ANYONE who has been around the John A. Wilson Building in downtown Washington, DC for the past decade has seen the face or heard the voice of Ed Lazere, executive director of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. The organization is, according to government documents, registered as a lobbying group. That means it frequently and systematically seeks to impact the outcome of legislative and budget proposals before the mayor and the DC Council.
Now Lazere, who arguably has been DCFPI chief lobbyist, has decided to jump into local electoral politics. He reportedly has taken a leave of absence from his job to challenge incumbent D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson for the Democratic nomination in the June 19 primary election.
If any other lobbyist were to be so bold as to seek public office as Lazere is doing, you can be sure the media and others would be screaming bloody murder. Adding to this, as TBR reported, Lazere has tapped his compatriots in the nonprofit community, some with whom he collaborated to push through passage of a variety of laws, including public campaign financing.
Ironically, one of his prime supporters, according to government documents, is Kitty Richards who was a chief of staff for At-large Council member Elissa Silverman. Silverman once worked for DCFPI. Richards made a $1500 contribution to Lazere’s campaign on January 31, 2018--a mere nine days after she assume his post and became acting executive director of DCFPI. Adding to this kind of political incest, Richards testified on March 7 before Silverman’s committee praising Universal Paid Leave, an effort on which she and Silverman worked and that has been advocated by DCPFI.
None of that may be illegal, but it certainly stinks. Understandably, it has caused some people to raise concerns about how Lazere might handle his job if elected chairman.
Since 2001, Lazere and his team of numbers crunchers and policy analysts have argued in various ways that upper-income folks in the District have prevented poor and working-class residents from being well-served by the District government. Lazere’s politics have placed him squarely in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party—far left of Mendelson yet within the same camp as At Large Council members David Grosso and Silverman. The ultra-liberal Working Families party is backing Lazere’s candidacy.
“I think the electorate is more centrist than where Ed is,” said one government insider who requested anonymity.
Undoubtedly, Lazere and his supporters are hoping that by taking control of the chairman’s seat, they can strengthen the progressive bloc on the council. They are engaged in the same kind of battle we saw played out in 2016 a la Sen. Bernie Sanders versus former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Republicans are engaged in their own ideological fight—establishment versus Tea Partyers.
Truth be told, however, the council, under Mendelson’s leadership, has been attentive and responsive to so-called progressives, including Lazere. When he and his nonprofit compatriots have decried the state of homeless services, council members set aside more funds and passed a new law that would provide modernized apartment-style shelters for families. When Lazere complained about insufficient affordable housing, the executive and legislative branches increased the budget for the Housing Production Trust Fund. When he and others argued that local tax cuts wouldn’t benefit low-income residents, Mendelson ensured that the voice of the working-class be represented on the Tax Review Commission; doubling down on its commitment, Lazere was appointed to the commission.
Moreover, the numbers prove the District hasn’t been stingy with its most vulnerable residents. According to The Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for 2017, which is prepared in part by independent auditors, the District spent $4 billion of its $7.6 billion in local funds on public education and human support services. It spent another $2.6 billion in federal funds.
So, what has prompted Lazere to come after the top spot on the council? Why has he decided to bite the hand that is technically feeding him and his constituents?
“I am running because I care about good budgets and good policies that reduce racial and economic disparities. I have a clear message and will take bold action,” explained Lazere to TBR during a recent interview, in which he offered revolving door of reasons for his candidacy. He noted that the chairman’s seat isn’t like any other on the council. It can be a “bully pulpit with substantial impact on the budget.”
Moreover, said Lazere, “I can work faster on issues that DC residents care about.” As an example, he accused Mendelson of “holding up paid family leave” in the interest of the business community. “Now that I am in the race he has dropped his opposition and it is going forward.”
To be fair, Mendelson had promised to look at alternative financing for the law, which could cost the District government as much as $80 million to administer and enforce. He pledged that despite his willingness to review other funding mechanisms, he would not block the implementation of family leave.
Lazere's attack and presence in the race haven’t prompted Mendelson to call him a traitor. “I do not feel betrayed,” he told TBR. “Any politician worth his salt welcomes competition in an election. It makes for a better campaign.” Mendelson declined to comment on ethics issues raised about Lazere by others TBR spoke with for this series of articles.
Mendelson defended his record on issues of importance to poor and working-class residents, however. “Anybody who knows me, knows I was progressive before progressive was cool.”
Nevertheless, Lazere has accused the council under Mendelson of not spending enough on affordable housing, even as Lazere admitted that the city may be spending a record amount. “That’s only 3 percent of the budget,” he argued. He said more must be done to meet the challenge of gentrification. It’s hard to understand what he expects from the legislative branch when the council has been strengthening the city’s rent control laws to help preserve low-cost housing and it is entertaining a proposal that would provide higher low-cost loans to families hoping to purchase single family homes in the city.
The spend, spend, spend mantra on which Lazere has placed his imprimatur has many people worried that with him as head of the council, the District could find itself in 1995; that was the year Congress appointed a financial control board to oversee the city’s affairs.
“I am pretty prudent about finances-- my own and the city,” said Lazere in his defense. However, he wasn’t shy about driving home the point that District officials are sitting on a wad of cash and budget reserves that should be used to alleviate suffering by some residents.
“[The City] has generated surplus after surplus. Instead of reinvesting in the homeless, it has been putting money in the bank and it’s just sitting there,” continued Lazere, dismissing officials’ assertions that by congressional mandate they must maintain those accounts, which also are helpful in reducing the city’s short-term borrowing. “Do you who what we spend on short term borrowing? It’s under 1 million.”
Lazere doesn’t seem to be factoring it the Mad Hatter in the White House or myriad policy proposals by him and the Republican Congress that could lay massive financial burdens on the District. Everything from health care, to public housing and the eventual loss of revenue because of federally created tax cuts, suggest the local government should be careful with its finances. DC’s lean years of the 1980s and 1990s are outside the realm of Lazere’s direct experiences, which may be why he can’t understand the pragmatic politics and management being advanced by the council and other local leaders.
People may love Lazere’s passion, the righteous indignation he sometimes displays within his wonky approach; but those virtues aren’t necessarily going to win him the election. Bernard Demczuk, a respected presence in the District’s political life, has accurately predicted outcomes of many local races--although he is not a trained pollster He argued that it’s all uphill for Lazere. “Ed is a very good person who provides a service through critical analyses. He’s quite valuable. But there is no way he can beat Phil Mendelson.
“Phil continues to be the highest vote getter in the city. He continues to be popular east of the river,” said Demczuk. “Phil is fair; he’s accessible, and he’s open minded. There is no reason to get rid of Phil.”
That is the opinion the District's electorate has had of Mendelson since he won his first race in 1998 and each subsequent election thereafter. In 2014, when he ran for his first full-term as chairman, he won 81.20 percent or 69, 139 of the votes cast in the April primary. Neither Muriel Bowser nor Vincent Gray garnered more votes. Bowser won 42,095 and Vincent Gray 31,613 in that primary.
Still, there are some voters who have said they are willing to give Lazere a chance. “I’m interested in hearing them both out,” said civic activist and Ward 1 resident Terry Lynch. “I’m not a fan of the current chairman because he’s been too slow to act. And he has sat on his hands when we’ve had money in the bank.
“Ed has the energy and the desire to dive into issues. Phil seems tired,” continued Lynch, who nonetheless was baffled by Lazere’s decision to run. “[Ed’s] a numbers guy. I’m a little surprise that he didn’t do a poll before jumping into this race. What’s the path to victory? How do you break out of that base? The white progressive base won’t help him win citywide. He’s got to give people a reason to vote."
“Honestly,” said Lazere, “I am hoping I can get support from across the city.”
Lazere may very well peel away some of Mendelson’s support in predominantly white communities. But the overall assessment is that Lazere may have a difficult time breaking through in Wards 4, 5, 7 and 8, where African Americans continue to represent a significant part of the electorate and continue to lean toward Mendelson.
Ward 7 civic leader Greg Rhett wasn’t very impressed when Lazere faced off with Mendelson during a meeting of the Ward 7 Democrats earlier this month. Rhett said he was a lead member of the panel that questioned the candidates, and that he also went to see Lazere at a civic association meeting because “I didn’t know him.
“[Lazere’s] not real clear on the role of the city council or the legislative body. He’s even more unclear as to what the role of the chairman of the city council is. He doesn’t understand what it takes to get legislation through, like how do you whip the seven votes. He could not speak to regional issues,” continued Rhett. “Plus, anyone trying to run to the left of Phil Mendelson, well that’s a stretch.”
Rhett told TBR that at one point in the discussion at the Ward 7 Dems meeting, someone asked what Lazere would do about policing in the black community and he essentially said ‘I’m married to a black woman and I have two sons and they’re black. So, clearly, I understand what you’re talking about. I looked around the room at the black women after he said that, and I don’t think it went over well.
“Just let that marinade for a minute,” said Rhett.
That could be ignorance or arrogance. Ward 3 resident and political operative Tom Lindenfeld offered that Lazere’s arrogance may be his biggest hurdle. Lindenfeld recalled the 2006 at-large council race where Mendelson faced A. Scott Bolden, a smart lawyer who had been chairman of the DC Democratic Party Committee. Arrogance is what led to Mendelson “smoking Bolden,” said Lindenfeld.
“Arrogance is not something that wears well in politics. When paired up against arrogance, Mendelson will win every time. The only thing Ed Lazere seems to represent is a lecturing- preppy- academic- style that wouldn’t seem to have much appeal with a DC electorate,” continued Lindenfeld.
While Lazere may be interested in advancing the progressive cause, Lindenfeld said, “He has the potential of moving the movement backward.”
We’ll have to wait for June 19th to know whether Lazere proved Lindenfeld and others wrong.