Phil Mendelson chairs the D.C. Council with an even hand. Is that enough in a new era of progressivism?
By Jeffrey Anderson | Photographs by Andy DelGiudice
Phil Mendelson is fiery at the moment. Or so says his campaign manager, following a recent appearance at a public forum on D.C.’s tipped minimum wage initiative at Black Cat, where he reportedly stormed in late and stole the show. “He dropped the mic, literally” says Eric Rogers, embellishing Mendelson’s ornery opposition to Initiative 77.
A liberal stalwart with 20 years on the D.C. Council, Mendelson was thrust into chairmanship in June 2012 after his predecessor resigned in a bank fraud scandal. He was elected that November, and again in 2014, punctuating a 40-year career as a public servant.
Although it seemed like an unlikely role for the punctilious, mild-mannered Mendelson, he has since become comfortable at the center of the dais, forging a reputation as a pragmatic steward of decorum and legislative process that critics find to be overly transactional at times.
“I’m Phil Mendelson, and I was progressive before progressive was cool,” is his campaign mantra, crafted by Rogers. It’s a signal to voters that despite his willingness in recent years to seek compromise on initiatives and issues held sacred by the left, Mendelson, often referred to as “Mendo,” is still one of them.
The genesis of the slogan is simple: His opponent, Ed Lazere, former executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, is running as more of a doctrinaire progressive. Lazere wants to attack the city’s widening racial poverty gap with tax hikes and deep investments in social services and affordable housing, an approach that can alienate the business community.
This irks Mendelson, who seems offended by not only being challenged at this stage of his career but by someone whom he once might have seen as a fellow traveler. This, at a time when the Council is moving further to the left.
The political shift has forced Mendelson to balance some of his colleagues’ ideas—many of them borne of national policy movements—with the corporate interests that drive D.C.’s robust economy. “Left of the left,” he says, somewhat derisively, of the Council’s new brand of progressivism.
If it weren’t for Lazere, a formidable debater and astute policy expert, Mendelson might be coasting to a second consecutive term. “He’s good on the budget, he gets around the city, he’s affable,” says William Lightfoot, a former Council member who chairs Mayor Muriel Bowser’s re-election campaign. “He connects with his constituents, he runs the business of the Council, he has no real enemies…Is he running a sophisticated campaign? Hell no. Is it good enough to win? Yes.”
Yet there’s some legitimacy to a challenge from Mendelson’s left flank. Lazere claims that Mendelson has shed his principles for the sake of efficacy. At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, a leader of the Council’s progressive wing, credits Mendelson for a legacy of championing social issues, but says the question is not who is more progressive, but who has the vision and leadership to tackle racial inequity.
“How do we close the achievement gap?” she says. “I’m not so sure Phil’s invested as much time on that. Will he? I don’t know.”
“Phil has not been the kind of guy who articulates a grand vision,” adds Lightfoot. “He’s adept at articulating policy, but he may actually be more of a policy wonk than Lazere.”
Silverman notes that Mendelson has a tendency to “get down in the weeds” on policy issues. That’s not to say he doesn’t get things done. In fact, he prides himself on balancing competing interests while guiding contentious legislation to passage—even when his deliberations irritate colleagues and his traditional base. “He helped move paid family leave,” says Silverman of one of a trio of labor-friendly bills introduced in 2017, “but for some reason stalled it for a year.”
By any measure, Mendelson has been an effective legislator. He claims credit for the minimum wage increase to $15 per hour, and authorship of the District’s Universal Paid Leave Law as among his top achievements in recent years. Through the budget process he says he won an income tax cut that benefits most residents, and reduced property taxes for low-income homeowners. He strengthened the city’s gun laws, has advocated for marriage equality and has a firm grasp of transportation and environmental issues.
Mendelson doesn’t achieve his goals by twisting arms. He leads by consensus, which requires patience and the willingness to compromise—intangibles his opponent has not had a chance to demonstrate. “Phil might be less ambitious than a fresh-eyed person who hasn’t had to deal with obstacles,” Silverman says. “But the question becomes one of leadership, and whether you want an insider or an outsider.”
If Lazere has gotten under Mendelson’s skin, you have to look and listen closely to find the signs. Sitting down for an interview with District Dig last week at a hotel across from the Wilson Building, he rests his arm casually on the back of a chair occupied by Ana Harvey, his companion (and life manager), and the former director of the Department of Small and Local Business Development, as Rogers looks on.
Neatly attired in a light gray pinstripe summer suit, his signature mustache trimmed just so, Mendelson projects an air of impatience bordering on dismissiveness. Come with a badly worded question or comment, and he is likely to correct you or tell you what you meant to ask.
Rogers’ depiction of his ‘fiery’ rock star moment at Black Cat prompts Mendelson to deny a literal mic drop. “No. But I guess when you start with ‘dull and boring’ it becomes ‘fiery.’ I don’t know.”
Then, he swats down The Dig’s suggestion that he treat the interview as a bar stool conversation in his native Cleveland. “Except I haven’t been in a Cleveland bar in a bunch of years…”
On matters of substance, one of the criticisms Mendelson has of the current progressive movement is that much of it is being sponsored by national organizations that see D.C. as a test lab or proving ground. Initiative 77, legalization of marijuana, universal paid leave, “These aren’t all bad ideas, but they are definitely being imported from out-of-state,” he says.
That’s not how the movement was when he started out, first as an advisory neighborhood commissioner, then as a Council staffer, followed by a lengthy stint as an at-large member of the Council. “When I was first elected I was arguably the most liberal member of the Council,” says Mendelson. “I was the environmental guy. I was labor’s guy. Sometimes I used the word progressive. But I think the meaning of the word has changed a bit. For some it has come to mean the left side of liberal.”
Mendelson concedes that becoming chairman affected his politics as well as his style of governance. “I would argue that in terms of progressive ideas, what’s changed there is that with experience I understand the pragmatics of getting something done. For example, on universal paid leave, I might have been more ideological in the past, but perhaps not as successful. I’ve learned to listen more to where members are, and make changes—that’s another word for compromises—to build support. So, yes, that’s an evolution, based on pragmatism.”
On other issues, Mendelson’s positions simply reflect his role as chairman. He cites D.C. United’s soccer stadium. “I campaigned against [it] because I thought there was a better site. I voted against [Nationals Park] because I did not like the idea of taxpayer-supported sports teams. But I got the soccer stadium through—with some changes, I might note—because my responsibilities as chairman were different. I’m less interested in scoring points based on ideology and more interested in getting things done, and pushing the envelope as far as we can, but in getting a result, rather than going up in flames.”
There are many shades along the political spectrum for Mendelson. “I don’t believe people are guilty of their own poverty. I believe the government has a responsibility to help those who are in poverty, but I’m not interested in just throwing money at a problem. I’m true to those values, but I think, ‘What is the best way to do that?’ And my thinking has evolved there. I’m more interested in getting at the causes and making a difference.”
Mendelson says his evolution should not be confused with conservative orthodoxy. He points to private sector contributions to access to justice initiatives. To Mendelson, crime is a function of poverty, and the best way to deal with poverty is through public education. “That wasn’t my thinking 10 years ago. My values haven’t changed, but my approach to those values has changed.”
Leveraging public dollars in the private sector is a prime example. “That’s really the best approach toward affordable housing,” he says. “The government can spend 100 percent on the dollar to build affordable housing. But the government can leverage, let’s say 20 cents on the dollar to get the private sector to build affordable housing, and we get more units.” In that sense, Mendelson says the District’s performance is spotty. He calls the Housing Production Trust Fund “the big enchilada” and says “No, we don’t get a good grade there.”
Likewise, he says implementation of the NEAR Act—Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results, which is intended to reduce violence—is “lackluster, I would give that a C.”
On education, Mendelson says he is “hugely dissatisfied.” The graduation rate scandal is just the tip of the iceberg, he says, promising better oversight by the Committee on Education, chaired by At-Large Member David Grosso, who has been seen as a defender of the status quo. “I’ve heard that accusation,” Mendelson says of the criticism.
Incremental progress is not enough, he says, promising more urgency in focusing on first grade education—“If we don’t change things now, we’re going to lose another generation”—and teacher and principal turnover. Asked if he is considering a change in leadership of the education committee, Mendelson says, somewhat ominously, “All I’m going to say on that is the Council is going to improve its oversight of public schools.” (Grosso declined to comment.)
Mendelson can express tempered dissatisfaction on almost any subject, usually defaulting to the notion that the city can do better. This invites a retort from critics that he’s been in charge of the Council for close to six years and should have to answer for the some of those shortcomings. Which goes back to the issue of vision, and leadership, two assets that some find lacking, even as Mendelson’s name has been floated as a potential mayoral candidate. In fact, even some who once were loyal to him tell The Dig that they are voting for Lazere.
“I’m not sure he’s being honest with himself, and I wonder if perhaps he can’t see himself in another roll,” says a former colleague, echoing the perception that Mendelson takes positions that he wouldn’t have taken 20 years ago. “He may have developed some executive skills, but he has been talked out of running for mayor and may be coasting at this point. Is he true to his values, or is the hold on power a factor in molding him into a guardian of the status quo? Is he even interested in developing a new generation of progressives?”
Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, a would-be Mendelson protege, is among the younger generation of lawmakers that might be seen as progressive. But like Mendelson, constituents who now view him as pragmatic can recall him in a previous role as a staffer to former Councilmember Tommy Wells, a die-hard liberal who now runs the Department of Energy and Environment.
On a number of occasions, The Dig has spotted Allen, who chairs the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary, conferring with Mendelson, who presided over that committee for years. “I’ve watched his transition to chairman,” Allen says. “It requires a different skill set. He takes the drama out of things but in a way that brings parties together toward a resolution. It’s much more than the proverbial herding of cats.”
To demonstrate leadership, Allen says, requires not just fighting the fight, but keeping the Council focused on a resolution. “It’s one thing to fight the fight and lose, but another to lead the Council towards a goal,” he says. “The result might not be what everyone wants, but in building consensus he has demonstrated that he’s willing to force a tough vote, even when he loses.”
Outside of the Wilson Building, Mendelson is well-known and well-liked, owing to his plainspoken geniality and polite attentiveness. Yet some of his supporters still identify him with function more than inspiration. “I think he’s doing a good job,” says Sandra Seegers, an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner in Ward 8. “He comes out to the ward, he assigns committees appropriately, he does oversight, he deals with issues while running the Council. And after all these years he hasn’t changed.
“He’s still mild-mannered Phil, getting the job done.”