The Honorable Phil Mendelson
We are honored to have as our Spotlight for the month of November 2012, the Honorable City Council Chairman, Philip Heath Mendelson, who prefers “Phil” Mendelson. Chairman Mendelson previously served as an At-Large Member of the DC City Council, and was elected Chairman by the Council following the resignation of Chairman Kwame Brown in June. Chairman Mendelson has had a long, rich history of community involvement in the District of Columbia and we will talk with him about that history, get some insight into the Chairman as a person, and will learn about his vision and aspirations for the District of Columbia. (Click on photos to enlarge them)
Destiny – Pride: Good morning, Chairman Mendelson. We are truly grateful that you have accepted our invitation to be our November 2012 Spotlight of the Month. Because of your extremely busy schedule, we were a little afraid it was not going to happen, but we appreciate that your staff was able to work it so that you could do it. Before we talk about the work that you and your fellow Councilmembers have been and are now doing, please tell us a little about the Phil Mendelson many of us don’t know: The Phil Mendelson of yesteryear. So to that extent, please share with us where and to whom you were born, your youth and family life, and any other highlights about your childhood that you would like to include.
Honorable Mendelson: Well, I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and lived in Cleveland until I came to Washington in 1970 to attend college at American University. I was interested in political science because of my mother, who had run – unsuccessfully – for City Council for the suburb of Cleveland Heights. Her mother had been involved in civic issues in Grand Rapids, Michigan, so I inherited an interest in politics and government. I thought I would go back to Cleveland, but decided to stay in Washington and make Washington my home; so I’ve been here now for 42 years.
It took me a while to get my degree at American University because I was very active in the Government – politics and student government – and got a lot of “incompletes.” I eventually got enough course credits that I was able to graduate – eleven years after I started; and I’m probably one of the few people who got a degree in political science who actually practices political science.
I moved to an apartment complex in the city – McLean Gardens – which at the time was considered one of the last remaining affordable housing complexes in Ward 3, and became active in the Tenant Association there to keep it from being either demolished or converted at the expense of tenants. We were successful in ensuring that tenants who did not want to be evicted were able to stay and, ultimately, buy their homes.
I got involved in the Advisory Neighborhood Commission for the area and was an ANC Commissioner for 20 years. I also worked at the Council for a couple of Councilmembers, including Dave Clarke – about a year and a half for Dave Clarke when he was a Chairman in his third term. I then ran for the Council in ’96 and lost, so I know what it’s like to run for office and lose. Then I was successfully elected in 1998, Citywide. Some people thought that a kid from Ward 3 could never represent the whole city, and I’ve worked really hard in representing the whole city. It’s a real honor to be able to represent folks in the many different neighborhoods who make up the city.
I have a daughter in DC public schools who’s on the verge of being a teenager, so I’m getting a lot of condolences from friends as we enter into this teenage period. I think that gives you some sense of me personally.
Destiny – Pride: Okay. I’m going to take you back.
Honorable Mendelson: Yeah? It depends on where you’re going to take me back to!
Destiny – Pride: Tell me about your childhood. What was that like? And your earlier schooling.
Honorable Mendelson: Well I went to public schools, so I’m a product of public schools. I don’t know, I think everybody thinks they had an ordinary childhood. I think I had an ordinary childhood. I remember my mother always liked to watch the evening news and you couldn’t talk to her while she watched evening news. She worked, but there still was enough of a previous generation in her that she cooked dinner every night.
Dinner was served at seven. She started cooking dinner between six and 6:30. I always thought the meals were decent, but looking back on it, I think they were probably ordinary.
You couldn’t interrupt her because she was watching the news. Originally, it was the Huntley-Brinkley Report, do you remember that?
Destiny – Pride: Yes.
Honorable Mendelson: So that would have been in the ‘60s with Vietnam and civil rights.
Destiny – Pride: Were you involved in that?
Honorable Mendelson: Not really. I remember when I went to high school, we thought of student body as being “hippies” or “greasers,” and I forget what the third category was. I sort of hung out with the hippies, but I wasn’t really one.
Destiny – Pride: I can’t see you being a hippie.
Honorable Mendelson: You don’t? So you see me as a “greaser,” and especially now that I have no hair.
Destiny – Pride: What high school was it?
Honorable Mendelson: Cleveland Heights High School. It was an interesting time. I was in high school at the end of the ‘60s, so it was more about anti-war and peace/love – that kind of stuff – than about civil rights, which had been earlier. But, of course, you know we were still struggling with civil rights issues at the end of the ‘60s as we continue to today.
Destiny – Pride: So were you there when Mayor Stokes was in office?
Honorable Mendelson: Yes. Actually, my aunt worked on his campaign. I’m not exactly sure what she did, but I think she was involved in raising money for him. We spoke to Lou Stokes [Mayor Stokes’ brother] at a reception a year ago or so. He remembers my family because my aunt was a very big supporter, and now that I’ve run for office, I have a better sense of what that means, and that’s probably that she helped raise a lot of money for him.
Destiny – Pride: Are you married? You’ve already mentioned that you have a child.
Honorable Mendelson: I’m separated from my wife.
Destiny – Pride: And you have the one daughter?
Honorable Mendelson: I have the one daughter [Adelaide]. Yes. She’s enough. I don’t need more than one. She’s a handful.
Destiny – Pride: I saw her at Max Brown’s – very precocious, very energetic.
Honorable Mendelson: And you saw her in her well behaved form!
Destiny – Pride: What about your educational achievements? Are there any other than what you’ve already mentioned?
Honorable Mendelson: I only have the BA in political science.
Destiny – Pride: What faith, if any, are you and how, if at all, has it played a role in your decision-making process?
Honorable Mendelson: My parents were a mixed religion. My father was Jewish and was raised Jewish. My mother, I don’t know what she was. I don’t know if she was Presbyterian, or . . . My mother once explained to me that she liked the bells and smells. My mother did not worship regularly, but she liked – at Christmastime – to go find a church where they have all the bells and smells and incense. That’s what my mother liked. What religion is that? It wasn’t really Catholic. It could be Episcopalian . . . . But my grandmother – my mother’s mother – when I knew her was Christian Scientist. Isn’t that a little odd? But I don’t think that she had always been a Christian Scientist, my grandmother. So at any rate, they decided to raise me as a Unitarian. I think that’s what a lot of mixed religious marriages do; they go for the Unitarian.
I have, over the last decade, visited a lot of churches in Washington. I enjoy visiting churches. I go to a lot of Baptist services; I enjoy Baptist services. Then I go to All Souls on 16th Street. The Baptist churches have a reading – almost every church has a reading from the Gospel, maybe two readings. Then you go to the Unitarian church where they read a poem. It’s very different.
Destiny – Pride: At that time, at All Souls it was David Eaton.
Honorable Mendelson: Yes.
Destiny – Pride: Yes, up there. He was very active.
Honorable Mendelson: He was very active in the city – civil rights, education and just a lot of issues. The senior pastor there now is Rob Hardies. He’s active – not quite in the same way – and he’s an excellent preacher.
Destiny – Pride: Who would you name as individuals who have either influenced you, or who have helped to shape you into the person you are today?
Honorable Mendelson: Well, there are people on a very personal level – not people that anybody would know. But I grew up in the ‘60s, so I was very much affected by John F. Kennedy. When I look back, I realize that, when it comes to domestic issues like dealing with the war on poverty or civil rights, Lyndon Johnson was, by far, the better President. But as a teenager and pre-teen, I was caught up in the charisma of the Kennedy’s – which is not a bad thing.
Locally, and I don’t really think of it this way, but I’ve been involved one way or another in local politics for three decades now. Probably in terms of political style – this may sound strange, but Marion Barry because Marion’s approach has always been one where, even when folks are critical of him, he reaches out and talks to them. I think of that and I think that’s my style.
Denise [Tolliver – Chief of Staff] will tell you about when we went through redistricting. [Talking to her] I don’t know what your advice was, but I know you were a little bit surprised when I said, “Well I’ll go meet with him.” So I’d go off to this community – the Hill East community was really upset with the proposals – and there’d be 200 people, and you just knew they were all ready to throw tomatoes at me. I’d walk right in there and stand up in front of them and meet with them for a couple of hours. That was my impression from Marion – that you go out and you meet with the people. I remember stories from the ‘70s – maybe the ‘80s when he was mayor – and there was a demonstration. People were picketing him, but he goes out and meets with the folks.
There are probably others, but primarily those in terms of that style.
Destiny – Pride: You made an observation one time when I was present at a meeting. You said, “I will listen to you; I will tell you the truth. Whether we agree or not, what you see is what I am.” Is that a fair assessment?
Honorable Mendelson: I’m not sure I can point to somebody from whom I learned that. I just think that, when I was first elected, I realized very early on that something that people who are elected have to learn is how to say “no.” For some folks, they never really learn it, so they say “yes” to everybody and then they’re seen as hypocrites, or you can’t trust them. I think you have to learn to say “no,” and that means you have to learn how to be honest with people when they’re not going to like what you’re saying to them. I think that’s very important. You were kind of touching on that when you said that I just try to be who I am.
Actually, I also learned a little bit of that from the campaign trail. There’s pressure on candidates to be somebody other than who they are. I’m uncomfortable with that. I can’t convey that very well, and I can reach from within more easily if I’m just being true to myself.
Destiny – Pride: Now tell us a little about that rich history I mentioned earlier. Give us a brief synopsis about your life before the City Council. I think that you have already amplified on a lot of that. A lot of people say that you are a “technocrat,” and are very methodical – really up there on that dais; a very detailed person.
Honorable Mendelson: Yeah, I am accused of that. I do think that it’s important, if one wants to be a good legislator, that they have some sense of what they’re voting on. If the public knew how much was before us, they would be amazed. It’s not easy for Members to know everything, but at the same time I don’t want somebody to ask me, and I say “Oh, yea, I voted on that really big bill yesterday, but I haven’t a clue what was in it.” So that’s why I try to have a working knowledge of what’s before us.
You were asking me, though, a little bit about my life before the Council. Well I was an ANC Commissioner, and a very active ANC Commissioner. As a Commissioner, I realized quickly that there are issues that are very important to one’s neighborhood. If they’re fighting with City Hall, they need to reach out and form alliances with ANC Commissioners elsewhere in the city.
So I learned to do that as a Commissioner. Not every Commission does it; not every Commissioner does it, but issues like dealing with the Zoning Commission and its processes; or the ABC Board; or even the Department of Public Works and how it’s not responding to and ANC.
You build alliances with Commissioners across the city. There’s some commonality in the problems, and those alliances are useful. I had developed relationships across the city before I ran for the Council. What I have found – and I realized this when I first campaigned citywide – is that neighborhoods are unique and they have issues that are unique to the neighborhoods, but at the same time there’s a lot of commonality. My neighborhood school may be terrible, and that’s the issue that I’m pursuing, but the concern about quality education is a concern across the city. “Unique” and at the same time “common.”
Destiny – Pride: You were elected to the City Council as an At-Large member in 1998. Tell us about that and the work you have done during your tenure.
Honorable Mendelson: Do you mean the ’98 campaign or just my being a Councilmember since then?
Destiny – Pride: Leading up to that, because you said you had run one time before.
Honorable Mendelson: I ran in ’96 and I lost. That was the election where Harold Brazil decided to switch from being a Ward 6 Member to Citywide. I just couldn’t understand his going into that election. If he’s already on the Council, why would you vote for him? Vote for somebody new if there’s an open seat and that way you keep him, because he’ll stay on the Council, while you get somebody new. But I think people saw Harold in ’96 as the alternative to Marion, and Marion was presiding over the Government as the Control Board was taking over, so people were pretty unhappy with the Government.
That was Harold’s appeal. I came in fourth, which I thought was lousy, and people were saying to me afterwards, “You did great! You’re showing a lot of strength.” Second place went to Joe Yeldell. He had a lot of Labor support. The third place went to John Capozzi, as I recall. I don’t know. Sometimes politics is a little strange. So people thought I did very well coming in fourth place. I ran two years later and won.
Destiny – Pride: How did you feel? Did you do a reassessment of yourself at that time? How did you feel?
Honorable Mendelson: I don’t know. You’re asking me about something that was 14 years ago – or 16 years ago. Candidates have a sense of how the election’s going. They won’t tell you, but they have a sense and I’m pretty sure that by election day I knew that I wasn’t going to win. So it wasn’t a shock and therefore I wasn’t devastated. I was not pleased. I had to run for reelection to the ANC as a write-in because I’d been on the ballot for the Council. Nobody ran for my seat on the ANC, so I just went back to being on the ANC and continued to be involved for two years, and then ran again.
I think that was important because what I see is I see people who run for office, and they really don’t have involvement with the city. You then have to ask, “Well, why then, should we vote for you? Why would you be a good Member of the Council?” And then I see people who run and they show a lot of promise, but then they drop out. My view of it is that I run for the Council because I want to serve; and if I don’t get elected – if I genuinely want to serve – then I will find other ways to serve. So I went back to the ANC.
I was a little bit wiser in ’98. For one thing, in ’96 I didn’t have a campaign manager. My advice to anybody is if you’re going to run for office, have a campaign manager! For the ’98 election, if I remember correctly there were at least ten candidates. [Primary election] That was a very different experience – with ten people in one race.
Destiny – Pride: Who were the most prominent ones?
Honorable Mendelson: My recollection was that second and third place when to Linda Moody and William Bennett. William Bennett was pastor – he still is, but he was with First Baptist of Deanwood. I think they came in second and third. And then there was Bill Rice who came in fourth. There were ten candidates. [The others were: Don Reeves; Charles Gaither, Sabrina Sojourner, Greg Rhett, Phyllis Outlaw and Kathryn Pearson-West] I got Labor support in ’98, and I think the Labor support was what made the difference because it identified me as somebody who actually had some citywide appeal.
Destiny – Pride: You are now the City Council Chairman. Although you’ve been in that position only for a short period of time, as you have just shared with us you have been on the City Council seat for quite a while. Please share with our visitors your vision and aspirations for the District of Columbia in this the 21st Century.
Honorable Mendelson: Well a couple of things. I am proud of our city and the residents of our city are proud of our city, which is why we ought to have full Home Rule, which actually is Statehood. We, as citizens of the United States, should have the same rights and privileges as the citizens in all the other states. But also, my pride in the city – and I think others – is such that we really ought to be the best in everything in this country. Why not? We’re the nation’s capital and we can outshine everybody. In many ways, we do!
There are a lot of very good things that are going on in this city. But there are other ways that we can do better. I was talking to some folks this morning about the area of public safety where I believe we are ahead of the curve in terms of crime reduction. If you look nationally, we’ve seen the trends nationally, but still we can do better and I think that there are some promising strategies. We just opened a new forensic lab, for example. We have the opportunity to be the best across the board in terms of public safety.
Our school system is struggling, but that’s not unlike other major cities. I think that we can be the best and overcome the struggles that all big cities are facing. There’s no reason why we can’t have a top-notch public school system. I believe very strongly in public education; it is the “leveler” in our society. People who are born without a lot of means have the opportunity, through public education, to get the means to take full advantage of all the riches in our society. So there’s no reason why that shouldn’t be our goal.
I see that across-the-board. Public health. We had expanded access to healthcare the way that Obama’s legislation is doing nationally – but we did it first. And we did it with the Healthcare Alliance back in 2006. Mayor Gray’s initiative, which he put forward when he was Chairman of the Council for universal Pre-K, most jurisdiction don’t do that, and that’s an enormous opportunity for kids. That’s where I want to see this city. We’re leading the country right now in LEED Certified Buildings on a per square-foot basis per capita; so we’re doing a lot of great things environmentally. We’re like number two in the country in terms of mass transit use, and I think we can do better there. Regarding the opportunities for people to be able to get around town, we’re just doing better than most cities. I just see so many ways that we are leading or that we could be a leader in this country. That’s what I will seek.
Now that’s long-term. Short-term, the Council needs to rebuild the trust that it’s lost with the community. I intend to secure and look for ways that we can regain that trust. The public will feel more comfortable and have more confidence in its legislature – that the Council is addressing issues long-standing or new issues as they come up, and addressing them constructively with solutions rather than just fighting amongst ourselves.
Destiny – Pride: Have you given any thoughts as to any personal future endeavors other than the Chairmanship? There are a lot of innuendos swirling around out there.
Honorable Mendelson: Well my first answer – when you say giving thought to personal endeavors – is that I’m looking forward to my daughter coming out of adolescence at the other end successfully. That’s one thing I’m looking forward to. I enjoy very much the legislative process and my horizon at the moment is with the Council. As I get used to the job of Chairman – because it is different than being an At-Large Councilmember – I see it getting easier and then I’ll have a little more for home and community.
Destiny – Pride: What would you consider to be your greatest accomplishment so far – not just as it relates to the Council, but to your life’s journey thus far?
Honorable Mendelson: Well, let me see. I mean there are a number of things. I think, legislatively, being able to rewrite our gun control law in the face of really very difficult controversies: the Supreme Court and Second Amendment gun rights advocates. I think that was important.
Under my Chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee we put through a number of bills: medical marijuana; marriage equality. It’s an accomplishment, after being on the Council for a number of years, that people seem happy with me being Chairman. Before I was elected to the Council, I had a very good reputation as an ANC Commissioner. We really managed to make some reforms with regard to land use in the city, including the comprehensive plan. I don’t know if that’s quite along the lines of what you’re asking, but I look back at those successes with pride.
Destiny – Pride: What would you consider as any major disappointments at this time?
Honorable Mendelson: I’ve been asked that question before. I don’t think about it. I mean there have been a lot of downs over the years, but I don’t dwell on them, so I don’t have an answer.
Destiny – Pride: Are there hobbies or activities that you enjoy that help to relax you? If so, please share them with us.
Honorable Mendelson: I like spending time with my daughter and what I really want to do is put her in the car and go driving across the country. I did that a couple of years ago and I wanted to do it this year, but the campaign intervened. I want to do that again. I’m not very sports inclined, but I like getting out more than I’ve been able to get out.
Destiny – Pride: Chairman Mendelson, do you have any last thoughts or insights that you would like to leave?
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Honorable Mendelson: I think Washington’s a great city, and I’ve enjoyed my service – my public service. I’m excited about the fact that the city is growing. We’ve got a thousand, twelve hundred people moving into the city every month. We’re doing much better than other cities across the country. It’s really a great place and it’s an honor to be, not only on the Council representing the citizens across the city, but being the Chairman of the Council. I think that we are on the move to rebuilding the trust that we need for citizens to run this Government successfully and I think that the Council will, over the couple of years, not only rebuild that trust but be seen as a leader in solving problems that we face not only in our community but society faces in general.
I want to thank Destiny – Pride for this opportunity. It’s an honor to have been asked to share my thoughts with you. Thank you.
Destiny – Pride: Chairman Mendelson, again, Destiny – Pride thanks you for taking the time out of your extremely busy schedule to talk with our visitors about your life’s journey and your vision as the Chairman of the Council for the District of Columbia. We have had the opportunity to have spotlighted three previous City Council Chairmen: the Honorable Linda Cropp; the Honorable Vincent Gray, who is our current Mayor; and the Honorable Kwame Brown. We are grateful that you have allowed us to add your name to that list. Our City is growing and is continuing to thrive from its past leadership and we wish you and your colleagues continued success in moving our City forward into the 21st Century. Again, many, many thanks.
Honorable Mendelson: Well thank you, too.
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