The un­likely back­bone of D.C. poli­cies: Men­del­son

With Trump in of­fice, skill with pro­ce­dural tac­tics even more crit­i­cal

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY PE­TER JAMI­SON

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.

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