Phil Mendelson has a freshmen problem. Facing a breakfast revolt last week from councilmembers opposed to phasing in tax cuts early, the chairman of the D.C. Council lamented the “problem” with so many new councilmembers. That problem, according to Mendelson? They missed the debates that happened before they were on the Council, so they want to litigate them again.
Indeed, the five new councilmembers, two of whom qualify as millennials, have fallen for that most millennial of afflictions: FOMO, or Fear of Missing Out. As Mendelson tried to push for new tax cuts to go into effect this summer, the new councilmembers and others supported Mayor Muriel Bowser’s plan to keep the cuts in February 2016—or at to least wait long enough to talk about them some more.
“Let’s just have the conversation,” said LaRuby May, Ward 8’s freshman councilmember.
Mendelson wasn’t just facing down May and Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd, both of whom were elected by Bowser’s fundraising and campaign apparatus in April. Newbies like Ward 1’s Brianne Nadeau, Ward 6’s Charles Allen, and at-larger Elissa Silverman don’t owe their nascent political careers to Bowser, but they were just as active as the mayor’s councilmembers in opposing Mendelson’s schedule.
In the end, Mendelson agreed to a compromise September trigger offered by Allen and At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds that just barely succeeded, 7-6.
The newly restless freshmen could challenge the hegemony Mendelson has enjoyed for more than a year. Under lame duck Mayor Vince Gray, Mendelson had no problem calling the shots, with even Gray allies like Ward 7’s Yvette Alexander bailing on the mayor. But now that Bowser’s in the mayoral suite and the freshmen are starting to flex their votes, Mendelson can’t whip the Council together on every issue like he used to.
After the budget vote, Mendelson walked back his “problem” line on new councilmembers. Now, in Mendelson’s telling, acclimating the new councilmembers to issues that have already been debated doesn’t meet the threshold for a “problem.”
“I used the word ‘problem,’ and I sometimes use that word too quickly,” Mendelson says. “Not ‘problem’ in a negative way, it’s more like the word ‘challenge.’”
Still, the newly vocal freshmen—who are denied their own committees, per Mendelson’s rules—delighted frequent Mendelson antagonist and At-Large Councilmember Vincent Orange.
“The fact that we have five new councilmembers, that’s the reality of the day,” he told Mendelson at the contentious breakfast.
Mendelson denies LL’s theory that the vocal freshmen are going to cause trouble for his agenda.
“I don’t see it as a bloc,” Mendelson says.
Mendelson’s right that the freshmen don’t always vote in unison. Later last week, when Bonds tried to gut Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh’s proposal to study a publicly-owned Pepco, the freshmen split. Nadeau, Silverman, and Allen opposed the move, while Todd and May supported it. (Bonds won in the end, 7-6, helped by a vote from Orange, a former Pepco executive.)
Still, last week’s tax cut vote showed that the new freshmen aren’t always willing to follow their chairman’s direction. Mendelson, who says the idea of his power struggle with Bowser has also been overplayed, tried to put a positive spin on it.
“I think it’s a good thing that they’re beginning to find their voice,” Mendelson says.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery