Ed Lazere Wants to Be Your Chairman
A Q&A with the longtime advocate looking to upend the DC Council
He’s been years ahead of schedule on many issues, but Ed Lazere thinks he has good timing on his biggest decision yet.
As president of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, he spent decades laying the foundation for progressive urban policy on a number of issues, articulating positions that have since gained traction: opposing unnecessary stadium subsidies, ensuring transit equity, and most of all protecting affordable housing. He’s cultivated allies by consistently speaking up for the city’s most vulnerable and impressed insiders with well-respected research and a thorough knowledge of the city budget. Throughout, he’s issued calls for the city to do more to make its prosperity truly inclusive.
But now, tired of waiting for those calls to be answered, he’s running for office, looking to lead the legislature as the city’s Chairman. He has his hands full. Incumbent Chairman Phil Mendelson won 82% of the vote in the 2014 primary.
But it could be that Lazere’s appeal — taking city leaders to task for talking about “inclusive prosperity” but not doing enough to support it — will find takers this time around. DC for Democracy just handed him their endorsement. And his central concern, affordable housing, has been at the core of local news since I started 730DC in 2013. With fellow DC Fiscal Policy Institute alum Elissa Silverman defending her seat as an incumbent — and Jeremiah Lowery looking to join her and others on the Council’s growing left flank — you can squint and see the makings, at a critical point in the city’s story, of a wave election.
In our conversation, Lazere explains how watching years of inaction and excuses from the DC Council motivated him to make the jump into politics proper, the worst thing the Council did last year, and how he’d depart from Chairman Mendelson’s approach.
Oh, and some love for NuVegan.
Who are you?
I am a 30-year resident of the District who has spent nearly two decades advocating to make DC a fairer and stronger city. I married my wonderful wife in DC 28 years ago, and have two great sons who went through DC Public Schools. I’ve lived in Brookland for 25 years. I love DC and care deeply about its future.
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Before stepping down to run for Council Chair, I spent two decades working to make life better for DC residents as Executive Director of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. At DCFPI, I conducted research on challenges facing the District, like the loss of affordable housing, and then helped lead advocacy efforts to do something about it, especially around the DC budget.
In my community life, I chaired the Local School Advisory Team at School Without Walls, served as President of Temple Micah and on many non-profit boards, and have been a Scout leader in Brookland for 15 years, uniform and all.
At DCFPI, I conducted research on challenges facing the District, like the loss of affordable housing, and then helped lead advocacy efforts to do something about it
I love to bake — my carrot cake is really popular — and I am a biker and long-distance runner, which is good for a campaign! I’d like to think I have a good sense of humor, but my wife and children may disagree.
Hey! I’m a Scout too. So why are you running for Chairman? Was there a moment you knew you had to do this? And why Chairman, which is a very powerful but also managerial role, not the DC Council or even Mayor?
Making the move from advocate to candidate was not something I took lightly. Seeing DC’s plan to end homelessness go under-funded two years in a row helped move me. Watching the DC Council vote last year to protect tax cuts for people with $5 million estates, when that money could have gone to affordable housing, helped move me. The Council debate last fall to restrict the rights of homeless families in one moment and then in the next give an unneeded $80 million subsidy to developers, in part for a parking lot, helped move me. And the assault on progressive ideals at the federal level, and the large number of progressives who have chosen to run for office in response, inspired me.
I am running for chair because it is a leadership position with a bully pulpit and other ways to shape policy. The current Chair single-handedly held up DC’s paid family leave program for over a year, due to big-business lobbying — until I entered the race as a champion of paid family leave, which helped pressure him to stop repeal and replace efforts. That’s an example of the impact the Chair can have, and how I would be a different leader.
You’ve described your goal as “making sure we have a growing economy that works for everyone.” We all know it hasn’t been working for everyone. The question is: why?
Sadly, our city, nation, and world have an economy that increasingly concentrates the rewards among a very wealthy few. There are many reasons, but at the root are the increasing power of economic elites and the ongoing impacts of racism and gender discrimination.
The question then becomes what are we doing as a city to make the economy fairer, to address racial and economic inequities. One example is the scheduling hell that restaurants and retailers put their lowest-paid workers through: schedules announced with almost no advance notice, requirements to be on-call at all times, shifts cancelled at the last minute, hours that vary widely from week to week. This abuse of economic power keeps too many workers down, most of them people of color. I support the Fair Scheduling bill to require retail and restaurant chains to give workers their schedules 2 weeks in advance, extra pay when a shift is changed last minute, and the chance to move from part-time to full-time hours. My opponent does not.
I wanted to ask about an article that former mayor Anthony Williams wrote for CityLab a couple months ago about the idea that Democrats have too much power in American cities. Did you read it? (It sort of valorizes centrism as this inherent good, but also alludes to Mills’ utilitarian argument for free speech — which is basically that without difference you can’t have progress.) The DC Council is overwhelmingly Democratic. Your election wouldn’t change that. But there is a sort of diversity — there are somewhat clear delineations of priorities.
I don’t think we need more Republican ideas — tax cuts for the wealthy, denying health care, taking away rights of LGBTQ people — or even “centrism.” I think we need a government that reflects DC’s progressive values, but we should be open to innovative ways and healthy debates about how to use DC’s growth to advance greater equity and shared prosperity.
My opponent brags of using the chair position to get 13–0 votes on key Council issues. But that is not necessarily a good thing, if it means a lively debate is stifled or happens behind closed doors while deals are worked out that give DC residents less than what they deserve. I won’t do that as Chair.
I also want to help policy debates be well informed. I would create an office within the Council devoted to policy research, to do oversight of how DC government agencies are performing and to identify the best ideas for meeting important goals, based on research and practices in other communities. That will allow us to focus on what works and make sure DC is using its resources wisely.
Do you put any stock in the argument that there isn’t enough ideological variety on the Council, or do you think there is dynamism there?
I actually think there is a lot of ideological diversity in the DC Council, considering that we are an almost entirely Democratic city. Unfortunately, the current Chair does not let that diversity show enough, because he works with Councilmembers in private to make deals, and then is proud of having public votes that are unanimous.
DC residents deserve to see their policymakers debate tough issues in public, so that multiple perspectives are aired and residents can understand where their elected officials stand on important issues. Consensus can be a good thing but on some important issues, not everyone is going to agree. That’s okay, and we shouldn’t let fear of public debate deter us from acting on the issues that matter most to District residents.
What’s your sense of what DC wants? What is the potential for that kind of a wave election, and what do you think that Council could accomplish?
At a time when programs and policies that promote racial, social and economic equity are under attack at the federal level, I think many progressive voters (including me) are hungry for a strong local response. Our campaign is focused on the things that DC residents care about: making sure that we don’t push any neighbors out of their homes or city. Maintaining DC’s racial and economic diversity. Investing in DC schools so that students from Ballou to Wilson can succeed. Creating a healthy environment. Rebuilding Metro. Ensuring that development meets the needs of our residents, like improving grocery access and health care access east of the river. Making sure that residents can find jobs that actually support their families.
And our campaign is trying to lay out bold and inspiring actions to achieve these shared goals — for example, finally doing what it really takes to end homelessness.
Progressives know that building a fair economy is not only the right thing to do, but also is the best way to build a strong future. We will be a stronger city if every child and adult is able to achieve their potential and dreams.
I don’t think it’s presumptuous to say your signature issue is housing. You’ve talked about increasing funding to the Housing Production Trust Fund. What is your approach to affordable housing beyond the fund?
So much to say, so much wonkiness to avoid! Beyond the Trust Fund, which supports housing construction, we need to invest more in direct rental subsidies, that is, helping people pay their rent. This is the best way to help the families with the greatest needs and to help them quickly.
We also need to start preserving the shrinking pool of privately-owned lower-cost housing before it is redeveloped as luxury housing, using tools to help tenants buy their buildings or have DC actually buy them. That is a power DC has had for a while but never used! Two other things: strengthen rent control by, among other things, closing loopholes, and increasing the amount of help provided to first-time homebuyers (currently $80,000).
Not all, but most of our readers are recent arrivals to the city. Many are gentrifiers. (I have been.) What would you tell them about how to engage, how to help, as the city struggles to figure this out?
Gentrification is not about one person’s choices. It is about powerful economic trends beyond your control. One person can’t stop the process, but acting together, we can turn the tide. We need recent arrivals to get engaged in current issues in DC, like speaking up for food justice or affordable housing in their neighborhood. You should learn about the history of your community/neighborhood. (There are good books and documentaries out there.) Make eye contact with and say hi to your neighbors. Learn about racism and take responsibility for undoing it. Volunteer in your community, especially to get to know someone with different life experiences from you. Join one of our many local advocacy organizations or political clubs and get involved.
You out-raised the incumbent the other week. Do you think, as was suggested in the AFRO by some challengers, that incumbents enjoy an unfair advantage — even with the new Fair Elections Act?
We need to do more to make DC elections competitive. Fair Elections, which will bring public financing at a generous match, will strengthen democracy and racial and gender justice in DC. It will help qualified candidates who don’t have access to big dollar donor networks run for office, and help more voters engage in elections knowing that influence of corporate and wealthy interests has been diminished.
Getting Fair Elections funded and implemented is the most important thing right now. After that, we need to move on to adopt some form of runoff elections. The fact that a candidate can win with a small number of votes if there are a number of candidates in the race to split the vote means that the will of voters is not really reflected. It also means that a lousy incumbent who draws lots of challengers has a good chance of winning because the anti-incumbent vote gets split among many. Talk about unfair advantage!
What was the worst thing the Council did last year?
The Council protected tax cuts for the wealthiest estates, fulfilling a Republican priority in a Democratic city. I opposed it.
What was the best thing the Council did last year?
The Council eliminated a time limit on cash assistance that would have pushed 10,000 children into extreme poverty. (The mayor proposed and the Council improved it.) This is something I fought for.
What do you think is the most fun thing you’d do as Chairman?
I’d have to have an awesome float every year for the Palisades 4th of July parade.
Favorite place to canvass in DC?
Any spring festival.
Favorite place to eat in DC?
I love Nu Vegan’s amazing healthy sides, great Mac n Cheese, and fake fried chicken that can’t be beat. My wife and I also love District Taco and Jaleo. It’s too hard to pick one.
Favorite place to think in DC?
When I’m taking a long walk through my neighborhood.