Progressive Stalwart Ed Lazere Takes On The Original Progressive Stalwart

By Jeffrey Anderson | Photographs by Andy DelGiudice

Ed Lazere was 20-years-old when he first faced the ravages of social and economic inequality. It was the 1980s, and he had just moved to D.C. and was looking to make a difference as an after-school tutor of middle schoolers in low-income communities.

“That was it,” he says of his first day with Higher Achievement, a group that had him working at St. Augustine Catholic School, near 14th and V Street NW. “I walked by someone who was passed out, slumped over a garbage can. I went to the corner store to buy a soda and had my first experience with plexiglass.”

Three decades later, Lazere is a respected fiscal policy analyst and is running for D.C. Council Chairman as a progressive who has devoted his career to eradicating such poverty. A political novice, his challenge to the popular and wily Phil Mendelson is somewhat of a surprise to even those who know him well.

But where some are befuddled by his foray, Lazere says he is fighting for the same principles he has always stood up for as executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank. Taking on Mendelson, one of the city’s original progressive leaders, makes perfect sense to Lazere, who already has prompted the incumbent to declare himself “progressive before progressive was cool.”

“I suppose it’s a candidacy of values,” says Lazere, a married father of two, during a recent interview with District Dig at his Brookland home. “As a prosperous city we have the capacity to expand that prosperity to people who need it most. We’ve seen revenues continue to grow, and there’s a clear sense of the problems that need to be fixed, but we’ve seen business as usual from the Mayor and the Council.”

Politicians’ talking points about homelessness, lack of affordable housing and educational disparity are easy to come by, but Lazere wants action. “It bothers me that we’re not living up to our values as a progressive city. We’re not seeing [city leaders] respond with enough urgency to the exponential pace of gentrification. Whether it’s intentional or not, I think our leaders are watching people get pushed out of the city, and that’s wrong.”

Lazere’s own talking points are music to the ears of progressives who feel Mendelson has become too transactional, too steeped in compromise—a consensus-builder at the helm of what some see as a tempermental 13-member body that lacks a coherent mission or true leader.

Colleagues say he is both passionate about lifting up poor and minority communities and pragmatic about the tradeoffs required to reconcile differences between D.C.’s advocacy and business communities. “I’d say he’s an idealist who is focused on equity issues that affect the most vulnerable communities in the city, but who also feels that deals are possible in order to get things done,” says a tax policy analyst whose organization would not authorize her to speak openly.

“I would describe him as passionate yet realistic,” says another fiscal policy expert who has known Lazere for 20 years. “He’s a pragmatic idealist, or a realistic idealist. He’s not looking for an ideological scheme for answers. He looks at facts and policies he thinks will work. He’s not starry-eyed and he does his homework.”  

“Heckuva nice guy,” says David Brunori, a Virginia lawyer and educator who served with Lazere on the D.C. Tax Revision Commission. “He’s pretty committed to his beliefs, which I admire. I just happen to not agree with his fiscal policy ideas. He’s a true believer, which is atypical for a politician, and he believes state and local governments can redistribute wealth. He has opposed every tax cut since the beginning of time, and has faith that government has a role to play in making society better. But he needs money to do that, and he’s gonna take it from you and me.”

Whereas Mendelson once was the darling of the left, a reliable lone vote on losing causes and a champion of LGBT rights, reform of police practices and the environment, progressives have since steered towards issues such as income disparity, school achievement gaps and housing for the shrinking middle class. In this context, Mendelson has shown himself to be more of a fiscal moderate. A glance at his campaign finance records shows him to be the establishment choice for the second most important elected office in the city. The Mendelson campaign declined to comment for this story.

Now it is Lazere who has chosen pure progressivism as the hill he is prepared to die on. And a steep hill it is: “I chose to run because I thought I could win, recognizing that taking on an incumbent is always a challenge,” he says. “That said, I’m excited there is a debate of ideas, and it is being framed in terms of, who is going to be the city’s progressive leader on the Council. And when the debate is focused on that I think I am the hands down winner, the progressive candidate who has the ability to move on issues such as [housing] affordability and schools.” (Lazere has collected endorsements from D.C. For Democracy, Jews United For Justice Campaign Fund, Democracy For America, and the D.C. Chapter of National Organization For Women.)

Campaign experts are not convinced Lazere’s progressive bona fides are enough to distinguish him from Mendelson. “He’s a policy guy,” says veteran D.C. political advisor Tom Lindenfeld, who advised Mayor Muriel Bowser in her 2014 Democratic Primary victory, and the successful campaigns of former mayors Anthony Williams and Adrian Fenty. “But politics is not about policy. It’s about connection to people. [Lazere] would not seem to be someone who makes that connection. Quite frankly, Phil [Mendelson] does. With his policy depth and common touch he makes the policy guy irrelevant. You think you’re gonna out-policy Phil? You’re not. And if you don’t got that you got nothing.”

To Lindenfeld, who considers Mendelson a friend but has never worked for him, Lazere might have good ideas, but he lacks a clear message. “What is effective in politics is to be contrasting, compelling and concise in your message. I’m having a hard time seeing any of that.”

So who is Ed Lazere, and how would he bring a divided city together and accelerate the pace of progressive change? A pair of visits by The Dig to Lazere’s home provided a picture of a family man who loves his city and his community and who has a sense of humor to leaven his earnestness.

A sign on the porch extends a warm message of inclusivity to the neighborhood in English, Spanish and Arabic. Inside, the house is cozy, with family photos crowding the walls and fireplace mantle, and musical instruments and board games at ready disposal. Among the items attached to the fridge is a primer on the differences between “geeks,” “nerds” and “dorks,” and a magnet with Frank Zappa’s face that has provocative a quote about education. “My brothers and I were into him,” Lazere offers.

Lazere has a unique personal story as far as D.C. politicians go. He grew up one of four children in a Jewish family in Sioux City, Iowa. His father ran a kosher bakery and his mother was a social worker who earned her master’s degree and later had her own practice. “I think I inherited a knack for numbers from my father and compassion for the less fortunate from my mother,” says Lazere. “There was an emphasis on social values, fairness, opportunity and inclusion.”

His parents encouraged him to go out and experience the world, and so Lazere went east for college, to Harvard University. “It happens every couple of years or so,” he says of the infrequent admission of a kid from Sioux City to such an elite institution.

His first job out of college was as a tutor with Higher Achievement. “It was an awesome first time experience working in a low-income community and shattering all the stereotypes you might have. Working with kids was so exciting. They were as nice, funny, creative, curious and talented as kids I grew up with, which in retrospect is no surprise. It was eye opening [at the time] to see parents who cared as much as the parents I grew up with, but without the resources others may have. I still carry those children with me today.”

Lazere stayed with the organization for several years, but he realized he wanted to use his math skills to focus on economic and racial inequality. “I felt empowered to use data to tell stories about what’s happening in this country and to develop policy solutions.” In 1988, he went to work for the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, which created a network of over 40 independent nonprofits and eventually the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. “I begged people to work with that entity.” (Lazere left his position as executive director of DCFPI to run for office. Under his stewardship, its budget grew to more than $1 million.)

He and his wife Suzanne met while studying at Harvard, and the couple married in 1990. They have two adult sons, one who graduated from Swarthmore College and works with a nonprofit in D.C., and one who attends Oberlin College.

Lazere says it is not widely known that he and his wife are a mixed-race couple. “It’s not something that you go around talking about,” he says. Sure, his wife had “The Conversation” with their sons as they came of age, and in his work he is frequently talking about economic and racial inequality in black and brown communities, but he says it would be inappropriate to claim he knows what the black experience is like. “The photo on my campaign literature hopefully helps people understand that I fell in love 30 years ago with a black woman and raised two black children.”

Friends describe Lazere as a kind person who sees the best in others and who is civically engaged outside his professional life. (He also makes a mean carrot cake.) Up until he announced his candidacy, he served as president on the board of his synagogue. He was a foster parent for a time, and he remained active as a scout leader of the child’s troop, even after the child was reunited with his mother and Lazere’s own children aged out of the scouts.

Some see Lazere’s decision to run against Mendelson as a dutiful act of a different nature. Says Lindenfeld: “He saw the Council getting more progressive and he wants to continue that agenda and give it more public appreciation. He saw no one else available [to challenge Phil] and decided to do it himself. But I don’t think he understands politics, and he may end up doing more to harm his cause than good.”

Others tell The Dig that naiveté and idealistic energy are not necessarily a detriment in a city that still is divided along economic and racial lines. Increased wages for tipped restaurant workers, income equality for women and paid family leave for all employees are no longer seen as pie-in-the-sky objectives. Declaring war on gentrification and economic inequality is a badge of honor.  

Mendelson on the other hand is being cast as a creature of government who has stopped taking those lone votes and who has become too deliberative in the face of rapid gentrification. One labor advocate notes that Lazere’s candidacy already seems to have caused Mendelson to relent on tinkering with the Paid Family Leave Act that progressives fought so hard to pass last year. “If Ed was chair, people would be more willing to take risks,” the advocate says. “People are not willing to challenge Phil. Ed is not an ideologue, but he believes we have to move faster with our social programs. It’s hard to see him as a politician, but if you agree with him there’s some excitement to his candidacy.”   

Realistically, however, there’s a big difference between advocating big ideas, and making big things happen. Business consultant Barbara Lang, former president of the Chamber of Commerce, disagrees with Lazere on just about every position he takes, but she understands what comes with power and responsibility. “When you are leader of the pack your role becomes different. You’ve got to lead the naysayers, deal with the lobbyists and do what’s best for the city. Ed doesn’t have a balanced view. And the leopard doesn’t change his spots.”

At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, one of the Council’s most progressive members who worked for Lazere at DCFPI, defends her former mentor: “The business community has an unfair caricature of Ed.” Asked to respond to that caricature, Lazere says his views have broadened over the years.

“When I started as a public policy researcher you crunched the numbers and came up with a recommendation. I thought that’s a key to good public policy. But I’ve learned much more about the need to engage a wider range of stakeholders and not just to convince them you’re right, but to understand what matters to them, and to see where their interests and your interests are aligned so that you can work together.”

It’s hard to say if Lazere’s policy victories are the result of compromise, strategy or sheer force of will. Rescued tax cuts of yesteryear for low and middle income families and more recently an extension of time limits for families on cash assistance are wins that might have called for a combination of all three.

As Council chair, he likely would spend less time advocating and more time negotiating. In assessing the Bowser administration, he provides a glimpse of what Council Chair Lazere might sound like. “She came in promising to close D.C. General and made steps to accommodate homeless families across the city. It wasn’t an easy thing for her to do politically but she did it anyway. I admire her for proposing an end to homelessness, adopting it and embracing it. I admire her commitment to pay for affordable housing. She has stuck with that commitment, but the reality is you could double it and it still wouldn’t be enough. Homeless challenges and affordable housing challenges are so great we have to move to the next level.”

Perhaps what makes Lazere’s campaign a compelling one is his willingness to take the fight to Mendelson in terms the chairman knows all too well. “I’m running to show that you can have a strong economy and still have equity, that we don’t have to accept that the only way to have the economy grow is to [leave some behind]. That’s what is drawing progressive voters. You can have both. When you raise the minimum wage, people have more money in their pocket and they spend it on local businesses, and families are more stable so their children do better in school. A strong economy leads to strong communities.”

And he’s not afraid to call Mendelson out as having drifted away from progressive ideals. “I spent a lot of time in 2017 trying to prevent 10,000 children on cash assistance from being cut off from those benefits and thrust into deep poverty, an issue that Mr. Mendelson didn’t show a lot of deep passion about. Meanwhile he spent much of 2017 trying to protect a tax cut for people with a $5 million estate. I think that’s a pretty clear difference in priorities and values. I worked hard to help pass the family medical leave program and he spent a lot of time undermining it in ways that would make it more complicated for workers and businesses. That was in response to big business lobbies, and I would not have done that.”

But perhaps his most provocative goal is to redefine the role of Council chair. “In his own campaign literature Mr. Mendelson talks about managing the council and working to get consensus votes and I don’t think that’s the role of the chair. I think the chair should be staking out a vision for big ideas on things like housing and schools, not supporting things that are probably worked out behind closed doors. I’d allow the public to have a more vigorous debate on what’s best for the city, democracy and D.C. residents.”

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