Ed Lazere (center left) and his staff at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute in 2011 (file)
Ed Lazere (center left) and Elissa Silverman (front, right) when they worked at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute in 2011 (file) Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Longtime local advocacy leader and policy wonk Ed Lazere is launching a campaign for D.C. Council Chairman. Lazere is filing his election papers with D.C. on Wednesday and is the first opponent to established incumbent Phil Mendelson.

Lazere, 53, has lived in D.C. for more than 30 years and brings progressive bona fides to the race. A native of Sioux City, Iowa, he most recently served as director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, a left-leaning think-tank focused on the needs of low- and moderate-income residents.

To run for Council, Lazere says he’s on leave from the nonprofit DCFPI, where he became the inaugural staff member in 2001 after leaving positions at Higher Achievement, a group devoted to middle-schoolers, and the Center on Budget an Policy Priorities, a think-tank affiliated with DCFPI.

The budget dove has not held elected office previously, but says he sees his campaign as an opportunity to enter public service. Lazere worked with At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman at DCFPI and served on At-Large Councilmember Robert White‘s transition team.

He says more leadership is needed in local government to push “bold action,” including greater investments in affordable housing, well-paying jobs, and schools, rather than “incremental” endeavors as D.C. continues to change.

“I’m really concerned that we’re just not responding at the right level to the challenges of gentrification,” Lazere explains. “We have this incredible prosperity, but for black and Latinx families—it feels like they’re being shut out of this economy. And with the vast inequality in wealth, many are spending their days worrying about how they’re going to pay their rent.”

For example, though Lazere acknowledges that the District is spending a record amount on affordable housing, he says it’s “nowhere near enough” to meet the need. “Housing is 3 percent of the city’s budget, but it’s way more than 3 percent of the city’s problems,” he says. D.C. has guaranteed $100 million a year in its main affordable housing fund since 2015.

Mendelson, the current Council chairman, has held a citywide seat for two decades. He was first elected in 1998 as an at-large councilmember and became chairman in 2012 following the resignation of Kwame Brown due to an ethics scandal.

Mendelson was re-elected as chairman that November and in 2014, and has a wide base of support. He and Lazere have disagreed before about tax cuts and spending, especially while D.C.’s revenues boom and the city grows.

Lazere says he isn’t intimidated by running against a Council veteran. He touts his relationships with councilmembers, mayors, business executives, and advocates. “I’ve spent many days working to get seven votes on the Council, which is what you need to win,” he points out. “I feel like I bring a lot of experience and leadership from the advocacy community.”

He is quick to note that there are “upsides and downsides” to the District’s renaissance. It’s good, Lazere says, that D.C.’s population is rising, residents have an increasing number of retail options, and the city has “vibrancy” overall.

But he worries about what’s happening to residents who are being pushed out or squeezed by the cost of living. He cites H Street NE and neighborhoods along the Green Line as areas that have significantly changed since he’s lived in D.C.

“I feel like we need a greater sense of urgency, and I’d like to provide that greater sense of urgency,” Lazere says of his Council bid. “I wouldn’t be running if we were doing enough.”

He adds that he’d like for the D.C. Council to beef up its research capacity, and for lawmakers to look more at “best practices” across the country when considering legislation. Lazere says he has good relationships with Mendelson and Mayor Muriel Bowser, and that he’s a “collaborative” person.

Lazere owns a home in Ward 5’s Brookland. He has a wife and two adult sons, who graduated from D.C. Public Schools. He says his campaign will involve door-knocking, mailers, and a yet-unscheduled kickoff event in the coming few weeks.