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

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Coming into the June primary, Loose Lips must admit that he didn’t think Erin Palmer had much of a chance in her bid against Council Chairman Phil Mendelson. Consider this a mea culpa.

Palmer didn’t actually succeed in toppling Mendelson, of course, but her strong performance against one of the District’s most consistent politicians ranks as one of the biggest surprises of the cycle. Ed Lazere entered his bid against the chairman four years ago with more name recognition, and he got trounced by 26.5 points—Palmer lost by just under seven, a closer margin than even At-Large Councilmember Robert White managed in his well-funded campaign against Mayor Muriel Bowser.

It’s also Mendelson’s closest election since his very first Council win in a crowded primary for an at-large seat in 1998, when he squeaked out the nomination by about three points. This year’s race was still called pretty early, and an 8,000-vote margin of victory is nothing to sneeze at—Mendelson feels that it shows that “voters are still confident in me.” But Palmer’s numbers have attracted attention.

Longtime Washington Post columnist Colby King suggested that a “reality check” might be in store for the chairman, while Mendo’s left-leaning critics have similarly seized on this as evidence of eroding support for his policies. At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, a frequent Mendelson antagonist, sees the results as proof that “at the top levels of government, people are interested in alternatives.”

Palmer suspects that dissatisfaction with the status quo was certainly a big part of her success. She notes that Mendelson ran with a good deal of “progressive messaging,” rather than emphasizing his moderating role on the Council. His branding as a “proven progressive” was a big part of his TV and digital advertising, for instance.

But Palmer also chalks up some of her success to her strong ties among her fellow advisory neighborhood commissioners. Many D.C. pols expected the Takoma-based ANC to struggle outside of her home base in Ward 4; instead, she credits her network of volunteers with helping her run a credible campaign across all eight wards.

“It was really helpful having all those people who are integrated into their communities, who could speak with a lot of credibility about the ways they’ve worked with me,” Palmer says. “And I was very intentional about being physically present in these places, and that’s work that predates the campaign.”

She says that included a special focus east of the Anacostia River, and she tried to empower people in wards 7 and 8 with leadership roles in her campaign (including her campaign chair). Clearly, some of that work paid off, considering she kept things competitive in wards where Mendelson traditionally performs very well. She lost Ward 7 by 1,972 votes and Ward 8 by 1,549—four years ago, Lazere lost Ward 7 by 2,859 votes and Ward 8 by 2,196.

But Palmer generally kept things close across the city, winning wards 1 and 6 outright and coming within 134 votes of Mendelson in Ward 5. She got more raw votes than White in the mayor’s race and Brian Schwalb in the attorney general contest, and even outperformed Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau and Ward 5’s Zachary Parker in their winning bids (though being in a heads-up race helps in that regard). And all that came as Mendelson enjoyed a hefty cash advantage, plus spending from outside groups (the pro-charter school Democrats for Education Reform chief among them). Mendelson ended up raising about $223,000 more than Palmer, as of the most recent campaign finance reports filed on June 10.

“He can act dismissive, but he ran a different kind of campaign and put a lot of money into it,” Palmer says.

Her worst performance came in Ward 3, which provided about half of Mendelson’s total margin of victory. It’s probably no great shock that Mendelson’s old home base would come through for him, even if the ward rejected the chairman’s preferred Council candidate in Eric Goulet. Those upper Northwest neighborhoods may be changing, but the allure of an establishment candidate there is still pretty strong—it happened to be Bowser’s strongest ward as well, where she crushed White by 5,300 votes.

That’s a difficult dynamic for any left-leaning, citywide candidate to ever overcome, which is certainly the next frontier for progressive organizers after they notched more ward-level wins this cycle. Lazere suspects it may well require a run in an open seat, without an “entrenched incumbent,” for any lefty candidate to get over the hump.

“There were just so many good candidates this cycle that it was hard for progressive volunteers to line up behind one person,” Lazere says. “But if there’s a strong candidate in the right moment, I imagine the progressive groups would recognize it and try to increase that volunteer base even more.”

Mendelson has his doubts about that narrative. He acknowledges that there is concern in the city that “the government has not been as strong on public safety as it needs to be” and sees that as a big part of the reason voters backed challengers in the citywide races. But he is less confident there is any broad mandate for change.

Palmer is much more hopeful. She doesn’t expect she’ll mount another run for office herself anytime soon. She was forced to quit her job as a federal ethics lawyer, and the campaign placed a lot of stress “financially and on my family.” But she does see a path forward for another candidate to pick up where she left off.

“I think there’s a lot of room for building across lines,” Palmer says. “I pulled in people who support Bowser, even some agency workers, because I was making an argument about government needing to work better. It doesn’t have to be based on political ideology. It’s more of a public service mentality.”