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In politics, it’s really pretty simple. After an election, you make a phone call, even if it’s just a perfunctory minute, to congratulate the winner.
But days after the District’s Tuesday primary, neither Mayor Muriel Bowser nor Council Chairman Phil Mendelson—the leaders of the city—had spoken to each other.
“I left him a message,” Bowser says dryly, the day after the primary. “I’m sure we’ll talk soon.”
“She did leave a message,” Mendelson later acknowledges. “But we haven’t spoken.”
The cold chill is not just personal and deep seated. It affects how the District is being governed.
“I’m hopeful the mayor and chairman will be able to turn a page, but we’ll see,” says At-Large Councilmember Christina Henderson, who has been on the Council for more than two years, but has yet to participate in a single mayor-Council breakfast. The morning meetings used to bring the two branches of government together once a month. They stopped during the pandemic and never resumed, though Mendelson still hosts Council-only breakfast gatherings before legislative meetings.
“That’s bad,” Henderson says emphatically. “Bad! The legislature and executive can’t come together … to have conversations?”
The high-level strain comes as the District faces major challenges—billions in federal pandemic money will be exhausted and not replaced, the worsening economy is driving down tax revenues, violent crime is rising, and the potential for a hostile Congress controlled by Republicans grows every day as the national midterm elections loom. The apparent impasse over how to use the land around the RFK Stadium, if D.C. is able to pry it out of the feds’ hands, is a glaring example of the price D.C. residents could pay.
You’d think the District’s leaders would be reasonably aligned to face all that.
“There can be constructive pressure and criticism that makes all the pieces work together,” says Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who first joined the Council as a staff member in 2006. The mayor and Council chair “don’t have to go to dinner every night. [But] that means both of them will have to take a step toward the other.”
In response to City Paper questions, Bowser and Mendelson publicly suggest they can work together, but their personal dislike is palpable, and they each put the onus on the other to act first.
“My hope is that the mayor will go into her third term recognizing that she and I need to work more closely together,” Mendelson offers, placing the blame on the mayor.
“I’ve worked with Phil a long time,” Bowser says separately, calling him “an institutionalist,” and suggesting he’s focused on procedural issues as much as policy. “He is the chairman, but he has one vote,” she says. “Of course, obviously, I have my own relationships with the members of the Council and I’ll continue to have that.”
One veteran former city official who has worked closely with both Bowser and Mendelson and who remains in frequent contact with them, was blunt when asked if the two leaders might actually work together: “I don’t see that happening,” the former official says.
Those who have talked with Mendelson in private say he thinks the mayor never has been good at working with the Council, let alone with the chairman himself. They say Mendelson also has remained incensed with Bowser since last November, when he attempted to block two of her appointments to the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Bowser went on Twitter to suggest that Mendelson rejected the two Black women because they were “pushy,” infuriating the chairman. “I never said that or that I don’t like Black women,” Mendelson said at the time.
But it’s the lack of basic give-and-take between the mayor and Council that worries others. Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George, who sits squarely on the Council’s progressive wing, agrees the mayor needs better relations with the Council. “I wish we had better back-and-forth and more frequent communications,” she says. On agency oversight, she says, “sometimes what is fair criticism can be taken offensively [by the mayor], and it’s not that. That’s where the biggest tension is.”
Apart from those tense Council-mayor relations, Mendelson also is facing potential upheaval within the 13-member legislature itself following this week’s primary election. The chairman supported losing candidates in wards 3 and 5. Winners Matt Frumin in Ward 3 and Zachary Parker in Ward 5 are more liberal progressives than candidates Mendelson supported.
Counting the two freshmen, should they win as expected in November, there will be a progressive majority on the Council, which could prove troublesome in coming months.
Under the Council’s rules, every two years the chairman proposes a restructuring of the body’s committees, including committee chairs and their members. Committees carry out the Council’s oversight duties and act as gatekeepers for bills within their respective areas of expertise. Mendelson normally makes his recommendations public in December. Then, when any new councilmembers are sworn in on January 2, the new Council votes to approve the chairman’s recommendations the same day.
Normally, it’s a pro forma vote. Not this time.
“I think we are going to see a shake-up with committees,” says At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, a leader of the Council’s newly emboldened progressive wing. Without directly criticizing Mendelson, Silverman says, “there’s alway a feeling that the input given [by councilmembers to the chairman] isn’t reflected in the committee assignments.” She says this time around, the councilmembers may insist on certain committees and may, if necessary, meet and decide their own changes. “There might be more proactiveness,” she says.
“The chairman really has to think about what that [reorganization] looks like,” Allen says.
Nearly every councilmember speaking with City Paper says Mendelson needs to reestablish a separate education committee, which Mendelson folded under his own office a few years ago. “There needs to be a focus on education,” Silverman says. “Not that the chairman doesn’t have focus. It needs a stand-alone committee focused on oversight.”
Silverman also says the Council needs a stand-alone finance and revenue committee. That committee’s oversight of the District’s taxing policies was dispersed among a few committees when long-time committee chair Jack Evans resigned in 2020.
Henderson, for her part, is looking for a complete overhaul.
“I don’t want any committee chairmanship as they are currently configured,” Henderson says. She’s already created a spreadsheet of every city agency and is thinking about how they can be regrouped into meaningful committees. She, like other members, declined to say what committee she would want to head under any reorganization.
Although the next committee realignment may be the most fraught of his tenure, Mendelson exudes confidence that he can draft a proposal that a majority of councilmembers will support.
“I’m not going to speculate now” about the committees, Mendelson says, adding that he would do as he normally does and talk to all sitting members about where they want to serve. He also says he will keep his policy of excluding freshmen councilmembers as committee chairs because, in his view, they first need experience on the Council.
“I look for consensus,” Mendelson says. “Everybody thinks I just swoop down from on high with my decision. But I talk to all the members.”
Whatever committee structure he proposes, Mendelson says any committee is “only as good as the chairman of the committee.” He says he wants chairs “who are good at asking oversight questions.”
As for the potential looming fight with Republicans on the Hill, Mendelson says he’s an optimist. “We may not have friends on the Hill. If they do meddle, we’ll just have to fight back.”
Allen has suggested the Council could act now to create its own federal relations office to coordinate with the mayor and D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton to improve Hill relations. “There’s a high likelihood we are going to be experiencing a hostile House. The city is going to need to find its way together,” he says.