Ed Lazere campaigns outside Turkey Thicket Recreation Center on Election Day 2020. Photo by Rachel M. Cohen.

The sun is shining, the air is brisk, and on this Election Day, Ed Lazere is feeling “really good.”

Standing outside the Turkey Thicket Rec Center in Brookland, Lazere started his day off near his home, talking to the trickle of voters making their way to cast ballots in person. Like most polling sites across the city, it wasn’t very busy and lines were short, but a few voters approached Lazere, having given little thought to the crowded at-large D.C. Council race they would soon be prompted to weigh in on. “A lot of persuasion really does happen at the polls,” Lazere says.

In 2018, Lazere, the former head of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, mounted a primary challenge against Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and lost 63 percent to 36 percent. This time, he’s a frontrunner in a crowded field. The biggest change he sees between this cycle and his bid two years ago, Lazere says, was making the choice to just fight hard for his progressive base this time around, and quit trying to please everyone. He saw that approach work for Janeese Lewis George in the Ward 4 primary earlier this year.

“Last time, the first time I ran, I was fighting for literally every vote, like 100 percent of them,” he says.  Abandoning that strategy has been “honestly refreshing” for him, and has allowed him to talk about the issues he cares about, like ending homelessness, spending down D.C.’s reserves during the pandemic, and raising taxes on the wealthy, more unapologetically. “I could say things more cautious candidates wouldn’t and don’t say,” Lazere says. This forthrightness, he adds, is what inspires people, and what drew some of his most engaged volunteers from the Sunrise Movement and the Democratic Socialists of America to his campaign.

The DSA did provide substantial manpower to Lazere’s race. According to Metro DC DSA chair Irene Koo, 22 volunteers were manning polling sites for Lazere on Election Day, and 20 participated in literature drops and farmers market canvassing this past weekend. Throughout the campaign DSA hit 3,629 doors for Lazere and made 34,000 calls on his behalf.

Some of the DSA volunteers are in high school, like Langston Jones and Aaron Scott, both 17-year-old seniors at School Without Walls. With school canceled for Election Day, Jones and Scott took morning volunteer shifts at the Eastern Market polling site, handing out flyers for Lazere. They both praised him for his interest in creating a youth advisory council if he were elected to the Council.

Other Election Day Lazere volunteers came from unions and advocacy groups like Jews United for Justice. Jane Hayashi-Kim, a Jews United for Justice volunteer at Turkey Thicket, says she was stunned by how much shorter lines were at the center today compared to during the primaries. “The primaries were such a horror show,” she says. “I was amazed people were willing to stand in lines then for hours and hours.” Prior to Tuesday, Hayashi-Kim had been phone banking, participating in campaign literature drops, and talking to voters at farmers’ markets for Lazere.

Lazere has an additional reason to feel pretty good. The 56-year-old budget wonk has raised more money than any other candidate in the 23-person race, and from the most people. All told Lazere’s campaign has more than 2,820 individual contributors, followed by Marcus Goodwin’s campaign, which had 1,710, and incumbent councilmember Robert White’s, which had roughly 1,260. By participating in D.C.’s public financing program, Lazere was ultimately armed with more than $500,000 to spend down, a stunning number, especially given that his average donation amount was just $55.

What did all that money go toward?

Lazere says his biggest campaign costs were staffing and mail. In the past few weeks Lazere’s campaign sent out three pieces of mail to “persuadable” voters, and this cycle he had not just a campaign manager, but also a full-time communications director, and six full-time field staffers who helped organize volunteers. This has allowed Lazere’s campaign to canvas in almost every ward every weekend since September. D.C.’s public campaign financing program wasn’t in place during Lazere’s last run and he says it’s made all the difference. In 2018 he had no full-time communications director and funds for just one field organizer.

In the final weeks of the campaign, many candidates have gone after Lazere for insisting D.C. could spend down half of its reserves during the pandemic, as well as raise new revenue by taxing the city’s wealthiest residents. Mendelson in particular has warned that Lazere would push the Council too far to the left, and damage the city’s financial position.

Lazere is not worried, and says he’s prepared for conflict if he is elected.

“I think the people pushing back against me spending down the reserves are people who just don’t want to spend more money to address the city’s challenges,” he says. “They don’t see the budget as a moral document like I do. I mean, Mendelson certainly doesn’t.”

Lazere has the endorsements of other progressives on the Council, like At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman (his former employee at DCFPI), Ward 1’s Brianne Nadeau, and Lewis George, who is expected to win the Ward 4 seat. But is Lazere worried he’ll have a hard time getting stuff done with Mendelson if he’s elected?

“We’re going to find a way to get along. I’m a collaborative person, but on the other hand, it’s a 13-member council, and in every legislature across the country, not everyone gets along with everyone,” Lazere says. “I’m always focused on how you win, which means getting [at least] seven votes, and there will be times, like on fiscal stuff, where he and I just disagree.”