As Ed Lazere sat on his porch swing outside of his Brookland home in Northeast Washington last week, he imagined how the Council of the District of Columbia would be different if its chairperson exerted more influence on the body.
“I haven’t seen our leaders rise to the challenge,” said Lazere, the longtime head of a progressive think tank.
He said he is challenging two-term incumbent chair Phil Mendelson, 65, in the Democratic primary on June 19 because Mendelson isn’t doing enough to advocate for better pay for lower income workers, affordable housing and more accountability from developers. This is Lazere’s first bid for elective office.
The 53-year-old, who is Jewish, spent 17 years advocating for the poor and the middle class as the executive director of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. He has taken a leave of absence while seeking public office.
Lazere is an intellectual with a calm demeanor, but he has no trouble criticizing Mendelson’s management style or policies.
“He’s talked about the role of the chair as managing the 13 members of the council,” Lazere said of Mendelson. “I see it as a leadership position and a bully pulpit that has influence on public policy.”
Mendelson did not respond to requests for comment.
Lazere pointed out that Mendelson had tried to change a paid family leave law that was passed in late 2016, giving private-sector workers eight weeks of paid time off and paying for it by increasing the employer payroll tax. Mendelson last year proposed paying for the program either by requiring employees to pay for benefits, giving tax breaks to some businesses or hiring a private contractor. But he walked back from those ideas at a Feb. 6 debate with Lazere, according to The Washington Post.
“The current chair of the council has singlehandedly prevented [paid family leave] from being implemented so that other bills could be considered that would repeal and replace a really strong law with one that was much worse for workers,” Lazere said.
“And recently he announced he wasn’t going to pursue those bills. And he announced that after I announced my campaign.”
Although Lazere took credit for Mendelson’s change of heart on paid family leave, Mendelson told The Post after that debate that his negotiations with council members had “collapsed,” and that he was “tired of talking about it.”
Another area where Lazere thinks he can leverage his weight as chair is on economic development, which he said is being mishandled. His Exhibit A is the newly opened District Wharf on the Washington Channel, on which the city spent $198 million in subsidies. The total cost of the project to the developer was $2.5 billion.
“Too often we’ve been giving subsidies to developers without asking for anything in return,” he said. “The Wharf is a great example. “It’s a wonderful place to visit and yet the jobs created there were around $15 an hour with no benefits because they didn’t require the employers to do anything around benefits.”
Lazere said he also wants to use the chair position to pass rent control measures while also increasing funding in the budget for affordable housing.
“We have to treat affordable housing as a core part of what the city does,” he said. “Even though the city is committed, it’s just 3 percent of the city’s budget. I don’t think anybody out there would say housing is 3 percent of the city’s problems. It’s way higher than that.”
Lazere said a key sign of a lack of affordable housing can be seen in neighborhoods along the Metro Green Line such as Petworth and Columbia Heights, which he said have become gentrified. There, the problems stem from economic development in the wrong places, spurred by the Green Line, he said.
“We should have anticipated those problems and jumped ahead by preserving the affordable housing in those neighborhoods,” he said. “We need to anticipate where development is occurring and then go to those areas to preserve the affordable housing that we have.”
Married and the father of two grown sons, Lazere is a member of Temple Micah in Washington. He has served on the Reform congregation’s board of directors and volunteered with Micah House — a nonprofit founded by the congregation that provides transitional housing for homeless women recovering from substance abuse.
“He’s an amazingly devoted, wonderful person,” said Rabbi Daniel Zemel. “He’s been a wonderful leader of Temple Micah and he cares deeply about the lived ethical Jewish life.”
Lazere is also a baker, and said he makes a “mean carrot cake” every year to submit in the congregation’s annual auction. Zemel confirmed the quality of Lazere’s baking.
“Sometimes carrot cake can have too much of a citrus taste,” Zemel said. “His has just the right sweetness and the best cream cheese frosting.”
Lazere said he sees a possible position on the council as a continuation of his advocacy work at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. But the chairmanship is even more important because a chair’s leadership style determines the outcome of legislation.
“It’s just one vote, but it’s an influential vote,” he said, “because this is a matter of principle that I think a lot of D.C. residents care about.”