Meet the Candidates for DC Council Chair

281

When they met for debate during the primary campaign for DC Council Chair, incumbent Phil Mendelson and primary challenger ANC Commissioner Erin Palmer had different views on nearly every issue from transportation to crime. While the two candidates share many of the same priorities, including creating a more equitable and accessible DC, they each have a unique strategy for how to address the key issues.

The DC Council works to improve the quality of life of District residents’ neighborhoods by ensuring safer streets, improving education, providing oversight of the District’s government including the Mayor’s office and developing the District’s economy. Working with the Mayor and the executive branch, the Council also maintains the District’s budget. The DC Council Chair works to oversee and lead the 13 members of the Council.

Meet Phil Mendelson
Current Chairman Phil Mendelson moved to Washington, DC from Cleveland, Ohio to pursue a bachelor’s degree in political science at American University. In 1979, Mendelson was elected as an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner (ANC) for his neighborhood of McLean Gardens where he fought against threats of demolition and rent increases on behalf of its residents. Mendelson said in his fight to save McLean Gardens that he became committed to remaining active in local politics.

Phil Mendelson

The current chairman has served on the DC Council since 1998, first as an at-large member and then in 2012 as DC Council Chairman after winning a special election following the resignation of his predecessor. Mendelson has subsequently been reelected twice.

Mendelson also serves as the chair for the Council Committee of the Whole (COW), which has specific oversight of the District budget, Council relations with the federal government, planning and zoning, DC statehood, the retirement system, the University of the District of Columbia, the DC auditor, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and DC Public and charter schools.

Mendelson’s top priorities include increased progress in education in the District, addressing pressing public safety concerns and addressing the affordable housing crisis.

You can learn more about Mendelson and his platform on his website (mendelsonforchairman.com).

Meet Commissioner Palmer
The current ANC representative for 4B02, ethics and accountability lawyer Erin Palmer is running on a platform of progressive change. After attending the University of Pennsylvania, Palmer relocated to the District to attend law school at American University and has lived in the District ever since.

Palmer is a Board Member of the Old Takoma Business Association and has previously served as Secretary of the Manor Park Citizens Association, a Board Member of the Kennedy Street Development Corporation, and a Board Member of the Student Education and Leadership Fund. At the forefront of Palmer’s agenda is her DC Council accountability plan, the first of its kind, which she hopes to use to strengthen the Council creating a well-functioning, modern, ethical and accountable standard of practice to best serve the community.

Though this, she hopes to: strengthen the Council as a whole, reduce over-concentration of power in the Chair position, revitalize committees and add legislative research capacity, hold the council accountable to high ethical standards and ensure inclusivity and accessibility through use of technology to make the council more accessible to residents. Palmer’s other priorities include transportation and safer streets, housing, public education as a right and public safety.

You can learn more about Palmer and his platform on her website (erinfordc.com).

Key Issues:

Public Safety
As the District continues to report increases in crime, public safety remains a key issue for candidates and the community. Mendelson called public safety “top of mind” and emphasized the importance of government action to help community members feel safe.

Mendelson’s platform emphasizes the importance of holding repeat offenders accountable and maintaining an open dialogue with city officials about resources they need to help keep communities safe.

“It’s a relatively small number, several individuals repeat and repeat and repeat,” Mendelson said. “We need to focus on those assessments.”

Mendelson said that while a set number of police officers is not crucial in his view, he is adamantly opposed to defunding the police.

Data, Palmer said, is what drives her approach to crime. She referenced a 2017 investigation into the DC police and said “we don’t have the number of police officers that would make us most safe” emphasizing a need for alternative intervention.

Public safety, community programming and investment in violence interruption are key components of the solution to crime in the District, according to Palmer. She emphasized a “balanced discussion” about violence prevention and mitigation is needed alongside policing and the criminal justice system.

For Palmer, this includes ensuring that DC residents have basic needs such as housing and education. Funding, Palmer said, should be focused on providing for residents and on stopping violence before it happens through violence interruption programs.

Housing
Homelessness and affordable housing are also key issues for both candidates. Mendelson and Palmer disagree sharply on the DC Mayor Muriel Bowser’s (D) pilot program to clear encampments.

Mendelson favors the Mayor’s program, saying it provided for relocation and long-term housing for residents of the District in need. While acknowledging its shortcomings, Mendelson expressed agreement with the initiative and its results calling the program “the best approach” to homelessness.

“This was a pilot, so there were some mistakes that were made,” Mendelson acknowledged, “but it seemed that there were lessons learned so that the city can do a better job.”

Palmer’s platform is focused on the importance of providing adequate, safe and secure housing for all DC residents without forcibly clearing the tent encampments. Palmer expressed extreme concern about the tent encampments that she said were hastily cleared.

“The camps were evicted while people were still in them, so a human being was bulldozed,” Palmer said. “That’s not a mistake. That is deplorable and we need to provide housing.”

Palmer said building trust with individuals experiencing homelessness is key to securing them in long term housing. She emphasized that removing encampments simply displaces the issue and does not resolve it.

“They want safe, stable and secure housing,” Palmer said. “They’re entitled to that, and tent evictions displace the problem, they do not solve it. They move people around somewhere else. Housing is the solution to homelessness.”

Education
Both candidates agree on the importance of education to the District’s communities and the vitality of continuing to improve access to education.

While Palmer said there were a handful of things that led her to challenge Mendelson in the primary election this summer, she said education and how schools and families were handled throughout the pandemic stood out to her.

Chairman Mendelson dissolved the standalone education committee during his tenure, something Palmer said she plans to reinstate if elected.

“I think that has really done a disservice,” Palmer said. “Dedication to our public schools, and the oversight necessary to balance out a mayoral control governance system really requires a dedicated committee and the institutionalized support staff that comes with that. We have seen and felt the consequences of not having that over the course of these last several years.”

Mendelson emphasized the importance of education and continuing to make improvements to the DC Public Schools and that improving outcomes in schools will in turn advance communities across the District and help to ameliorate many other challenges facing the District’s residents. Mendelson, after becoming Chairman in 2012 reinstated the independent education committee but felt there was insufficient progress. He now stands by his decision to again dissolve the independent education committee as the current committee as a whole is providing more oversight.

Palmer said that the COVID-19 pandemic exposed many of the “deep deep failures” of the DC public education system. Education as a right as well as additional funding for students classified as at-risk is also a component of her DC Council Accountability Plan.

The DC primary election will take place on June 21, 2022. Early voting will take place from June 10 to June 19. The deadline to request an absentee ballot is June 6, and absentee voting is taking place May 27 through election day. You can learn more about the primary election and voting process at (dcboe.org).

Sarah Payne is a general assignment reporter at Capital Community News. She can be reached at sarahp@hillrag.com.