Chairman Phil Mendelson on an inspection tour of Oyster-Adams Middle School, March 13 Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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It’s a Monday morning, and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson is standing behind a lectern taking questions about someone else’s scandal.

Longtime civic watchdog Dorothy Brizill is sitting in a row of reporters quizzing him about the federal probe into Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans.

It’s a familiar dance between the chairman and Brizill, who used to run a local news website, which features columns Mendelson wrote in the late 1990s. As Brizill continues with her line of questioning, a slight grin creeps across the chairman’s face. He takes a knowing look toward some Council staff sitting off to the side and then back to the reporters in front of him.

Mendelson is careful and calculated in his answers, which only further agitates Brizill, who has sat through scores of press briefings and Council meetings in her time. She continues to pry for information, and Mendelson bats away her questions, saying he needs to chat with the Council’s lawyer before he can say more.

“Well you may not like the answers,” he says stealing another look toward the staff. “I’m sorry for that.”

“You haven’t answered questions, Mr. Mendelson,” Brizill scolds. “You’re kicking the ball down the road.”

With that, Mendelson moves on, prompting reporters for questions on other business before the Council—anything but the Evans scandal.

“We have a very important item on the agenda for tomorrow, the appointment of Lewis Ferebee,” he prods, referring to D.C.’s new schools chancellor. “Any questions about that? Anything else?”

As the leader of D.C.’s 13-member Council, which for years has been tainted by corruption and abuses of power, Mendelson is its moral compass. 

Recently, he’s taken heat for what critics say is a soft touch in disciplining Evans, who was caught using his official government email to peddle his influence and relationships for some extra income. Evans is also being investigated by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

The controversy has sucked up a lot of Mendelson’s time in the past few weeks, and he knows it will consume more. Although the Council voted earlier this week to formally reprimand Evans and diminish the responsibilities of his committee, many are not satisfied.

For Mendelson, a meticulous government nerd who would rather dive into a land use policy document than do almost anything else, Evans’ actions are a distraction from more important Council business.

There’s the public education system rocked by scandal for the past year, there’s an affordable housing shortage, the upcoming budget season, and the $47 million revenue hit the District took due to the federal government shutdown.

And then there’s Mendelson, 66, who looks more like your high school history teacher than the second most powerful politician in D.C., right in the middle of it. 

Younger, more left-leaning councilmembers tug against Mendelson’s moderate brand of progressivism, but he fended off a challenger to his left in 2018, and the chairman is emboldened as he looks forward to a third term as the captain of the ship.

So who is Phil Mendelson, where is he leading D.C., and what does he want?

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

***

Nearly every flat surface in Phil Mendelson’s office is covered with paper.

“That’s off the record,” he says, referring to the stacks of documents. The chairman is a known paper hoarder, though his staff says the current state of his office is an improvement. In his old office on the fourth floor of the Wilson Building, the chairman had to cut a path through the clutter.

“But he knows where stuff is,” says Monique Bexley, who has worked for Mendelson since he was an at-large councilmember. “Anything he needs to find, he can find it. He has files dating back to the ’70s.”

Bexley paints a picture of her boss as a diligent policy wonk and a man married to his desk and his quirky habits.

He eats peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a banana for lunch, he still uses WordPerfect, a word processor first released in 1979, and he takes the same vacation to a theater festival in Canada every year.

She says Mendelson would often remain in the Wilson Building working and sending emails until 1 or 2 a.m. Although he still works late, Bexley believes his partner, Ana Harvey, has helped him scale back the crazy hours.

“If he says something that’s crazy or she doesn’t agree, she will definitely let him know, and I think sometimes she makes him think,” Bexley says. “He’s able to look at things from a different perspective. She helps bring some of the best out in him.”

Others who know him well tell stories of his stamina for public meetings and willingness to listen to constituents late into the evening, after events have ended. They say his penchant for digging deep into the details is a strength and a weakness.

“He lives in the weeds,” says Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie. “It doesn’t matter whether he’s editing some dense committee report or attending community meetings to discuss obscure issues with residents. He does all that and does it well into the night.”

After about four decades in public service, Mendelson’s trajectory is fairly well known in D.C. 

He started as an environmental activist and spent about 20 years as a member of an Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) in Ward 3. He was arrested in 1987 for protesting the construction of a road through Glover-Archbold Park, and worked as a staffer for more than one D.C. councilmember, including the late former chairman David A. Clarke, earning him the nickname “Staffer Phil.”

Mendelson lost in his first run for Council in 1996, but eked out a victory for an at-large seat in 1998 with just 17 percent of the vote in a crowded Democratic primary.

Facing a series of relatively weak challengers, Mendelson held onto his at-large seat until 2012, when he was appointed chairman to replace Kwame “Fully Loaded” Brown, who resigned amid bank fraud charges.

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As chairman, Brown will forever be known for leasing two Lincoln Navigators on the taxpayer’s dime because the first one was not to his specifications. Mendelson, by contrast, drove his 1998 Mercury Mystique into the ground and actually made news when he finally bought his current ride, a 2012 Ford Focus.

Chuck Thies, a local political consultant who ran Mendelson’s 2002 re-election campaign, has long referred to the chairman as Mr. Magoo—a man who quietly and haphazardly ascended to his leadership role.

“I don’t do flashy stuff like have big press conferences and announce that I’m going to improve policing,” Mendelson says, making a subtle dig at Mayor Muriel Bowser’s frequent press conferences in 2015. “I think they’re self-serving and they aren’t necessary to get the work done.”

Despite his reputation as the District’s most boring lawmaker, Mendelson consistently crushes opponents by around 30 point margins or higher, this past election withstanding.

“He’s Mr. Magoo, and he’s a titan,” Thies says. “That’s so rare.”

That he trounced Ed Lazere, a torchbearer for progressive causes in D.C., in the 2018 primary, is evidence that his brand of moderate liberal politics and humble persona still resonate with voters.

“He at one time was considered one of the most liberal members of the Council, but things have changed, and I guess that reflects how the Democratic party has changed,” says Philip Pannell, a longtime Ward 8 political figure. “I’m very comfortable with him. Like a comfortable pair of old slippers.”

But Mendelson is a frustrating character for D.C.’s younger progressives.

Todd Brogan, a trade union organizer recently elected to the D.C. Democratic State Committee, points to Mendelson’s vote to repeal the voter-approved Initiative 77, which would have increased the minimum wage for tipped workers, as one example. He also takes issue with Mendelson’s willingness to consider business-backed changes to the District’s paid family leave law.

Along with Mendelson, seven other councilmembers voted to repeal 77; and he eventually rejected the proposed changes to the paid family leave law shortly after Lazere announced his candidacy and quickly outraised the incumbent chairman.

“I don’t think he’s a terrible chairman,” Brogan says. “I think he’s a guy who is willing to listen and learn. But I worry he’s more and more becoming a representative of people who are already over-represented in the city.”

For Brogan, who contributed to Lazere’s campaign, Mendelson’s approach to the controversy surrounding Evans is a test of his leadership.

In his role as chairman, Mendelson acknowledges that he’s moved “a little more toward the center than I used to be.”

“I have to be the adult in the room as opposed to the councilmember on the end of the dais who can just lob shots to the middle, which is what I used to do,” he says.

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

***

Mendelson walks out of a formal gala wearing a blue-and-white striped bow tie. His partner, Harvey, holds his hand en route to the next gala—the annual labor union celebration, Evening With Labor.

Harvey, once the director of the D.C. Department of Small and Local Business Development (DSLBD), cringes throughout the evening.

“This is not really my crowd,” says the 56-year-old Mexico City native.

The pair have been together since about September 2015, shortly after Harvey got the gig in the Bowser administration, and they now live together on Capitol Hill.

In his inaugural speech in January, the typically reserved chairman choked up as he thanked Harvey and his 18-year-old daughter, Addie.

“I love you both,” he said from the stage.

With their lives now more closely intertwined, each inevitably drags the other to events like the one this evening. Mendelson never showed up to Harvey’s events when she was president of the Greater Washington Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, she says. 

“That’s because you never invited me,” he responds.

“I knew him, but he was too far left for my taste,” Harvey says. “He’s very labor friendly.”

In the car on the way to the union ball, Harvey recalls the first time she met the chairman. She was just a few weeks into her new position at DSLBD and getting to know each of the councilmembers. Mendelson was last on the list, and she left the meeting in his office thinking he was the biggest “pompous ass” she’d ever met.

“I told her her agency was terrible, and ‘We’ll see if you can turn it around,’” Mendelson says.

“He told me the agency sucks,” she corrects. “But also I think he didn’t really know much about small business anyway.”

“They’re small,” Mendo quips. “Do I need to know more than that?”

The acrimony didn’t last long. By September 2015, he bumped into Harvey in a luxury box at a Nationals game. It was American University night and Mendelson threw out the first pitch.

At that point, he says, it was clear that his relationship with his former partner Carol Mitten—who is also the former director of the District’s Office of Property Management—was coming to an end.

(Under the name “Carol Mi,” Mitten donated $1,000 to Mendelson’s 2018 opponent, Ed Lazere. When asked about it, she said: “I just wanted to support Ed. I don’t want to talk about it in any more detail.”)

After about 20 minutes of chit-chat at the baseball game, Mendelson made his move and asked Harvey out to lunch.

Apparently his subtle charms were a little too, uh, subtle. Harvey says she was unaware the chairman was asking her on a date.

“We were talking about small business and then he said ‘Should we have lunch?’” she says. “I was like ‘Ugh, OK.’”

Harvey describes their rendezvous at the shuttered M&S Grill as a combination of “hearing, inquisition, and confession,” though she found him interesting enough to agree to a second date, and a third. After a few months she called around to some friends in the District government, and they vouched for him. 

“I know exactly what I asked because I had worked with councilmembers before,” she says. “I said ‘Just tell me you’re not going to get indicted.’”

Except for a relatively minor dust up with a former chief of staff, Jessica White, back in 2003, Mendelson has avoided the scandals that befell past and present D.C. lawmakers. White claimed that Mendelson discriminated against her based on religion and disability when he fired her. She filed a complaint with the Office of Human Resources, which exonerated Mendelson.

White later filed a lawsuit in D.C. Superior Court that was dismissed for missing a filing deadline.

In August 2017, Harvey left the Bowser administration. At the time, she told the Washington Business Journal that she resigned “for very personal reasons,” but did not elaborate. Mendelson says she made a lot of improvements in the agency. Officially Harvey left voluntarily and soon after started working for the nonprofit Charter School Incubator Initiative.

The organization acquires and renovates buildings to help charter schools establish themselves in the District. Once the school is up and running, Harvey says, the Incubator transfers the building and the debt to them and walks away.

At the labor ball, Mendelson and Harvey sit at the first table with Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton. Mendelson knowingly glances at Harvey throughout the speeches, including one from At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, who recently championed paid family leave, the law that taxes businesses to give families paid time off to care for new children and sick relatives, as well as personal sick time. (As a former Loose Lips reporter, Silverman coined Mendelson’s nickname, “Mendo.”)

Harvey says she was completely opposed to the new law, which Mendelson shepherded through the Council.

“That is the first time I didn’t agree with Phil,” she says. “We just didn’t talk about it because I would just get worked up about it, and he fought hard for it.”

After dinner (and a few glasses of red wine for Mendo), the D.J. kicks off the party with a little James Brown. The chairman’s leg starts to jiggle, and he’s the first one on the dance floor. Norton soon follows him for the “Electric Slide.”

He eventually persuades Harvey to join them, and he spins her around with more grace than you’d expect from the balding, socially awkward chairman. As they dance, an undeniable reality emerges: Mendo is, somehow, a low-key silver fox.

***

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Mendelson is acting on what he knows. His critics want him to act on what he doesn’t.

He spent weeks resisting calls from councilmembers and the public to remove Evans as the chair of the Committee on Finance and Revenue. He also resisted a push from three councilmembers to establish a special Council committee to investigate Evans’ private business relationships.

He argued instead to formally reprimand Evans, which amounts to a statement of disapproval from the Council and comes with no real consequences.

Mendelson emphasized the importance of allowing the criminal investigation into Evans’ business dealings to continue without additional political interference. He left open the possibility of more severe punishment for Evans as the criminal investigation unfolds.

But by the time the Council was ready to vote, he finally gave in.

On the afternoon of the vote, Mendelson moved to strip Evans’ committee of several responsibilities. From the dais, Mendelson described the move as a compromise.

In addition to the formal finger-wagging from the Council, Mendelson’s revised reprimand guts Evans’ committee of any measures involving tax abatements and tax increment financing. He said he would no longer refer those measures to Evans’ committee as long as the criminal investigation continued. The committee will also lose oversight of the District’s entertainment and sports authority, Events DC, as well as the Commission on the Arts and Humanities.

The reprimand passed unanimously, and the Council will vote again in two weeks on the committee’s reorganization. But that hasn’t satisfied everyone.

Silverman criticizes Mendelson for deciding which pieces of Evans’ committee to remove without public input.

Zach Weinstein, a community organizer for Jews United for Justice (JUFJ), echoes Silverman’s concerns. 

“If there are ethical questions, it seems like all the policy that finance and revenue committee handles is important,” Weinstein says. “Not just the things the chairman removed from his purview.”

JUFJ is one of several organizations that signed onto a letter, along with about 400 individuals, calling for Mendelson to remove Evans as chair of the finance committee and from his seat on the judiciary committee.

Several other local organizations have made similar demands, including those who’ve been allies of Evans in the past. A recall effort is also underway.

Something that’s bothering Weinstein, who worked on Silverman’s 2018 re-election campaign, is a statement from Mendelson the night before the reprimand vote. In hinting that he might take a step beyond the reprimand, Mendelson said “a number of progressive groups have turned this into a lobbying campaign to force Jack to step down from the committee.”

“To me the implication is that when you choose to take action through a group that is organizing in the city, it just doesn’t count,” Weinstein says. “Phil used to say, ‘I was progressive before it was cool,’ and now it’s like the voices of progressives don’t matter.”

Mendelson, for his part, explained that removing Evans chairmanship without an investigation sets a precedent the Council will regret.

“Anyone who might suggest that this is not painful should put themselves in Mr. Evans’ shoes,” Mendelson said ahead of the reprimand vote. “This is a public meeting. It is a specially called public meeting. There is one item of business. I have repeatedly invoked Jack Evans’ name in condemnation of his conduct.”

***

It’s after 9 p.m. on a Monday, and Mendelson still has three grocery stores to go to. There’s stuff at Whole Foods that he can’t get at Giant or Trader Joe’s. 

But first, he feels obligated to stand outside the Tenley-Friendship Neighborhood Library with a group of angry Ward 3 constituents following a two-hour meeting. They cannot believe his unwillingness to budge from his support to renew the lease for the private The Lab School of Washington, when the community’s public schools are overcrowded.

“You are really against it,” one woman says. “You care more about them than you do about us. You’ve made it clear in every single statement you’ve made tonight. Do you have no idea what that means to even say this?”

It’s approaching 10 p.m. by the time he gets out of there, feeling exasperated. He likely would not have attended the meeting had he not recently taken on co-oversight of the public education system. But he says he got what he came for: a good dose of Ward 3 residents’ concerns.

On the ride back to Capitol Hill, Mendelson talks about how his mother, a political science major, a government teacher, and then a muckraker, inspired his political career.

He says one of his proudest accomplishments as a lawmaker is helping the Council legalize same sex marriage at a time when only a handful of jurisdictions allowed it. One of the most memorable moments in his career, he says, was the testimony of a mother whose daughter was killed in the South Capitol Street shootings.

“In her hurt she brought an autopsy photo,” he says. He still has it tucked away in a folder. He feels a responsibility to keep it.

Mendelson also mentions the book Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, which he read in college.

“One of the things I took from that was that people can be very successful at being powerful in office, and they can also be very corrupt,” he says. “And then you have people who want to do the right thing, so they’re not corrupt, and they’re very incapable of being successful in office. And I believe it’s possible to do both.” 

And that’s what he wants—to do both.