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Mayor Mendelson Takes Over if Gray and Brown Go Down?

A look at who ends up in office if both the mayor and the council chair are unable to finish their terms.

It’s safe to say the John Wilson Building is “atwitter” with questions and speculation about the outcome of federal investigations into the campaigns of Mayor Vincent Gray and council chairman Kwame Brown.

Until US Attorney Ronald Machen makes a move on Gray and/or Brown—or ends his investigations without charging either—we are left to wonder and spin tales. The possibility remains that the District’s top two elected officials might not complete their terms.

What happens if both probes bear fruit and, as a result, neither Gray nor Brown remains in office? Does the District have a decapitation plan?

Every hour seems to bring another tidbit about who might be the next staffer from Gray’s 2010 campaign to walk the walk to the federal courthouse and face charges. Two high-ranking aides with close ties to Gray have pleaded guilty to felonies, in connection with payments to another candidate directed to harass incumbent Adrian Fenty.

The circle is closing in on the mayor, the speculation goes, but it’s just that: speculation. Gray has gone from saying he knew nothing of the payments to saying nothing at all.

What about Chairman Brown? Last July the Board of Elections and Ethics referred its investigation of Brown’s 2008 council campaign to federal prosecutors. An audit by the Office of Campaign Finance reported that Brown’s campaign failed to account for more than $270,000 in contributions and expenditures. A company controlled by Che Brown, the chairman’s brother, received $239,000 in campaign funds.

Kwame Brown welcomed the investigation and has maintained there was no wrongdoing.

In the absence of facts, bear in mind Machen’s most recent tactics in the case of defrocked council member Harry Thomas Jr. Caught stealing public funds from programs designed to help kids play sports, Thomas was forced to resign as well as pay penalties and serve jail time. I’m not suggesting Gray or Brown will suffer a similar fate, but the possibility remains that Machen could present them with painful choices, as in, quit or face public trial.

The District’s Home Rule Charter describes the replacement process. Section 411 states: “When the Office of Mayor is vacant, the Chairman shall act in his stead.”

Great, but what if the chairman’s spot is vacant, or about to be vacant? Here’s how the process might play out if both Brown and Gray cannot complete their terms.

The chairman might have to go first.

When the chairman’s office “becomes vacant,” the Home Rule Charter says the president pro tempore calls a meeting of the remaining members to choose an acting chair—from the four at-large council members.

In practice, Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh, as president pro tempore, would call the meeting. Only two of the at-large members are Democrats: Phil Mendelson and Vincent Orange. It is more likely the one chosen would be Mendelson, who is, if nothing else, a better caretaker and less of a threat to run for mayor, should anyone have the opportunity.

The Home Rule Act says a special election must be held at least 114 days after the vacancy. Fine.

Suppose the mayor cannot complete his term? According to Section 411, if Mendelson is the acting chairman, he becomes the acting mayor. And after 114 days, the city can hold a special election for mayor.

If the mayor cannot serve because of a temporary incapacity, the city administrator can step in. In 1990, when Marion Barry was arrested in the sting for the cocaine rap, then-city administrator Carol Thompson Cole took over. If such a scenario played out now, Allen Lew would become acting mayor.

The District has been forced to replace chairmen twice in the past. When council chair John Wilson died in office in 1993, John Ray became acting chair; when Dave Clarke passed away in 1997, Linda Cropp took his place, first as acting chairman then elected on her own.

Never have the mayor and chairman posts been vacant at the same time, but it remains a possibility—and a matter of much speculation.

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