News & Politics

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
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