Ed Lazere Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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When Ed Lazere, former executive director of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, announced last week that he will challenge Phil Mendelson, chairman of the D.C. Council, the race became the de facto title fight in this year’s local elections. 

With Mayor Muriel Bowser yet to draw a credible opponent, the Mendelson-Lazere matchup could be the clearest glimpse into the District’s political headspace in 2018. And since this is D.C. and both candidates are Democrats, the chairmanship of the D.C. Council will likely be decided on June 19, when the primary is held. 

Lazere, who is well-known in D.C. policy circles—but not nearly so by the general public—confirmed to City Paper that he will initially focus his campaign on what many consider his signature issues—homelessness, gentrification, and racial equity. He described the latter as: “Making sure we have a growing economy that works for everyone.”

Though Hillary Clinton won 90 percent of D.C.’s vote in the 2016 election, local contests often reveal the stratification in the city’s ideological ranks. And it’s clear that Lazere, whose progressive positions are no secret, will be campaigning to Mendelson’s left.

“Over the last several years, the chairman [Mendelson] has put a high priority on tax cuts that have made it hard to put investments in other things,” says Lazere. “As progressives, we should be fighting on behalf of working families, not fighting on behalf of big businesses already doing well in D.C.”

Mendelson had a different take on his re-election bid.

“My race is one about leadership,” he says. “Because that’s what the chairman of the Council is, a leader. We can argue over degrees of progressivity, but this is about more.”

“I don’t believe there’s been a chairman who’s been elected who has not served on the Council,” adds Mendelson. “That’s what the job is all about—being a chief administrative officer to pull together the votes.”

So if the race for D.C. Council chairman becomes a question of experience versus progressive bona fides, who has the advantage? 

“The argument over who is a progressive is really sort of a Democratic version of what Republicans are having over the establishment versus anti-establishment issue,” says George Derek Musgrove, an associate professor at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and co-author of Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital.

“If in a local race, someone can claim the mantle of progressive over establishment and there’s a legitimate grievance that people have, for instance yawning wealth inequality, gentrification, and displacement,” explains Musgrove, “then you [the challenger] have a better chance of dictating the terms of the race.”

Despite having passed the majority of the so-called “progressive agenda,” which includes things like marriage equality, a minimum wage hike and paid family leave, the District still boasts constituent groups that are not universally down for every cause du jour on the left. 

“There’s no question that a lot of the new millennial residents in the District embrace progressive social ideas,” says Keshini Ladduwahetty, chair of DC for Democracy. “But when it comes to their views on economic issues, there’s quite a bit of conservative thinking.”

The Lazere-Mendelson primary also holds some intra-council intrigue. 

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“There’s definitely discontent within the Council and I’m hopeful the chair race will be a good opportunity to bring those issues to light,” says Ladduwahetty, whose group plans to announce its endorsement decisions on all the council races in mid-February.

One of the councilmembers who will no doubt keep one eye on Lazere’s campaign, in addition to her own, is At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, who once worked at DCFPI for Lazere. Silverman ran as an independent on many of the same issues Lazere has raised as both a candidate and advocate when she snagged one of the District’s two open at-large seats in 2014 with about 41,000 votes, less than half of those cast for Anita Bonds, winner of the other at-large seat.

“It’s not rocket science,” says Silverman, about her 2014 strategy. “I talked about the big issues that mattered. I talked about affordable housing, homelessness, and about equity in our schools. And I talked about it with some level of depth.”

Silverman, who ran for and lost a special election for an at-large council seat in 2013, blames that defeat on what she says was a shared belief in the media that she couldn’t actually win. 

“A real lesson I learned [in 2013] was that there has to be a perception that you can win in order for voters to think you can win and then vote for you,” she says.

Lazere could face the same hurdle, as questions remain about his ability to raise enough money to compete with Mendelson, about why he only took a leave of absence from DCFPI instead of quitting, and if his campaign is simply an effort to push Mendelson left on certain issues. 

“Just by Lazere running, he’s opening up the opportunity for the progressive left part of the council to have more political say,” says Derek Hyra, founding director of the Metropolitan Policy Center at American University and author of Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City

“Of course it could all backfire,” adds Hyra. “If his [Lazere’s] vote total comes in low, that makes it more difficult [politically] for Elissa Silverman and At-Large Councilmember David Grosso and others.”

Regardless of how the District is leaning on the issues, it’s important to keep in mind that Lazere is running against Phil Mendelson, who has served for two decades on D.C.’s Council and who City Paper contributing writer and veteran local political watcher Tom Sherwood recently described as “an iceberg.” 

“He seems to be somewhat quirky and odd and frustratingly detailed and slow on the surface,” says Sherwood. “But he has a wide and deep following beneath that image.”

The chair of the D.C. Council is also a more powerful position than it was under, say, Mayor Marion Barry, whose political machine could bring more grassroots pressure to bear than Mayor Bowser’s can, giving Mendelson far more power than he tends to project. 

“I think one of my strengths as chair of the Council has been the fact that I don’t grandstand or get hyperbolic,” Mendelson says. “I work to find consensus and pull people together.”

And lest we forget, Mendelson cut his political teeth in D.C. by winning ANC elections going back to the ’70s, then working for former Ward 3 Councilmember James Nathanson and former D.C. Council Chairman David Clarke. So Mendelson’s oft-cited mastery of council rules and handling of legislation is well-schooled, to say nothing of his experience winning elections in the District. Mendelson won his last race for council chairman with nearly 140,000 votes in 2014, about 40,000 more than Mayor Bowser received.

As for what the two hold in common: Mendelson and Lazere are policy nerds who look—and act—the part. Both call themselves “progressive.” Neither is known for setting rooms ablaze with their speechifying skills. 

“There’s not a lot of space between us when it comes to where we stand on issues,” claims Mendelson.

The sentiment is not shared by Lazere of course. 

“Why did we give $80 million in subsidies to developers in a gentrifying neighborhood?” asks Lazere, referring to what developers for the Union Market project recently received via the District. “That’s not too wonky. People get that.” 

A prior version of this story incorrectly stated that Phil Mendelson first ran for chairman of the D.C. Council in 2014. Mendelson first ran for chairman in 2012.