The unlikely backbone of D.C. policies: Mendelson
With Trump in office, skill with procedural tactics even more critical
It was not the D.C. Council’s outspoken progressives who wrote the law that will soon establish some of the nation’s most generous parental-leave requirements.
And it wasn’t Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) who crafted the District’s plan to rebuild its homeless shelters or pushed for sweeping tax cuts as economic growth filled city coffers.
These and other far-reaching policies to come out of city hall in recent years had a less obvious architect: D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), whose growing clout is one of the most improbable subplots in the local politics of the nation’s capital.
In a city with a history of electing charismatic lawbreakers, Mendelson is an almost burlesque figure of bureaucratic officiousness, complete with Panama hat and a tidy mustache that predates the Carter administration.
A white environmentalist with a rasping Cleveland accent, he is an unlikely successor to the predominantly African American politicians who have shaped the District. When he joined the 13member council, his quixotic votes earned him the nickname “12-to-1 Phil.”
But Mendelson, 64, has defied the low expectations that have dogged him over three decades at the John A. Wilson Building. Watchful of his city’s political crosscurrents and fluent in the procedural tactics that mean the difference between legislative victory and defeat, he has gone from casting protest votes to marshaling veto-proof majorities.
Over time, he has unobtrusively left his mark in areas from gun control to school food. As chairman, he has presided over an era of increasing power for the council, a fractious and formerly scandalplagued body that now seems to be setting the city’s agenda.
Fans and critics alike see a charmed quality in his rise.
“I’ve often called him the Mr. Magoo of D.C. politics,” said political consultant Chuck Thies, who managed Mendelson’s 2002 primary campaign and worked for a candidate who ran against him, unsuccessfully, four years later. “Mr. Magoo — he’s blind, right? But he drives and he walks. No matter what Mr. Magoo does — step into traffic or off a building, has a conversation with a fire hydrant — things turn out all right.”
Yet it is not blind luck that drives Mendelson’s success, Thies said. “He’s certainly one of the hardest-working people in local politics. He has been since he got
involved, and that hasn’t changed,” he said. “No one knows the legislative process better.”
But some say Mendelson’s style is not suited to this moment of uncertainty for the District, which is facing aggressive interference from Republicans in Congress and the threat of billions in lost funding because of policies pushed by President Trump. The chairman’s mastery of policy minutiae is no substitute for bold leadership, critics say.
Mark Plotkin, a D.C. statehood activist and former political commentator for radio stations WTOP and WAMU, likened Mendelson to “an apparatchik from the Soviet era” who lacks a comprehensive vision for the District’s future.
“He has the soul of a staffer,” Plotkin said. “Phil just sort of seeps into the background and likes it that way. He’s not a leader. We need a leader, or a firebrand, not a legislative draftsman.”
Mendelson, who is divorced and has a 16-year-old daughter who lives with him part-time on Capitol Hill, appears to relish his role as a punctilious steward of the people’s business.
“I think most politicians don’t take the long view,” he said on a recent afternoon, steering his Ford Focus through downtown D.C. traffic after a visit to a senior center. “Only time will tell whether I do it right. But I think I’m respected for being thoughtful, and for having integrity and for being a moderating influence in government.”
Mendelson arrived at American University in 1970 from Cleveland Heights, Ohio, where his mother was a teacher and activist for nursing-home reform and his father owned a company that built water heaters.
In 1974, he moved into McLean Gardens, a World War II-era housing complex in Northwest Washington that was slated to be demolished and turned into an embassy compound. He was among the tenant activists who brokered a deal for residents to purchase their homes at discounted prices or take buyouts.
Jack Koczela, who was head of the McLean Gardens tenants’ association in the 1970s, said he would not have foreseen his rise as a power broker.
“I maybe would have thought he’d go the way of getting a job with the [District] CFO’s office or being clerk to the whole council. Maybe being clerk to a judge if he could find his way into law school,” said Koczela, now retired from a career in real estate and finance. “Would I have ever envisioned him in the role he’s in now? My answer would be no.”
To support his budding activism, Mendelson became an assistant curator at the museum of the National Rifle Association, then in the District.
While caring for antique percussion pistols and former president Theodore Roosevelt’s hunting rifles, he was temporarily enrolled as a member of the gun rights group — an odd distinction for the man who would go on to write some of the nation’s strictest gun laws.
“It was interesting,” said Mendelson, who has never owned a gun. “I remember meeting Teddy Roosevelt’s son.”
After the tenants’ victory at McLean Gardens, Mendelson stayed active with groups agitating against real estate development in Northwest Washington. In 1987, he was arrested for using his body to block construction of an access road through a wooded area to an office building on Wisconsin Avenue NW.
Two years later, he was hired by former Ward 3 council member Jim Nathanson. He would stay in government, later joining the staff of former council chairman David A. Clarke until he won an at-large seat on the council in 1998. In a field of 10 Democratic primary candidates that year, Mendelson secured victory with just 17 percent of the vote.
After federal prosecutors charged former council chairman Kwame R. Brown with bank fraud in June 2012, Mendelson was chosen by his colleagues to fill the chairman’s seat. In two subsequent elections, he was returned to office with more than 70 percent of the vote.
Some still question whether he’s up to the job. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said Mendelson has not articulated a vision for the city and has been slow to prepare for federal threats, such as the loss of health-care funding, in part because he is unwilling to delegate the nitty-gritty work of building relationships on Capitol Hill.
“That’s okay when you’re 12-to-1 Phil, the nitpicker,” Evans said, referring to a 2006 campaign mailer in which Mendelson proudly stamped a photo of himself with the word “NITPICKER.” “But it’s not okay when you’re the chairman of the council.”
Mendelson said he has encouraged council members to lobby federal officials on their own initiative, even if he has not formally directed them to do so.
Jason Shedlock, Mendelson’s former chief of staff, said Mendelson’s care for the small stuff makes him effective.
“He’d be sitting there, eating a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich and a week-old banana, just doing his work,” said Shedlock, now an aide to the mayor of Portland, Maine. “I don’t think he’s going to make anyone tear up with a speech, but he’s going to impact these people’s lives positively. And that’s what people care about.”
Mendelson is not synonymous with a single policy or marquee building, but his handiwork is stitched into many of the laws that have made the District among the most left-leaning of America’s big cities. He was a prime advocate for legalizing same-sex marriage and for an elected attorney general to protect consumer rights.
More recently, he shepherded a law that would tax businesses to pay for eight weeks of leave for private-sector workers after a birth or adoption. Mendelson spent months rewriting the bill put forward by council members David Grosso (I-At Large) and Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), cutting their original 16 weeks of parental leave in half.
The revisions disappointed labor activists and did not go far enough for business leaders, but they helped ensure a crucial swing vote from council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large), Bonds said in an interview.
When not at work in city hall, Mendelson still makes a point of visiting the coffee shops and church basements where neighborhood groups gather. He spent a recent Saturday morning at Askale Cafe, an Ethiopian restaurant in Brookland.
Many there were upset about plans to develop the 25-acre McMillan property, a former water-filtration site at North Capitol Street and Michigan Avenue NW.
“I don’t want anymore ducking and shucking about this little detail or that little detail,” said Daniel Goldon Wolkoff, a bearded man who raised his voice in a jeremiad peppered with esoteric zoning terms. “The theft of our land is called surplusing!”
Mendelson stood, hands folded, expressionless. Three decades ago, he might have been shoulderto-shoulder with Wolkoff in the angry crowd.
Today he offered some advice: Curry support with Ward 5 council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D) and the local Advisory Neighborhood Commissions.
“It’s a political decision,” he said. “Anybody who thinks that land use is only about an academic planning exercise is going to feel like they get screwed over and over again.”
Perhaps it was cold comfort to the several dozen people packed into the cafe. But one of them, a financial news-service editor named Peter Semler, eventually trained his blinking Google Glass on Mendelson to offer thanks.
“Sorry for being — you know, we’re all jumping up on you,” Semler said. “But you’re listening to us for the first time.”
Mendelson, staring back impassively, stuffed one hand into his pocket.
“Sure,” he said.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, right, pushes for D.C. statehood March 1 in the U.S. House. D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson is at far left.