week. Hammond said Democratic voters should find his positions appealing: “I think a lot of Muriel Bowser supporters should give me a look. I think we have some things in common.”

One position where Hammond might very easily draw a contrast with the incumbent, though not in a way that D.C. Democrats are likely to find palatable, is on gun rights. As chairman of the council’s Judiciary Committee for many years, Mendelson orchestrated the response to the Heller v. D.C. Supreme Court decision, crafting a tightly regulated handgun registration law that is again under litigation.

Hammond is among those District residents who have secured a legal handgun, and he has at times taken to the Internet discussion group serving his old neighborhood of Eckington to argue for more permissive gun laws. The day Heller was decided in June 2008, for instance, he called it “a great day for the District of Columbia” and said the decision would have “little to no adverse impact on public safety.”

On another occasion, in February 2011, Hammond argued it was “prudent” for D.C. residents to keep guns in their homes, if only for protection during a “black swan” event: “If we have a Katrina-type event in DC — a terrorist event or a really bad week for Pepco — most people in this city will be at the mercy of well-armed criminals and garden-variety looters.”

In an interview, Hammond didn’t shy away from his gun positions, which run counter to the liberal orthodoxy in the John A. Wilson Building, if not the city at large.

“I support the Second Amendment,” he said. “It’s not going to be the forefront of my campaign, but I can say that I trust the people to be responsible.”

In any case, Hammond said he has no plans to introduce any changes to city gun laws should he be elected: “What good would it be for me to have any kind of proposal on handguns when people aren’t sold on guns in D.C.? … There needs to be a discussion; there needs to be dialog.”

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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