Mayor Muriel Bowser and Chairman Phil Mendelson both hold a single umbrella while having a discussion.
Mayor Muriel Bowser and Council Chair Phil Mendelson. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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The squabbling between Mayor Muriel Bowser and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson over the artist formerly known as the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs has now stretched into its sixth day, for anyone counting at home.

The spat started late Friday afternoon, when Bowser announced her nominations for the directors of the two new agencies to rise from DCRA’s ashes: She picked Ernest Chrappah, DCRA’s former director, to run the new Department of Buildings and his longtime deputy, Shirley Kwan-Hui, to run the Department of Licensing and Consumer Protection. Mendelson did not waste time expressing his displeasure about Chrappah’s appointment, in particular, saying it amounts to “simply moving over the head of the department’s dysfunctional predecessor-agency” and could be a wasted chance to address the city’s long-running issues with building inspections and construction permitting.

“The mayor has been neither supportive nor collaborative in this process,” Mendelson wrote. “She vetoed the legislation to create a Department of Buildings. Then she underfunded the new agency. Indeed, the Council had to add 41 inspectors to the agency’s budget. Now, without any collaboration, she’s announced keeping the old leadership…I am disappointed.”

DCRA’s problems have become a personal bugaboo for Mendelson over the past few years, so it wasn’t exactly surprising to see him hammering Bowser on the issue. But it was a bit more eyebrow-raising to see the typically reserved mayor respond quite so sharply (and publicly) when reporters asked her about it following an unrelated press event Monday.

“I don’t expect that anybody thought that I was going to fire a director who has run through hoops to make sure that we create two agencies in 90 days,” Bowser said. “I wasn’t going to do that.”

Bowser’s aides then started to usher her away, but when another reporter asked if she expected to face Council pushback for her nominations, she couldn’t resist another jab.

“I make nominations, and the Council approves them or not,” Bowser said. “I do think, however, if … the real reason to split up an agency was that you don’t like the director. Wow.”

Bowser hustled away after that. And when Loose Lips tweeted about her answer, Mendelson took note.

“It’s ridiculous,” he said in an interview Tuesday after calling up LL, unprompted. “Her comments were shocking. It’s ridiculous to think that the way we get at a director we don’t like is to require a reorganization of an agency.”

Recent COVID-19 diagnosis notwithstanding, Mendelson was fired up, recounting the years-long legislative fight required to split up DCRA and his view that “the breaking up of the agency has to do with the agency being too large and off the rails for over 30 years.” Clearly, Bowser touched a nerve.

It’s not exactly breaking news that these two have disagreements. Their heated arguments are the stuff of legend in the Wilson Building. Politicos may recall their joint proclamations from a few weeks ago that an Axios article describing their differences was “much ado about nothing.” But given their recent, and persistent, public disagreements, LL thinks both sides are protesting a bit too much. This seems like more evidence that, despite their ideological similarities, their relationship remains fraught.

Yet, intriguing as this all might be for political gossips, the more interesting question to examine is what it all means for Chrappah’s nomination (and the new department’s future). The Council may bluster, but it is rare for lawmakers to reject one of the mayor’s agency appointees.

Much like a president picking their cabinet, the general thinking is that the mayor should get to choose their own team, minus any serious questions about a nominee’s background. In this case, the complaints about Chrappah aren’t personal (he generally got high marks for his time in government, first managing the Department of For Hire Vehicles and then DCRA) but rather about DCRA’s culture. Many advocates and lawmakers felt the agency lacked focus and a clear sense of mission when it came to managing housing and construction safety inspections (hence, the establishment of a separate Department of Buildings to handle these matters).

Chrappah offered some positive changes around the margins, but most feel he failed to deliver a major sea change in his tenure, and Mendelson expects it would be easiest to achieve a “new, fresh start” for the DOB with someone else at the helm. And, while he hasn’t polled the full Council yet to see if there might be a majority willing to block the nomination, he said several councilmembers have already called him to express their “surprise” and “disappointment” that Bowser would simply shuffle Chrappah over to the new agency.

“She just didn’t talk to anybody” before announcing the nomination, Mendelson says, noting that the mayor didn’t raise the issue with him during their last several conversations in recent weeks. “That’s why it was shocking to hear her say we were just trying to fire the director by breaking up the agency. It’s like she kind of missed our point,” he says.

Some of Mendelson’s Twitter critics (of which there are many) argue he probably should’ve realized that the fiercely loyal Bowser wouldn’t kick Chrappah to the curb so easily, and their point is well taken—rumors circulated for weeks that she could appoint Chrappah to lead both agencies on an interim basis when the Oct. 1 deadline to split DCRA arrived. But Mendelson now has his chance to prove he’s serious about a clean slate for the DOB, should he rally opposition to Chrappah and force Bowser back to the drawing board.

If the chairman attempts to oust Chrappah, it’s unlikely to lower the temperature in this internecine fight with the mayor. Look no further than some Friday posts from John Falcicchio (Bowser’s chief of staff, deputy mayor for planning and economic development, and sub-tweeter-in-chief) for a taste of the debate to come.

“The last director of the legacy agency strived to innovate,” Falcicchio wrote, without naming names. “He’s a problems solver who hasn’t been around since the economic boom started at the turn of the century, but you know who has been around that long…”