The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why this D.C. Council race is a proxy fight over the city’s future


Ed Lazere, dressed in a salmon button-down and carrying a Sierra Club satchel bag, approached a neighbor in the increasingly hip and expensive Brookland neighborhood in Northeast Washington.

Monica Perry stood in her doorway and nodded as Lazere explained how rising housing prices transformed him from a longtime policy advocate to first-time candidate, running for the Democratic nomination to be D.C. Council chairman.

“I’ve been here for 21 years, but I have kids now who want to live in the neighborhood, and they can’t afford to and they don’t want to live in Maryland,” said Perry, a 47-year-old federal contractor, echoing a common refrain Lazere heard from longtime black residents on her block.

“I don’t think the city’s done a good job preventing this,” Perry said.

As the nation’s capital has rapidly transformed into a booming destination, an affordable housing crunch and gentrification have vexed the city’s leaders.

Lazere is hoping to channel those frustrations into an upset victory in the June 19 primary over D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who is seeking his sixth term on the council and second full term as chairman.

Mendelson, who has emerged as one of the most powerful people in D.C. government, touts his experience and pragmatism. But Lazere says Mendelson has failed to address persistent inequality with the urgency it deserves.

The race for council chairman has turned into a proxy fight over the direction of the District.

D.C. Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), who was elected in 2014 after working for Lazere at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute and is remaining neutral in the race, puts the choice this way: “Do you value someone who’s really going to be laser-focused on fighting poverty? Or do you want somebody who has a lot of experience working in government and who has done some big things?”

Mendelson, 65, has more campaign cash than Lazere, broader name recognition and relationships with influential community leaders across the city after serving nearly two decades on the council. He’s locked up support from most labor groups, fellow elected officials and the LGBT-oriented Gertrude Stein Democratic Club.

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Lazere, 54, is backed by a variety of progressive groups, including D.C. for Democracy, Jews United for Justice and the teachers union.

But the political terrain is a bit unpredictable in the District this year. With Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) facing no serious opposition in her reelection bid and few competitive down-ballot contests, turnout may be low. A ballot initiative that would raise the minimum wage for bartenders and servers — which Lazere supports and Mendelson opposes — may draw progressives who would back Lazere to the polls.

“Elections are a little weird in the country these days, and I don’t want to take anything for granted,” Mendelson said at a recent campaign meet-and-greet. “Voters are angry, and my opponent is appealing to the very left of the party that has a lot of the energy.”

They both call themselves “progressive,” though Lazere runs to the left of Mendelson on issues that include legalizing sex work, opposing subsidies for an Amazon headquarters and giving poor people proceeds from a carbon tax.

Lazere wants to double the city’s annual $100 million contribution to the housing production trust fund by redirecting future tax revenue. He also wants to employ a rarely used law that gives the District government priority to purchase affordable housing when it is on the market, to prevent it from being converted to market rates.

Mendelson says he gets results, citing his work on stricter gun laws, marriage equality and the most generous paid family leave law in the country. And he credits his ability to forge agreements among a sometimes fractious council.

He also stresses that he is fiscally careful.

Mendelson placed a moratorium on new business mandates after hiking the minimum wage and raising taxes for paid leave. He killed Bowser’s original plan to create a network of shelters for homeless families on private land leased by some of her political donors. Instead, Mendelson reworked the plan so that most of the shelters are on public property — rent-free to the city. He often urges caution against spending, even as the city’s surplus grows.

“A lot of times, business people thought he’s too far left,” said Kingdon Gould III, a developer who introduced Mendelson at a fundraiser in a West End squash court where goat-cheese-stuffed peppers were served as hors d’oeuvres. “He’s for social progress, and we found over time he wasn’t a boogeyman and likes the books balanced.”

Progressive activists counter that Mendelson has been consumed with the minutiae of government instead of the city’s most in­trac­table problems.

“We have to really take some strong action to keep people from being displaced and keep this is a diverse community,” said Kesh Ladduwahetty, chair of the progressive group D.C. for Democracy. “Phil Mendelson and other folks on the council have frankly become pretty comfortable with the status quo.”

Fighting over D.C.'s direction

Mendelson and Lazere are both policy wonks with dry speaking styles who sometimes underwhelm their audiences with their fixation on process and procedure.

Both men were born and raised in America’s heartland — Lazere in Iowa, Mendelson in Ohio — before moving to a city where voters prize local roots.

They landed in the District in their college years, Mendelson to attend American University and Lazere for a summer internship while at Harvard.

Lazere began his career as an education advocate and continued to agitate for government change from outside the system. He has led the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute since it was formed in 2001, and it has become one of the most influential progressive forces in city politics.

Mendelson rose to prominence in D.C. politics as a neighborhood activist before entering the government as a council staffer.

He won an at-large seat in 1998 and was selected by colleagues in 2012 to chair a body that had been rocked by scandals and resignations. He easily won in a special election that year and was elected to a full term in 2014.

Mendelson and Lazere know each other from their respective roles. Their relationship has frayed in recent years as Lazere and other progressives have grown frustrated with the failure of city leaders to spend more on social services.

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“The more I talked to folks, the more it made sense the city would benefit from stronger leadership on the council for moving the city forward,” said Lazere, who says the District needs a bolder approach to closing the wealth and education gaps between black and white residents.

He usually speaks about racial inequality in policy terms — promising a “racial equity analysis” of every piece of legislation, for example — rather than his experience raising biracial children who are now young adults.

A rare exception was a candidate forum in heavily black Ward 7 where Lazere described how he and his wife, who is African American, spoke to their sons about how to stay safe when they are stopped by police.

“These issues are personal to me,” said Lazere. “And there’s been a lack of leadership.”

Mendelson believes his opponent is peddling easy answers and understating the precarious state of the city’s finances, which are governed by a set of rules put in place after the District teetered on insolvency in the 1990s. Because of those constraints, it’s harder than it looks to spend budget surpluses and divert future revenue, Mendelson says.

The chairman talks about addressing inequality through the existing system, by making sure housing dollars aren’t wasted and holding frank talks among council members about the role of race in lawmaking.

“These challenges are great, and if we were doing nothing, then criticism would be warranted,” Mendelson said. “It’s easy to say we are not doing enough, but then I think the discussion must to be how much more we can do.”

He also repeatedly stresses that the chairman must be familiar with the council to lead the 13-member body and forge coalitions. Every chair has served on the body before leading it, Mendelson notes.

“Legislating is an art,” he said. “To be successful, one has to understand how to roll with the dynamics, and the dynamics vary from issue to issue.”

Lazere counters that he has led a large organization, a role that allowed him to build relationships with every lawmaker and the mayor.

Lazere’s challenge to Mendelson appears to be tugging the chairman slightly to the left.

Even though Mendelson successfully led the charge for a paid family leave law, Lazere blasted him for entertaining proposals from the business community to change how the benefits are financed. Mendelson dropped the efforts after Lazere entered the race, though he denies politics influenced his decision.

Absent from their policy-heavy contest has been personal attacks or scandal. And political observers say that will help Mendelson.

“Mendelson has been around a long time and has been a reliable sort of mainstream liberal progressive,” said Michael Fauntroy, a political science professor at Howard University. “You have to create more space in between the candidates if the challenger is going to win. Unless there’s real problems with the incumbent, the incumbent usually wins.”

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