The campaign for Chairman of the DC Council is has assumed the mantle of the most prominent race in the District, given that Mayor Muriel Bowser faces only token opposition in her run for reelection. Incumbent Phil Mendelson has drawn a serious challenger in Ed Lazere, the longtime head of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute who has made housing, homelessness, and equity centerpieces of his campaign.
After reviewing both Mendelson's and Lazere's responses to our questionnaire, members of our Elections Committee interviewed both candidates in person. It's clear both men are extraordinarily intelligent, knowledgeable, and care deeply about the District. We were impressed in particular by Lazere’s passion for his key issues and by Mendelson’s detailed and nuanced understanding of a wide variety of challenges facing DC.
However, we also had concerns on all sides which led the Elections Committee to decide not to make an endorsement in this race.
Mendelson on housing and transportation
We compared and contrasted the candidates’ questionnaire responses in a previous post, including what we saw as strengths and challenges for each of them.
For Mendelson, opposing development was part of his genesis as a politician, from when he was an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner decades ago. We asked, is he willing to look beyond the parochial stances of neighborhood opponents? In this, Mendelson argued, he's evolved.
He recognizes that the District needs to add housing and jobs, and those homes and jobs need to go somewhere. Therefore, he said, he supports growing the city to meet the demand — but through a thoughtful planning process rather than willy-nilly, a stance we certainly agree with.
On the Comprehensive Plan, therefore, Mendelson said he's interested in adopting many of Greater Greater Washington's recommendations to ensure it allows more housing and more affordable housing while protecting residents against displacement. He'd like to see those goals achieved with greater intention, versus simply letting the Zoning Commission make all decisions without guidance.
On the other hand, Mendelson similarly made clear that he feels there is enough space for most growth in less-developed parts of the District, where there are vacant properties, for instance. For the same reason, Mendelson doesn't see historic preservation as a problem since he feels there is ample non-historically designated land remaining. We're concerned that steering growth only to the east side of the city will exacerbate segregation, and don't feel affluent, exclusive areas should get a pass. This is an area where there was not an agreement to be reached.
Mendelson also underscored his support for public transit. He'd like to see more people ride transit, would like to see buses come more often, and is willing to put funding behind greater levels of transit service. (As we've previously noted, he hasn't been very supportive of the DC Streetcar, though Lazere was not either.)
He was less eager to push for bus priority lanes throughout the city, arguing that the District needs to first increase bus frequencies. There is merit to ensuring buses are frequent first and foremost. After all, a bus lane that's hardly used will draw opposition from drivers who perceive themselves sitting in traffic next to an “empty” lane.
However, this also can be an optical illusion of a sort: a single bus every few minutes could be moving more people than a whole lane or road full of cars. Also, even a frequent bus stuck in traffic is not that appealing and not going to win a lot of people over from driving in the same traffic. There's a chicken-and-egg problem, and actual progress on bus priority is necessary.
Lazere on housing and transportation
With Lazere, his commitment to housing affordability is not in doubt. Nor is his dedication to fighting inequality, a major challenge facing DC. He agrees that adding new housing, espcially near Metro stations and on commercial corridors, is a vital tool for advancing equity as well.
He was very clear that, while many of his supporters have been attacking the DC Comprehensive Plan wholesale as a “giveaway to developers,” he has not. To the extent he was quoted using a phrase like that, he said, he was just stating that others felt it was such. Which is true, and we've been extremely disappointed at the way the DC Office of Planning took steps to perpetuate Planned Unit Developments (with associated community benefits) without also taking more action on affordable housing and displacement.
The concern we previously expressed about Lazere was that he would give neighbors too much of a veto on facilities like bus or bike lanes. We had an extensive conversation with Lazere about this, which was very educational for all involved, and we really appreciated having the chance to discuss this.
Lazere clarified that he does want to see projects like bus or bike lanes move forward. However, he also expressed that communities tend to feel un-included in planning processes, and he would simply like to ensure that residents are heard.
That is a worthy goal, and one we've heard from other candidates as well around the region. For people who work day in and day out on transportation, though, perhaps it rings a little hollow. Of course communities should be consulted and involved. Sometimes, though, the problem is that neighbors not only are consulted but block most anything from happening.
Transportation facilities by necessity pass through neighborhoods and therefore require balancing the needs of the immediate resident against one from another neighborhood passing through. Planners work hard to do this, but if they ultimately make a decision some immediate residents don't like, those residents complain they were not sufficiently consulted or heard. It's a claim that can be true, but also can be overblown. And when canddiates say they think there needs to be more consultation, it seems like an easy drive-by position to take at times.
Lazere acknowledged this fact, and agreed issues like transportation are not his area of expertise. That's understandable. Many other areas of government are more specific to one geographic area — to a greater extent, decisions made inside one school affect primarily the families who go to that school, for instance, not families far away (with the exception of decisions about what out-of-boundary students to admit, say). Transportation is different.
But the committee also felt that it wasn't willing to give a pass on this issue to a candidate who is vying for the second most powerful job in the DC government.
The candidates on experience
Which brings us to the most significant way the two aren't the same: their experience.
Lazere is a long-time resident of Brookland who has served on several blue-ribbon commissions related to taxes and education finance; there's no doubt he is an expert in DC policy around budgetary matters. However, he also has never held elected office. No council chairman since Home Rule has been elected without having previously served as councilmember.
Lazere argued, compellingly, that his decades of working with DC Council as an advocate means he understands the process and the players. This certainly distinguishes him from a first-time, outsider-type candidate with no interaction with local politics.
Mendelson, by contrast, has chaired the Council since 2012 after more than a decade as at-large councilmember and Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner before that (when he lived in McLean Gardens; he now lives on Capitol Hill.). Mendelson disputed the notion that Lazere’s experience would prepare him to run the council. He argued that the main job of a chairman is to figure out how to find common ground between all the members, often to reach a 13-0 or 12-1 or 11-2 vote on major issues like the budget or signature pieces of legislation, something Mendelson has indeed achieved (and the council is undoubtedly less fractious than it was under his short-time predecessor Kwame Brown).
Mendelson argued that the role of an advocate, who pushes for a position and tries to overcome resistance from officials, is not compatible with the consensus-building of a chairman. Certainly one could adapt, and surely Lazere would argue he would, but the committee found this argument to hold merit.
And while we're not surprised an incumbent (especially one as policy wonkish as Mendelson) can recite minutiae of the law from memory while Lazere (who can do that too for some budget matters, to be sure) was more unfamiliar with transit, bicycle, or pedestrian advocates' broad-based arguments, we felt Lazere didn't show the level of readiness to be chairman we would have liked to see.
Still, Mendelson isn't only a consensus-builder; on most issues which he hasn't delegated to other councilmembers, he makes his own decisions, often with little notice to stakeholders on all sides. This applies for the budget, and it applies on planning matters like the Comprehensive Plan. Some councilmembers have said they themselves find it frustrating to find out about changes or decisions at the last moment.
Mendelson defended this practice in our interview, saying that it was often necessary to keep from showing his full hand until a vote was near. It has certainly been an effective tool for him legislatively; it's maddening or exhilarating for advocates depending on whether his sudden change is for or against their agendas.
Were Lazere running for an at-large or ward seat on Council, rather than chairman, he would be a formidable candidate who would have a very good chance of winning our endorsement. And we appreciate that Ed Lazere is giving voters across the District a real choice for council chairman, especially in light of the lack of competition for mayor.
His campaign is elevating one of the biggest challenges facing the District — housing affordability — into the electoral debate. His passion for that issue is inspiring, and he leaves little doubt that he cares deeply about the District and its residents. His role in the race has already pushed Mendelson to take a more progressive stand on several issues.
We disagree with Phil Mendelson more often than with many other members of the council. We don't see Mendelson as particularly willing to push back on the political power of wealthy residents who are willing to support higher taxes but don't want anyone to mess with their parking or slow down their driving in the interests of bus or bike mobility, and don't want to see any more buildings in their communities in the interests of reducing segregation or increasing affordability.
Still, Mendelson has displayed an openness to our positions on the issues, and his extensive experience shows in the depth and sophistication of his policy knowledge. If he continues as chairman, we believe we will disagree strongly on numerous things and yet hope to work together on many more as well.
Ultimately, the Elections Committee did not feel there was a clear choice here, even though the two candidates are very different.We urge our readers to review Mendelson's and Lazere's full questionnaire answers and make their own decisions. And we hope to engage with both men further about the merits of Greater Greater Washington's views on the issues.
This is the official (non-)endorsement of Greater Greater Washington. All endorsements are decided by our volunteer Elections Committee with input from our board and other volunteer committees. Want to keep up on other endorsement posts? Check out our 2018 primary summary page and sign up for our weekly elections newsletter.