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An Interview With Phil Mendelson, Chairman, DC City Council

Phil Mendelson is the accidental Council Chairman. His straight-forward, hard-working, low-key approach to politics led his Council colleagues to pick him as temporary chairman in 2012 when his predecessor resigned because of federal bank fraud charges. First elected as an at-large member in 1998, Mendelson built his win on his long-time service as an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner and civic activist, including a 1987 arrest to protest a road through Glover-Archbold Park. He went on to ever-more-impressive reelection triumphs and a confirming special election for chairman in 2012. In a generously long interview in his Wilson Building office, the self-described “nitpicker” discussed his new power, Mayor Gray’s legacy, the District’s changing demographics, the proposed Buzzard Point soccer stadium, economic development, Marion Barry’s future, dealing with two mayoral rivals on the Council and other matters.

Bill Rice: How does it feel to be the most powerful person in DC Government?

Phil Mendelson: I choose not to look at it that way. I see my role as the chair of the legislative branch, the co-equal branch of government.

BR: How will you deal with the rivalry of the leading candidates for mayor, David Catania and Muriel Bowser, on the Council?

PM: It is my hope the candidates will refrain from seeing the Council dais as a place to score political points against each other. Nobody wants to be told basically to shut-up, gaveled out of order. That’s really a last resort I’m not even sure it’s worth discussing. Our business is about the bills that are before us.

BR: The District is changing rapidly, both demographically and economically, going from overwhelming black to barely 50% black and the city’s budget keeps running a surplus. How has that affected our politics?

PM: We’re struggling with affordability issues: homelessness, affordable housing and tax reductions. We should not just be a city of white upper class individuals; it’s important that people who have lived here don’t feel that they are being driven out and those who have lower paying jobs can live where they work. It’s valuable to have diversity, not just racial but economic…And I think there is an issue with the soccer stadium at Buzzards Point. It will increase pressure enormously to redevelop southwest; that in turn will drive out affordable housing; we have to enable people of lesser means to stay in the city.

BR: Are you saying the Council will approve the soccer stadium?

PM: I don’t want to foreordain what’s going to happen and the deal is very complicated. I think the majority of the council supports a subsidy for building a soccer stadium at that location.

BR: Isn’t the best way to keep the city affordable is to control development which controls land prices and the cost of housing and everything else?

PM: No, if you restrict development, you restrict supply and that just drives up the cost. A healthy city has a lot of tension, around development, over how much, what’s reasonable and where it should be…Georgetown for instance is a residential area, where folks are not looking for a lot of redevelopment and in my mind there is no benefit to destroy it and develop it into something else. On the other hand, it’s just amazing driving down Mass Ave to Union Station or on H Street, going northeast, how these corridors are transforming themselves. This is very good thing for the city’s financial health and we want to accommodate it.

BR: How do you rate this mayor compared to the other mayors you have seen?

PM: The government is functioning, and functioning well and without any question or hesitation that is to Vince Gray’s credit. I think it’s sad and maybe tragic, that someone who has brought much good to government and therefore to the city and its citizens lost the election. Whatever actually happened in the 2010 election destroyed his career and limited him to one term.

BR: Marion Barry has written a book, Mayor for Life and he is going around talking about it and his legacy. You have oversight over UDC; what do you think of a professorship there?

PM: I have no idea if Marion Barry will be good in a classroom. If he is a great teacher and he wants to do it, sure.

BR: What advice would you give to the new mayor and your new Council colleagues?

PM: It’s a big government and there are a lot of issues. I think this is a wonderful place and I enjoy my work on the council. The incoming mayor should not just start over and clean house with his/her people and set us back. The goal is to continue and improve the government. For new councilmembers, I say be patient, the issues will come along. The challenge is finding the ways that one can be successful in getting things done.

BR: What is the role of publicity, the media, in moving the government in the right direction?

PM: Too often, those of us who have elected office are tempted to go for headlines, to go for the dramatics. In fact, I think headlines detract from what the work of government ought to be, trying to improve the bureaucracy and trying to solve human service problems or to deal with the core issues of government, public safety, public health, public transportation.

BR: You’ve described yourself as a ‘nitpicker;’ why?

PM: I have been called a nitpicker, and a wonk, which I hate, and boring and too cerebral, but I think I have got a lot of stuff done. I wrote the laws on human trafficking, on gun control, on marriage equality (with David Catania) and on medical marijuana and the tree bill to preserve and increase the number of trees in the city. I know there are temptations with those elected to govern, to look for the headline, to stroke the ego, to think it’s about the superficial attributes of power and that’s not what government is about.

BR: Do you see a dramatic change in the politics of the city to achieve full representation in Congress?

PM: I’m not sensing that change in the political thinking of the citizens. It is frustrating that there is isn’t more outrage and that acquiescence is not helpful to change our political situation What’s fundamental is that we should have the same rights and privileges as the citizens of all the states, including two senators, at least one Member of Congress and the ability to tax income at the source. That’s why we want statehood.

Bill Rice is a freelance writer who's been involved in District affairs for almost 40 years as a journalist, activist, photographer, public information officer, DC Government employee, consultant and candidate.