The most high-profile race in the District’s Democratic primary on June 19 is the contest for D.C. Council chair, in which incumbent Phil Mendelson is fending off a challenge from Ed Lazere.
Here’s at look at both candidates’ biographies, published in alphabetical order, and their written responses to a Washington Post questionnaire on the issues. The answers have been lightly edited for clarity.
Name: Ed Lazere.
Education: Bachelor’s in sociology from Harvard College; master’s in public policy from the University of Maryland.
Family: Married, two adult sons.
Occupation: On leave as executive director of DC Fiscal Policy Institute, a left-wing think tank.
Key endorsements: DC for Democracy, Jews United for Justice Campaign Fund, Washington Teachers’ Union, DC Now, Democracy for America.
Name: Phil Mendelson.
Neighborhood: Capitol Hill.
Education: Bachelor’s in political science from American University.
Family: Partnered, teenager daughter with ex-wife.
Occupation: Council chairman since 2012; first elected to council in 1998.
Key endorsements: 32BJ SEIU, Metropolitan Washington Council AFL-CIO, Baltimore Washington Laborers’ District Council, Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, Democrats for Education Reform.
Q: What do you see as the biggest threat to the District's future, and how would you address it?
Mendelson: The quality of public education. Public education is fundamental as the long-term solution to many of society’s ills. Public education is the best strategy for ending poverty. When we look at the income gap between blacks and whites, it correlates almost exactly with educational outcomes.
Education is the best way to end unemployment, to raise wages, to make housing affordable and to reduce so many of the challenges associated with poverty — like reducing public health disparities and reducing crime. Education is also the great equalizer in our society, the means by which every kid has a chance to achieve the American Dream. On the other hand, failing schools cheat our children. Failing schools also make the District unattractive to residents and businesses.
Lazere: The biggest threat facing our future is growing economic and racial inequality. Unless we change course, fewer families who call D.C. home, particularly black and Latino residents, will be able to do so. Too many residents have only a tent for a home, and middle-class families can’t become homeowners. School reform is 10 years old, yet the achievement gap remains unacceptably large, and schools are less transparent and accountable to parents.
These are big, complex problems that require bold solutions that our current leadership has failed to deliver. We need to be committed to solving them, and not be content with modest changes that fall short. We can help the council meet these goals by creating a council research arm to support innovative policy development and greater oversight of existing law, and by ensuring that every major policy proposal undergoes a racial equity impact analysis to promote actions to reduce inequities.
Q: What should be the D.C. Council's approach to expanding affordable housing?
Lazere: The loss of affordable housing has led to displacement of long-term residents and a shameful level of homelessness. When families struggle to pay rent, they end up in unhealthy or unsafe conditions and face the constant risk of eviction. These stresses make it hard for children to succeed in school and for parents to find and hold down a job. Housing is just 3 percent of the D.C. budget, but it’s way more than 3 percent of the city’s problems.
To make progress, we should double our affordable housing investment, pass rent control reforms currently stalled in the council and fully fund our plan to end homelessness. I will focus on helping our lowest-income families and on preserving affordable apartment buildings before they get flipped into luxury housing. Expanding access to truly affordable housing should form the basis of our comprehensive plan and inform major development deals the council supports.
Mendelson: To pursue and support multiple strategies, and to use rigorous oversight to ensure effective implementation. The strategies include the Housing Production Trust Fund (over $100 million annually in recent years, more than double past years); inclusionary zoning (which mixes affordable housing within market rate projects); rent control; emergency rental assistance to keep households from falling into homelessness; subsidy programs like tenant- and project-based vouchers and permanent supportive housing; and public land dispositions which now require that 20 to 30 percent of any residential development be affordable housing.
The council must reevaluate the strategic package of tax incentives to encourage low-income housing, and develop better strategies to preserve existing affordable housing that is being lost to market pressures, such as developing affordable housing covenants.
Q: What, if anything, can the council do about the expected decline in the D.C. Public Schools graduation rate?
Mendelson: The city is focused on this right now because of the recent graduation scandal at city high schools. But these kids didn’t get to high school and then fail to read and do math at grade level. The real scandal is that schools have been promoting children from grade to grade even when the kids are not at ready. We must change the culture in DCPS that allows this.
Oversight — that exposes and creates pressure for change — is what the council can do. Oversight to reduce teacher turnover, oversight to reduce truancy, oversight to ensure adherence to graduation requirements. How is it that in some schools zero percent of students test “career or college ready,” yet significant numbers are promoted? The council should demand a “Marshall Plan” for our schools to ensure that kids are at grade-level when promoted. That will reverse the decline in graduation.
Lazere: D.C. schools are in crisis. We need a council chair who demands transparency and accountability to ensure every student gets a high-quality education, and not force parents to gamble on their child’s future through a lottery. A comprehensive approach starts with supporting stable families and investing more before children get to school, including high-quality child care. School funding increases over the past decade haven’t been tied to what students really need, and schools from Wilson to Ballou are still getting less than what’s recommended, putting our children at a disadvantage.
The council has allowed DCPS to divert “at-risk” funds from high-poverty schools, robbing students of promised help. I will reverse these trends and demand access to data that parents and the council need to hold school leaders accountable. And I will seek innovative ways to maintain economically and racially diverse schools, to create the best opportunity for educational equity.
Q: How do you believe the council should respond to the recent spike in homicides?
Lazere: The tragic increase in homicides is a painful sign that amid D.C.’s growing prosperity, we have failed to invest in the solutions we know address the root causes of crime and violence, particularly in Wards 7 and 8. The longer-term solution to reducing violence rests in investments in schools, housing, mental health and jobs to support stable families and create more opportunity. Beyond that, we need to fully implement the NEAR Act, which approaches crime as a public health problem that calls for community-based solutions.
In particular, we need to invest in community-based groups that can engage in “violence interruption,” working with troubled youth and adults to prevent crime and retaliation. Additionally, I support teaching conflict-resolution skills in schools and expanding restorative justice programs to all schools, knowing that some homicides have occurred in schools or from disputes that started in schools.
Mendelson: Our first response was on May 29, adding money to this year’s budget to implement a new violence-interruption initiative this summer through the Office of the D.C. Attorney General. The council is also pressing the executive to more aggressively implement the NEAR Act (which focuses on non-policing strategies to reduce violence, such as dealing with the public-health- and trauma-related factors behind violence).
The council also needs to ensure that MPD is deploying sufficient resources to the areas where homicides have spiked (e.g., the 7th District) to solve crimes quickly, interrupt gang retaliation and calm neighborhoods living in fear. Smart policing — community policing — is critical. I fundamentally disagree with my opponent, who has tweeted, “I do not think more policing is the answer at all.”
Q: As chairman of the council, what would be your strategy for job creation?
Mendelson: As chairman of the council, I created the Committee on Labor and Workforce Development to better focus the council on job training and workforce development. The Department of Employment Services has not been effective, and focused oversight can make a difference. But the question is about job creation, meaning business development. Council oversight can press the deputy mayor for planning and economic development and the Departments of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and Small and Local Business Development to affirmatively reach out to businesses to help, especially with access to capital and overcoming bureaucratic barriers.
The council should continually evaluate the necessity of various regulations, and continually consider whether taxes and fees in the business sector can be reduced to the same level as Maryland or Virginia to improve competitiveness. Pending is my proposal to establish a $5,000 tax credit for small retailers. Businesses are employers; expanding business is job creation.
Lazere: We must do more to make sure D.C.’s booming economy reaches everyone. That starts with addressing the enormous unemployment gap between white, black and Latino D.C. residents; in particular, unemployment is nine times higher for black residents than white residents. Rather than offering billions to Amazon with uncertain benefits for residents needing the most help, I want to invest directly in residents, by enhancing woefully underfunded adult literacy programs and services to help returning citizens connect with jobs.
I will push for greater accountability in D.C.’s job-training programs to ensure they actually lead to a job, and hold developers accountable for training and hiring residents when they get D.C. subsidies. I will support the school-to-work transition through apprenticeships and vocational training. And I will do more to help small businesses survive amid rising rents, through loans and grants, and create entrepreneurship opportunities for residents shut out of D.C.’s prosperity.