Ed Lazere, chairman of an influential left-leaning D.C. think tank who is challenging D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, at a candidates’ forum at the Woman's National Democratic Club in Washington. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, after a candidates’ forum at the Woman's National Democratic Club in Washington. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

The biggest race in the District this year may be a war of the wonks.

At a Tuesday evening forum, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), a longtime, low-key lawmaker steeped in the nuances of governance, sparred for the first time with challenger Ed Lazere, executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, an influential liberal think tank.

Facing a challenge from the left, Mendelson urged fiscal caution and defended his record on progressive issues, from increasing the minimum wage to legalizing same-sex marriage. Lazere said the city needs bolder leadership to address an affordable-housing crisis and racial inequality.

The forum was hosted by the D.C. Working Families Party and a constellation of progressive groups — friendly territory for a liberal advocate like Lazere.

And it may have kicked off the marquee race of the year in the nation’s capital, since Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) does not appear to be facing any prominent challengers in her bid for reelection to a second term.

Lazere, who has taken a leave of absence from his job to run for office, bolstered his credibility as a candidate when he outraised Mendelson in the opening two weeks of his campaign.

Although the general election is in November, in deep blue D.C., the June 19 Democratic primary essentially determines the winner. The race for council chairman offers a platform for progressives who say Democratic leadership hasn’t done enough to make sure the entire city benefits from its economic boom.

Lazere repeatedly rattled off statistics illustrating persistent racial disparities in the District.

“We just aren’t doing enough as a city to address the impacts of gentrification and the loss of affordable housing,” Lazere said to applause. “Black and brown residents who have shaped the city’s history and culture are being pushed out and left behind.”

Mendelson, who was first elected to the council in 1998, highlighted his command of legislative procedure and touted his ability to forge coalitions.

“If there was an easy answer — and candidates love to stand before audiences and make it sound like it’s easy — then we wouldn’t be struggling with this problem” of income inequality, said Mendelson, adding later: “This isn’t just about electing a council member who shares your values. It’s about electing the chairman of the council who can figure out how to manage the council, manage 12 colleagues, get to majority votes and do the checks and balances with the mayor.”

Mendelson, 65, pleased progressives at the forum by announcing he’d side with them on several hot-button issues, including blocking business-backed proposals to overhaul a paid family leave law that’s currently being implemented and rejecting new tax incentives for Amazon to build its second headquarters in the District.

Perennial candidate Calvin Gurley also fielded questions at the forum.

To distinguish himself from the incumbent, Lazere, 53, said he wants to double spending on affordable housing and impose a carbon tax on polluters — with that revenue distributed to residents. He argued that the city’s overflowing coffers ought to be poured into social welfare programs.

“We should use the city’s tremendous surplus that we have been building up for almost a decade — $2.4 billion — to help residents who don’t have resources,” he said.

Lazere decried how lawmakers recently tightened eligibility rules for those seeking to enter homeless shelters and authorized $80 million in bonds to be repaid with tax revenue to support the Union Market development.

“Those are the kind of things that are going wrong in the city that I want to do something about,” he said.

Mendelson was the most animated when an audience member accused him of slowing the implementation of the generous paid sick leave measure that he shepherded into law. He grew red when someone injected “It passed!” after he mused that a majority of the Council probably opposed paid family leave when it was first considered.

“Of course it passed, and the reason why it passed is because as chairman of the council, I figured out how to get the votes,” said Mendelson.

Throughout the forum, he told progressive advocates in the audience to not just press city officials to spend on their favored causes, but also make sure money is spent wisely.“It pisses me off when I hear people talk about how we need to spend more money, let’s put more money into something,” he said.

The forum also featured primary challengers to Council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large), who was absent because of a scheduling conflict.

A veteran of D.C. politics and head of the local Democratic Party, Bonds is so far opposed by three millennial men: Environmental activist Jeremiah Lowery, communications specialist Aaron Holmes and real estate professional Marcus Goodwin.

All three were critical of Bonds’ tenure as chair of the council’s housing committee, especially regarding what they saw as slow movement of rent-control legislation.

Lowery was the most blunt in his criticism, accusing Bonds of not showing up on issues from homelessness to holding developers accountable for meeting affordable housing requirements.