Phil Mendelson, Candidate for DC Council At Large

Phil Mendelson

Democrat, At Large

Response to GLAA 1996 Questionnaire
for DC Council Candidates

1. Do you support legal recognition of marriages between persons of the same-sex?

A. Yes. Marriage is a civil contract between individuals. As such there is no reason it should be restricted to persons of the opposite sex. However, I do not know whether the Washington community would support local legislation, should it be proposed, and such legislation should not be enacted without a public hearing. While I support same-sex marriage, I would not push enactment at this time if there were widespread opposition and divisiveness.

2. Will you oppose efforts by Congress or other parties to stop the District of Columbia from recognizing same-sex marriages performed in Hawaii or other places?

A. Yes. I would oppose Congressional interference -- I am consistent about this with regard to all local issues. I would also oppose efforts by other parties (I assume this means local) to stop recognition of same-sex marriages performed elsewhere. The effect of such discrimination would be to segregate gays and lesbians from the rights others have under local law. We must not pick and choose the applicability of laws on the basis of sexual orientation or any other discriminatory criterion. Further, I would work with the gay and lesbian community (and any other advocates) to actively resist such discrimination and/or Congressional interference. The difference between me and other candidates is that I have an activist background, a record of strategizing with others, and a list of successes in fighting for community issues.

3. Do you oppose efforts by Congress or other parties to outlaw or restrict adoptions by unmarried couples in the District of Columbia?

A. Yes, I oppose such efforts and I agree with GLAA that the overriding criterion in adoption and custody cases should be the best interests of the child. Our society has too great a problem with children needing caring homes. This problem has long term consequences in terms of societal problems such as crime. As long as there is the ability and commitment to care for the child, it does not matter whether the adoptive couple is married or (to go further than the question) same-sex.

4. If Congress ever repeals the D.C. Health Care Benefits Expansion Act of 1992 that established the registration of domestic partnerships, will you vote to reenact the same law?

A. I was a legislative aide to Jim Nathanson at the time he pushed this legislation through to adoption. I support the law. I will work actively as Councilmember to get it implemented. I would actively oppose any effort by Congress to repeal it and would lead the fight to reenact it.

5. Do you support the re-establishment of the Office of Human Rights as an independent, Cabinet-level agency whose Director has direct access to the Mayor?

A. Yes. The Office of Human Rights has suffered by being consolidated with minority business development. This consolidation must be reversed (and according to the FY 1997 budget it will be) -- because it has failed, and because it makes no sense to have combined two unrelated functions that appeal to mostly different constituencies. However, the Council must get real about funding the Office; the Human Rights Act is important and therefore must be supported with an adequate number of investigators to eliminate the case backlog. One of my campaign themes, though, is that we must look at efficiency when we talk about "adequate" funding. I support the recommendations for mandatory mediation because it would deal with the case load while enabling a reduction in the number of required investigations.

It should be noted that the critical factor in the administration of any program is the quality of the manager or agency director, and so usually it should not matter where an office fits within the government. An independent, cabinet-level director can be lousy. Ultimately, the Mayor and Council must ensure that there are capable administrators. This is the fundamental problem with service delivery throughout our government. There is too little accountability. Where there are problems in administration, the Council should step in. Yet the Council has failed in oversight: it does not hold managers to any kind of performance standards, it does not deny confirmation of unqualified department heads, it does not press for resignations when the incompetence becomes unmistakable, it does not use funding as a tool to fight waste and mismanagement, and it never uses its subpoena powers.

6. Do you agree that the Boy Scouts of America is violating the D.C. Human Rights Law's ban on discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation by excluding gays from participating either as scouts or as leaders?

A. Yes. I will add that as a Democratic State Committee member in 1988-1990 I voted against Carl Rowan being counsel because of this issue. If pending litigation on this issue succeeds, I will oppose any efforts to carve out an exception for the BSA.

7. Will you vote to repeal the Armstrong Amendment, which allows religiously-affiliated private educational institutions in the District to discriminate against student clubs that promote equal rights for lesbians and gay men?

A. I will do more than merely vote -- I will actively work toward repeal. This is an example of content-based discrimination, and it is unconstitutional in my view. The law should not allow the picking and choosing of what kinds of student clubs are desirable.

8. Will you oppose efforts by Congress or other parties to abolish or restrict the right of our public school students to form clubs that promote greater understanding between gays and others?

A. I would oppose such efforts actively, not only because such efforts would be homophobic, discriminatory, and hate-based, but because we need to support efforts in our schools (and elsewhere) that promote greater understanding between any and all groups, especially with regard to misunderstood or controversial issues such as gay rights.

9. Do you support the designation of a third party to act as a fiscal agent for the distribution of federal AIDS money, such as the system recently adopted by the Financial Control Board?

A. AIDS is a public health issue, and the ability to distribute AIDS funds is paramount. I would prefer that there were no need for a third party, and that the District distributed the money. As Councilmember, I will work toward ensuring that the District regain its ability to distribute the money -- and then seek to end the third-party arrangement. I think this issue is analogous to the Control Board itself: the Board is third-party in governance that has become necessary because our elected officials have failed to be fiscally responsible. I want the Council to act responsibly, so that then it can turn to the Control Board and say "enough!" Until there is this change, we will continue to watch the erosion of Home Rule.

10. Do you agree that our own elected officials, past and present, bear much of the responsibility for the District's current financial plight because of their reluctance to make tough budgetary decisions, to establish priorities, and to demand maximum efficiency and productivity (rather than political loyalty) from all District government agencies and workers?

A. Absolutely, except I believe they bear most of the responsibility, not just much of it. Congress' stinginess with its purse and unwillingness to address structural problems has been abetted by the performance of our own officials.

My number one priority is to bring a different approach to oversight, because this affects all aspects of government operations and service delivery. Council oversight is reactive, sporadic, and confrontative. It should be proactive, continuous, and collaborative. I want to reach out to the players (e.g., department heads and constituent groups) to learn problems and possible solutions. I can best do that ahead of the fact -- before problems become crises. Better oversight is the only way the Council will understand that it is under-funding agencies, that equipment is failing, that certain requirements have become archaic (or, conversely, are needed), and so forth. Better oversight is also the only way to enforce accountability. To do this, the Council must utilize its authority to: require performance standards; hold management to task; deny confirmation of unqualified department heads; cut off funding for programs rife with waste and mismanagement; and so forth.

Second, I intend to be honest about budgeting. Many service-related problems are due to under-funding (the virtual gutting of non-personal services expenditures in the Fire Department comes to mind) and the Control Board has become omnipotent because the Council too often resorts to budget gimmicks that do not bring in real revenues or resolve overspending.

Third, I want to improve core services -- e.g., public safety, schools, transportation systems -- so that the city is a more attractive place for our workers and others to live. This would also attract business activity (and therefore employment) which, in turn, improves our tax base. To do this will require the full time attention of a Councilmember, which I will be.

Fourth, implicit in these priorities is my commitment to stabilize our city workforce consistent with my other answers. For instance, improving core services will only come about if we stop demoralizing workers with furloughs and pay freezes.

Finally, many Councilmembers and others (and this question, too) talk about the need to establish priorities. This is a vague criticism that is never accompanied by specifics. It sounds good but it misses the problem. What is needed really is to improve the efficiency and productivity of the government. In addition to oversight, the Council must fund infrastructure improvements -- telephones, computer systems, etc. Our government has 50 different telephone systems, and about 17,500 phones are obsolete rotary dials. There are 50 or more data networks for mainframe systems and minicomputer systems that are not interconnected. It is no wonder, with this kind of technical support, that our workers have difficulty performing their jobs satisfactorily. Improving efficiencies would produce considerable savings, permit quality service delivery, and encourage federal support.

11. Do you support the condom availability programs that have been established in the District's public schools and prisons?

A. Yes. I also support needle exchange programs. While I believe it is appropriate to discourage sexual activity among teenagers and drug addiction among everybody, it is foolish and costly public policy to ignore the reality that such behavior occurs. The policy should be to intervene on the side of public health - supply condoms and needles. Simultaneously, the government should promote more healthy behavior through public education. The District government does far too little public education on public health issues.

12. Will you support legislation that will establish an effective civilian complaint review system for our Metropolitan Police Department?

A. Yes. "Effective" should mean better than the previous board -- which was plagued by huge backlogs and was structured in such a way that the MPD could not proceed with its own internal investigations. The need for civilian review arises from the long history of law enforcement tending to cover up transgressions within its ranks. Civilian review enables greater likelihood of accountability by people who possess incredible power in our free society: the police power to deny individuals their freedom. It is my view, though, that civilian review should be parallel to MPD review. That is, civilian review should not supplant the ability of superiors within MPD to timely discipline improper conduct. (Conversely, MPD action should not supplant civilian review.) So long as MPD is able to initiate its own investigations and discipline, there is no need for police to be represented as members on a civilian complaint review board.

13. Do you support sensitivity and community relations training for all elements of our public safety system (police, fire department, etc.) that includes strong recognition's of gay and lesbian community concerns, so that the District will never again tolerate the kind of insensitivity and incompetence reflected in the Fire Department's handling of the Tyra Hunter case?

A. Yes. I am a child of the 60s, and I remember it took several years for cities to recognize the importance of police sensitivity and community relations training for law enforcement in the black community. This question, as stated, includes fire and emergency medical service personnel because of D.C. incidents such as Tyra Hunter and the recent gay bashing at Dupont Circle.

One theme of my campaign is "Fight for a government that is 'user friendly'." On the stump I usually cite examples of auto registration, license renewal, building permit processing, and tax collection. But other city services such as law enforcement and fire/EMS must also be user (or community) friendly -- which includes sensitivity to all of the diverse groups that comprise the community we know of as Washington, D.C. It is especially important that public safety personnel be sensitive to victims of crime and violence. GLOV has worked with these personnel to promote this, but it is unfortunate that city officials have not seen the need to ensure sensitivity on their own initiative, or been quicker to expand sensitivity training to the employees of all public safety agencies.

14. Do you oppose legislation or initiatives that would authorize organized prayers in our public schools, thereby encouraging the harassment of individuals who choose not to participate?

A. Absolutely. I staffed this issue for former Councilmember Jim Nathanson and worked with the ACLU on this when it came up in 1994. Individuals already have the right and ability to pray in the public schools. In no way should it be organized, because in no way could it be organized without violating the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Organized prayer also may conflict with the D.C. Human Rights Act.

I believe strongly that there is strength in diversity. Nationally, our country's tolerance of all religions is an essential part of freedom, and therefore it promotes democracy. Similarly, our tolerance of different groups -- religious, racial, sexual orientation, ethnic, etc. -- permits a richer society.

15. Do you oppose efforts to abolish or drastically curtail the powers of our elected Board of Education?

A. The Board is and has been an embarrassment. But I do not support abolition of the School Board. Drastically curtailing the powers of the Board would create a situation even more difficult than the presently awkward dichotomy between the Board and the Council.

The failure of management is the greatest problem facing the city schools. The system can't let acceptable contracts (e.g., food service), they can't adhere to budget, they can't maintain the physical plant (which is more than just a matter of capital money), etc. They can't even count the students. Past years' experience witth the book fund is a classic example of mismanagement: the Superintendent compensates for overspending in central administration by reducing spending on books. I recently went to a PTA meeting where one couldn't hear because a temporary boiler was operating outside the gymnasium windows, which had to be kept open for cool air because the boiler (which had been there for over a year) couldn't be turned off. Money is secondary; better management would spend more efficiently, plus command respect and thereby the ability to receive adequate funding.

The Council has been a failure at oversight, which I discussed in answer #10. In addition to pursuing vigorous oversight, I will use my office as Councilmember to improve public awareness so that the Superintendent or Board cannot avoid implementing improvements. This does not have to be confrontational, but it does require full time commitment as a Councilmember and a new attitude toward governing in DC.

Thank you.

Phil Mendelson

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