Council Chairman Phil Mendelson
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

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After all the acrimony over their mailers in the 2020 race, you might think Democrats for Education Reform would consider sitting this primary out. Instead, the group is embracing a slightly different strategy this time around: Positivity.

D.C. politicos say they started receiving mail from the pro-charter, anti-union organization last week promoting Chairman Phil Mendelson’s re-election bid, arguing that he’s “always been there for our students, families, teachers, and schools.” His advocacy for “$54 million in pay raises for early childhood teachers” is a particular point of emphasis in the mailers, as is his support for the city’s new paid family leave program.

Sounds innocuous enough, right? It’s all certainly a far cry from DFER-DC’s controversial mail campaign from two years ago, which made misleading statements about Janeese Lewis George’s views on defunding the police as she ran for the Ward 4 Council seat.

But progressive advocates (and even some sitting councilmembers) started crying foul about the mailers as soon as they started hitting mailboxes, and Loose Lips must admit that they have a point. Some of the outrage undoubtedly stems from DFER’s history in D.C. politics, but the mailers’ critics are persuasive in arguing that Mendelson is getting more credit on these topics than perhaps he deserves.

There is no doubt that Mendelson advanced efforts to spend that $54 million on pay bumps for childcare workers, with the Council ultimately agreeing on a plan to send these teachers checks of up to $14,000 each as part of broader pay-scale reform. Yet that money didn’t appear out of thin air: It was only available after the Council passed a tax hike on some high-income earners as part of last year’s budget, setting aside that money over Mendelson’s vigorous objections.

“If you support these things in principle, but don’t vote for the mechanism to move them forward, it’s disingenuous to give him credit for that,” says Erin Palmer, the Ward 4 ANC challenging Mendelson in the Democratic primary (and a recipient of the DFER mailer herself).

The paid family leave bullet point is a bit more complicated, since there is no denying that the chairman has stood up for the program and helped ensure its passage, overcoming resistance from Mayor Muriel Bowser in the process. But his willingness to pare down the program’s benefits and consider the business community’s critiques of it does at least slightly undermine DFER’s decision to credit him with paid family leave when selling him to voters.

“DFER-DC’s political mail continues to be, um, creative in its statements, as well as its ‘check the facts’ footnotes,” At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, one of the paid leave program’s chief architects and boosters, wrote on Twitter. “I guess they are so cynical they don’t think voters will check ‘em.”

DFER-DC didn’t answer many of LL’s questions about the mailers directly, but it did say in a statement that it chose to highlight these issues in supporting Mendelson because “affordability is a key issue for Democratic voters.” It did not address queries about complaints about the mailers, or detail how much it spent on them.

And, for his part, Mendelson stresses that “if people are upset about the mailing, I had nothing to do with it.” The group operates both a political action committee and an independent expenditure committee, neither of which is allowed to coordinate with the organization’s endorsed candidates (so far, only Mendelson, Bowser, and Ward 3 hopeful Eric Goulet have earned that honor).

In general, though, Mendo believes the mailer is accurate. He notes that he set up a task force that charted a path forward for handing out the childcare worker money after the tax increase passed, and moved through another bill to make the raises a reality, both facts that DFER cited in its statement to LL.

“I was very clear a year ago that any member who voted against a tax increase should not be read as being opposed to what they were proposing to spend the money on,” Mendelson says. “I’ve been very supportive of this.”

On paid leave, Mendelson admits that he did shrink an original proposal from Silverman (and former At-Large Councilmember David Grosso), cutting the length of the benefits offered from 16 weeks down to eight weeks. However, the chairman believes he “made the compromises necessary to get the bill passed,” and notes that the Council was able to bump up the benefits to 12 weeks in subsequent years anyway.

“We would not have had paid leave if I didn’t get the votes for it,” he says, noting the stiff opposition from both the mayor and prominent business groups (people Mendelson tends to agree with).

And there is no doubt that Mendelson lent an ear to those same business groups when they argued for changes to the program after paid leave passed, considering a move to shrink the payroll tax that pays for benefits to workers. He ultimately ditched those proposals (a move that some saw as a response to his 2018 primary challenge from Ed Lazere) but the memory still stings for paid leave’s backers.

“The law had already passed through the Council, and it just felt like he was reopening it for no reason,” Palmer says.

Mendelson notes, of course, that the law didn’t change and it remains one of the more generous paid leave benefits in the entire country, arguing that anyone upset with his record should “look at what actually happened, not some after-the-fact account.” DFER agrees, arguing that the chairman “worked through the complex issues to ensure the law works as intended.”

Of course, DFER’s support for paid leave rings hollow among D.C.’s left-leaning set. Paid family leave is a big hit among local progressives, but DFER is generally on the opposite side of most political battles in the District, advocating aggressively for charter schools and against union-backed reform measures.

Palmer wonders whether DFER shouldn’t be a bit more humble in participating in these elections after they managed to hurt so many feelings two years ago. The group issued a public apology for its mailers in the Ward 4 race, and Palmer had hoped they might go a step further than that, too—she remembers receiving an email last January suggesting DFER would participate in a restorative justice program run by the local nonprofit SchoolTalk in the wake of Lewis George’s race (and forwarded a copy of the correspondence to LL).

When DFER asked Palmer about her willingness to fill out a questionnaire as election season kicked up, she says she asked if they’d ever completed that process (and received no response). After this story was published, DFER-DC Chapter Director Jessica Giles wrote in an email that the organization is “under new management” and would operate differently than it did two years ago. But she still did not address Palmer’s questions about a restorative justice process.

“As a Black woman, social justice advocate, and East of the River resident, I will continue to listen to my community and bring my lived experiences to this leadership role when fighting for a just and equitable education system for all our students and families in the District,” Giles wrote.

This story has been updated with comments from Jessica Giles.