Phil Mendelson named favorite for interim chairman seat on D.C. Council
WASHINGTON (AP) - D.C. Council members, trying to move past their chairman's resignation after he pleaded guilty to bank fraud, are rallying behind a quiet, deliberative colleague to fill the role on an interim basis.
Phil Mendelson, a Democrat serving his fourth term as an at-large member, is the favorite to become interim chairman when the council meets on Wednesday. And he plans to run for the position in a special election this November.
He would replace Kwame Brown, who resigned last week after he was charged with lying about his income on bank loan applications. Brown pleaded guilty on Friday to that charge and to a misdemeanor campaign finance violation.
Brown is the second councilmember to resign this year. In January, Harry Thomas Jr. stepped down after pleading guilty to embezzling more than $350,000 in city funds earmarked for youth sports programs. He was sentenced to three years in prison.
The downfall of two ambitious, charismatic members has cast a cloud over the 13-person council, a unique body that serves the functions of a local, municipal and state legislature. Council chairman is the district's second-highest local elected office, and wields considerable influence over the legislative agenda and the district's $10 billion budget. Should Mayor Vincent Gray leave office, the chairman would succeed him, which in Mendelson's case would make him the first white mayor since the district was granted home rule in 1973.
Gray, too, is under federal investigation for activities during his 2010 campaign, and two aides have already pleaded guilty to funneling payments to a minor mayoral candidate and trying to cover it up. Gray has denied knowledge of the payments and has not been accused of any wrongdoing.
Mendelson presents a contrast in style to Brown and Thomas, both known for their flashy clothes and dynamic personalities. A former council staffer, he prides himself on his attention to detail, describing himself as a "nitpicker."
He said Monday that he would seek to empower his colleagues, drawing a contrast with Brown's leadership style, which he said could be top-down and disorganized.
"There was an increasing lack of collaboration, and the chairman is in a position to bring members together and to work toward consensus," Mendelson said. "That was not happening."
He said he was running in November less out of personal ambition than out of a sense of duty to the council, which he wants to get back to the business of legislating.
Mendelson is known as socially liberal, championing the district's approval of gay marriage and medical marijuana. As chairman of the council's judiciary committee, he has meticulously altered the district's gun-control laws to comply with a Supreme Court decision that struck down the city's ban on handgun ownership.
"He's always been a thoughtful, careful legislator, and right now I think that's exactly what we need," said Councilwoman Mary Cheh, who will relinquish her role as acting chair after Wednesday's vote. "I think he would be the best in this tumultuous period to calm the waters and move us forward."
The interim chairman must be selected from among the four at-large members. Besides Cheh, Yvette Alexander, Michael A. Brown and David Catania have said they intend to support Mendelson, and Jack Evans and Muriel Bowser are expected to vote for him although they have not pledged their support publicly.
Councilman Vincent Orange is also angling for the chairmanship, but he doesn't appear to have the necessary support. Councilman Jim Graham said Monday he was undecided, and Marion Barry, Kenyan McDuffie and Tommy Wells declined to comment ahead of Wednesday's vote.
Orange said Monday that Mendelson doesn't share his commitment to education reform, citing votes that he said weren't in the best interest of city schoolchildren. He said he would stabilize the council and organize it around his priorities.
"I have a vision for the legislative body. It revolves around ethics, education, employment and economic development," Orange said.
Orange also said he intends to run for chairman in November regardless of Wednesday's outcome, a decision that became easier Monday when the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics ruled that candidates in the special election can also appear on the general election ballot in other races. Orange will be running for re-election to his at-large seat, which he also captured in a special election after Brown became chairman.
The winner of the special election would serve out the remainder of Brown's term through 2014.
The board's ruling also opens the door to any of the current members who want to run for chairman without risking their seats. With no primary, the race is likely to be wide open, also attracting candidates from outside the council.