Sep 14, 2022 - Politics

Town Talker: Herroner vs. Mendo

Phil Mendelson, left, and Muriel Bowser stand up inside a hearing room
Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images

With expected wins in November, Mayor Muriel Bowser and D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson come January will continue to hold sway over the Wilson Building — their third term at the top. But no one expects them to start getting along.

  • Their rocky relationship is an open secret, and it’s perhaps never been so poor at such a pivotal moment.

Why it matters: The iciness is a barrier to building anything at the RFK site, with time running out because Congress may flip to the Republicans. As the council returns next week, the conflict threatens to limit progress on reducing crime, implementing a massive new agency called the Department of Buildings, and making roads safer.

What I’m hearing: Wilson Building wags don’t see the two moderate Democrats being able to accomplish much on issues where they ideologically agree, let alone topics where they disagree. The idea of a regular sit-down was scuttled all the way back in 2015.

  • The genesis of the feuding isn’t clear. Some speculate it’s due to friction around seniority, with one looking down on the other. Mendelson, 69, is from Cleveland and got his start here through neighborhood activism in upper Northwest. Bowser, 50, began her political career in the footsteps of her civically minded North Michigan Park parents.
  • “I think Phil has always treated Muriel as if she weren’t up to the task. I think that she doesn’t think he’s a very strong chairman,” says one insider, who didn’t want to be named because of closeness to both. “They just don’t respect each other personally.”

The intrigue: They talk through disagreements with emissaries, including former council members Charlene Drew Jarvis, Jack Evans, and Bill Lightfoot.

  • Evans used to broker diplomacy in his Wilson Building office. The chair and mayor would sit opposite each other and talk to Evans at the head of the table, using him as a conduit to the rival sitting right across. (“I do think Jack was good at that,” the mayor told me at a post-election press conference in June.)

What’s happening: The impasse has resulted in real consequences for RFK Stadium, the giant plot of land that the city wants to redevelop. She is open to a new football stadium; he vehemently opposes one. The lack of a compromise has left the site in limbo.

  • The two haven’t made any progress on a plan since the spring. At this point, Bowser just wants Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton to move ahead with a bill giving the city control over the federal site. But Norton says she won’t do that until the two reach a compromise.
  • Inaction would leave everyone unhappy, from people who want more housing there to those who can’t relinquish their dreams of bringing back football.

“I haven’t met with them because I don’t think I could referee this matter,” Norton told me, noting she’s pessimistic about the Democrats’ chances in November. “So I think we’re about to lose the largest tract of land we need in the District.”

Context: Council chair and mayoral tiffs are usual fare in D.C. politics (see: Mayor Fenty vs. Chair Gray). Even so, the Bowser-Mendelson spat is going on eight years.

  • Chair Linda Cropp, who has a degree in counseling, got along well with the easygoing Mayor Tony Williams. Mayor Marion Barry and Chair David Clarke were combustible.

“The personalities of various leaders have a great deal to do with their relationship,” said Jarvis, a power broker in the Gold Coast enclave, a significant figure in Bowser’s base.

Flashback: The Bowser-Mendo feud has been punctuated with a 2016 f-bomb from the mayor and separate fights over the city's tax code and who serves on commissions for the arts.

  • In interviews and in public, both say they want to work together — the sort of boilerplate not worth quoting in this column.

What's next: In the course of reporting this story, mayoral spokesperson Susana Castillo told me that once-quarterly breakfast meetings between the mayor and the entire D.C. Council will return this fall. No word yet on regular one-on-one meetings between the two leaders.

💬 Town Talker is a weekly column on local politics and power. Drop me a line about the talk of the town: [email protected]

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