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Race for D.C. Council chair means first explaining: What’s council chair?

Democratic D.C. Council chair candidates Erin Palmer and Phil Mendelson. (From left to right: Reana Kovalcik; Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)
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D.C. Council chair might be among the District’s most powerful local positions — but many voters don’t know much about it.

“There’s a lot of civic education that goes along with running in this race,” said Erin Palmer, 40, one of two candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for the seat. “By and large, people don’t understand what the position is, or that it’s a citywide position, or what falls under the purview of the council chair.”

In the June 21 Democratic primary, Palmer is challenging incumbent Phil Mendelson, who has held the office for a decade.

The D.C. Council chair acts much like Congress’s Senate majority leader, steering which bills make it onto the legislative agenda for a vote. The chair also gets to single-handedly decide what committees exist during each council period, and who serves on them.

The power to decide which council member chairs committees on issues such as housing, criminal justice, labor and business development means Mendelson has been able to influence which bills get crafted and passed out of those committees.

Palmer, an advisory neighborhood commissioner, is a first-time council candidate who threw her hat in the ring, in part, she said, because the position “deserves a competitive race” — but Palmer also argues her experience as both an ANC and ethics lawyer makes her qualified to lead the council.

She has rolled out several plans over the course of her campaign, including a package of recommendations to improve council functions and create a more “effective, modern” legislative branch. Palmer, who is running to Mendelson’s left on several issues, has also written lengthy proposals aimed at helping the council better address crime, public education, traffic safety and housing.

Mendelson, on the other hand, is campaigning to become the longest-serving chair in the history of the council, touting his role in shepherding key bills during his tenure such as increases in the minimum wage, a bill to establish the District’s independent attorney general and a paid parental leave program. He boasts of his mastery of the ins and outs of the city’s legislative process, and is viewed by many as the favorite in the race. He has significantly outraised Palmer, who is fundraising through the city’s public financing program, which caps individual donations.

The 69-year-old likes to point out that the one woman and seven men who have held the chair position were all members of the council beforehand. He argues, in short, that experience matters as he steers the minutiae of the council’s business and shepherds laws to passage.

“I’m not just running to be a member of the council, one of the 13 votes, but to be the chief executive officer of the legislative branch,” said Mendelson, who was first elected to the council in 1998. “That does require skills and responsibilities that the others don’t have.”

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Ed Lazere, the former director of the left-leaning D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute who ran an unsuccessful campaign to unseat Mendelson in 2018, remembers having to educate voters on a citywide position with “exceptional powers.”

“To the extent the city is going to move boldly forward in some area — whether it’s education, housing or economic development — the council chair can play a dramatic role in that,” Lazere said. “The chair is in a unique position to be a leader in substantial reforms, through the budget process, the ability to make schedules and committee assignments.”

Among the council chair’s most significant roles is crafting the city’s budget. Each year, the mayor drafts a budget and presents it to the council. Each council committee holds hearings and makes budget recommendations. But it’s the chair of the council who drafts the bill with the final budget proposals.

Council members can amend the chair’s draft, with enough votes; last year, a majority of the council overcame Mendelson’s opposition to a proposed tax increase on high-income residents to put more money toward housing vouchers, tax credits for low-income families and cash for child-care workers. But in general, most of the chair’s deviations from the mayor’s and the committee’s requests often end up as the final word.

“I’m the one who has to put together the most complicated piece of legislation that we do every year,” Mendelson said. Someone who has never been on the council, he has suggested, shouldn’t be entrusted with that responsibility.

Palmer disagrees. In talking to voters, she says they have an easier time discussing the budget process than other duties of the chair. She criticized the limited time frame that Mendelson has given council members to suggest changes to the budget before voting on it. She similarly called out last-minute changes by Mendelson during the council’s recent ANC redistricting process, which frustrated some of his colleagues and constituents.

“Some of what I talk about is building better timelines that allow more collaboration and consideration of things,” Palmer said. “[Mendelson] holds a lot of that decision-making and information to himself until the last minute … It does a disservice to the budget and power of the council as a whole.”

Originally from Ohio, Mendelson has handily won three reelection campaigns as chairman since his council colleagues selected him in 2012 to fill the seat when Kwame R. Brown resigned upon being charged with bank fraud. In the past two Democratic primaries, Mendelson won more than 60 percent of the vote.

But he remains unknown among many city residents. A February Washington Post poll found that while 31 percent of registered Democrats had a favorable opinion of Mendelson, 50 percent said they did not know enough about him to have an opinion.

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Ward 8 activist Sandra Seegars knows Mendelson well. She still recalls when he would come to the ward’s Democratic meetings in a straw hat, which got a laugh out of some in attendance, but his presence at neighborhood meetings over the years endeared him to some residents, she said. But Seegars, who plans to vote for Mendelson, said that even those who like him seem to know little about what he actually does.

“The few people who do know, they know he appoints committees to the council members and chairs the meetings,” she said. But at the end of the day, she noted, “he has one vote like the rest of them.”

Palmer moved to D.C. 20 years ago to attend American University’s law school and has three children in the city’s public charter schools. As an ethics lawyer, she helped implement reforms in the federal judiciary, and as an advisory neighborhood commissioner, she assists her neighbors with what she calls bread-and-butter government services: broken sidewalks, missed trash collection and fallen stop signs.

John Pratt, a 45-year-old IT worker in Ward 3, was impressed to learn about Palmer’s background and said he felt Mendelson had spent long enough in the job. “I thought we could use a new council chair, some new blood,” he said. “I liked that she knew a lot about ethics.”

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