Erin Palmer ran a close, yet unsuccessful, campaign for D.C. Council chair. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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A lunch meeting at Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse in CityCenterDC laid some of the groundwork for D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson’s challenger for the Democratic nomination in 2022. At an auction benefiting a neighborhood school, Erin Palmer bid on, and won, the opportunity to dine with the Council chair. They sat down in the summer of 2019, right around the time former Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans’ ethics scandal, which ultimately forced him from office, was heating up.

Though she didn’t have plans to run at the time, Palmer says she bid on the lunch with Mendelson because she saw the issues with Evans as indicative of a larger problem at the Council. To Palmer, then and now the advisory neighborhood commissioner for 4B02, it seemed like under Mendelson’s leadership, each Council office functioned as its own island where members shied away from holding each other accountable.

“That was bizarre to me to watch,” she says. “The press were really hammering the issues with Jack Evans, and then [Advisory Neighborhood Commissions] and community members were just hammering the Council, like ‘Why aren’t you doing something?’ It was reactive and not proactive.”

The dynamic reminded Palmer of her work as a staff lawyer for the U.S. Judicial Conduct and Disability Committee, which is responsible for handling complaints of misconduct against judges.

“One of the criticisms of judges is that they run their own chambers in a very isolated way and that’s part of what creates risk factors for workplace misconduct issues,” she says. “You have a very large power differential and isolation. It struck me as, in some ways, a similar setup.”

Palmer is a mother of three children and was elected an ANC in 2018—both characteristics shape her thinking. In an interview with Loose Lips, she highlights her work on the ANC pushing for changes to solar panel installation guidelines on historic homes and for transparency around HVAC installation and repairs in schools.

Palmer’s views on institutional accountability are largely shaped by her work as an ethics lawyer. But she’s also driven by a more personal experience. She was sexually assaulted in high school and has endured sexual harassment from co-workers, one of whom was a partner at a law firm where she worked.

“While it doesn’t define me, it’s part of how I see the world,” she says. The debate over Initiative 77, which would have eliminated the lower, tiered minimum wage for tipped workers, was largely about workplace power dynamics, from Palmer’s perspective. “It does play a role in how I see issues.”

Palmer is looking to join the increasing number of left-leaning councilmembers on the 13-member body, whereas Mendelson more often aligns with the shrinking moderate bloc. And though she is well known in certain progressive circles (and was rumored to be a potential challenger for former Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd in 2020 before Janeese Lewis George announced her run), she faces a formidable opponent in Mendelson. He was first elected as an at-large councilmember in 1998 and assumed the chairmanship in 2012, replacing Kwame Brown, who resigned amid a financial scandal. 

Palmer acknowledges that Mendelson “has done some good things,” but she says “it’s time for someone with new ideas and new energy.” Palmer says she appreciates that Mendelson appears to concentrate on the work more than the spotlight, to his credit. But her respect for him started drying up when the Council debated D.C.’s law that gives employees paid time off to care for themselves and their families.

After the Council approved the basic benefits, they debated several changes to the law, one of which would have eliminated the city-funded benefit for large employers and required them to provide paid leave on their own.

Palmer testified about her experience working at a large law firm that was required to provide paid time off and described the pressures employees felt to not use it, which she argued wouldn’t exist if the program was entirely government run.

She recalls that, in Mendelson’s response to her, he emphasized that the amount of paid leave remained the same regardless of whether the employer was required to offer the benefit or the government provided it, which wasn’t her point.

“I don’t know if he didn’t want to respond to me on it or just felt like he knew better,” she says. “But that’s when something struck me that thinking about the specifics of how something works and how it impacts people is sometimes overlooked.” 

Mendelson, for his part, is quite comfortable in his path to reelection.

“Look at 2018,” he says, referring to his decisive victory over longtime progressive advocate and budget wonk Ed Lazere. Although Palmer rejects the notion that she is “Ed 3.0” (Lazere also lost the at-large Council race in 2020), many of her views align with Lazere’s. She’s supportive of the Council’s vote to raise taxes on incomes over $250,000—a measure Mendelson worked to defeat.

“I’m a different person and a different candidate,” she says. “I respect Ed, and I think he does great work, but I think our focus is different.”

Distinguishing herself from a vanquished progressive champion is one obstacle for Palmer. Another is connecting with voters in parts of D.C. where Mendelson has had a decades-long head start and a track record of getting votes, including neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.

For her campaign manager and treasurer, Palmer tapped Ron Thompson, a 23-year-old who grew up in Anacostia and also managed progressive Mysiki Valentine’s unsuccessful campaign for an at-large seat on the State Board of Education in 2020. Thompson believes Palmer will find common ground in her experience as a mother and elected commissioner.

“I wouldn’t get behind a candidate who wouldn’t be able to resonate with people on that personal level and who wouldn’t be able to talk to my grandmother, or my mom or my aunts,” he says. “These are the women that you’re talking about, single moms trying to do it on their own, who are probably skeptical of a White lady from Upper Northwest. I’ve seen Erin do that, talk to anyone and everyone.”

Palmer is running on a platform of good governance and accountability, and will use D.C.’s publicly funded campaign program, which bars donations from corporations and political action committees and provides matching public funds for small-dollar donations. Mendelson is raising money the traditional way. He has already taken in more than $101,000, according to his most recent financial report, which lists support from several lobbyists and PACs.

In an interview, Palmer also suggests she would decentralize power inherent to the Council chair.

Authority to appoint and remove chairs of committees rests with the Council chairperson. But that authority shouldn’t be used as leverage for votes or as retaliation, Palmer says, recalling former At-Large Councilmember David Grosso’s removal as the sole chair of the Committee on Education. Grosso previously told DCist that Mendelson used the education committee chairmanship as leverage for his vote to overturn Initiative 77.

Grosso voted along with Mendelson and the majority to overturn the voter-approved initiative. But Mendelson later usurped Grosso’s autonomy and appointed himself as co-chair of the education committee after a year of scandals. Now that Grosso is gone, oversight of the education system rests under Mendelson’s Committee of the Whole.

“I think we’ve seen the failures that have come out of that in terms of dealing with schools and children during the pandemic,” Palmer says, pointing to HVAC issues as buildings reopened for in-person classes earlier this year.

Mendelson touts his longevity and experience as the reason why voters should rehire him.

“You just need that, otherwise you’re going to get chewed up by your colleagues, you’re going to get chewed up by the mayor,” he says. “Some of these issues are tough issues.”

Palmer isn’t surprised that Mendelson is unconcerned about her campaign.

“He’s underestimating me,” she says. “Like decidedly. That’s OK. I kind of appreciate it.”