In a contentious morning meeting that at one point reduced one member to tears, the DC City Council today voted to make Phil Mendelson interim council chairman and Michael Brown interim vice chair. The vote was 11 to 1* in favor of the measure, with Vincent Orange voting “no.” Orange had nominated himself for the vice chair position. All three are at-large members of the council.
Mendelson is a city council veteran. He is from Ohio, went to college at American University, and was first elected to the city council in 1998. He is a resident of Northwest, and jumped into neighborhood politics in 1975 as a member of the McLean Gardens Residents’ Association. Brown failed at two attempts for city office—a shot at the mayor’s job in 2006 and the Ward 4 council seat in 2007—but successfully won his campaign for at-large city council member in 2008, running as an independent.
During the debate, Ward 7 council member Yvette Alexander started to talk about the process and then had to stop talking due to tears. But she said she was glad the council got past its differences, which came down to who sided with Brown or Orange. In the end, “unity” became the message. The vote on the vice chair, or chair pro-tem, was more divided than the overall vote, with four yes votes and eight no votes.
The vote on an acting chair was necessary after the resignation last week of former council chairman Kwame Brown, who pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges. Mayor Vincent Gray is still under investigation by the US Attorney’s office on issues involving campaign practices.
At-large council member David Catania said, “In this environment we need more stability, not less stability. My message for residents: We have many months of uncertainty in store.” He urged citizens to “reach out and remind us why we were elected.” Ward 8 council member Marion Barry Jr. said, “I’ve never seen the credibility and doubt about the DC government and the council this low. The stain is deep. People are dissatisfied, they are disappointed, they are hurt, and they are crying about what’s going on down here.”
Extra attention will be paid to Mendelson because of the ongoing DC City Hall drama. On the same day as the presidential election, November 6, DC voters will get a chance to vote on the council chairman position, and presumably Mendelson will win. It’s possible Orange, and others, may challenge him, but the seat is essentially Mendelson’s to lose. If Mayor Gray is indicted and resigns, the city council chairman (acting or otherwise) will become mayor. If it’s Mendelson, he would be the city’s first white mayor since Home Rule began in 1973. The uncertainty of what’s ahead was at the root of the debate in the city council today.
Ward 2 council member Jack Evans said, “this is not the most turbulent time” in the city’s history. He mentioned other episodes, including then-mayor Marion Barry’s 1990 arrest at the Vista Hotel, after which he went on trial for perjury and drug possession; and the 1993 suicide of council chairman John Wilson, followed in 1997 by the illness and death of Wilson’s successor, David A. Clarke.
Barry took issue with Evans’s statement. “I don’t know how you can compare those events to the catastrophic events we have now,” he said. “Two members convicted on felonies. More to come, probably. I’ve been in Washington 50 years. This is the worst, Jack. The years you are talking about, nobody was charged with doing illegal things in a campaign.”
At some points during the debate, presiding chair Mary Cheh had to be stern with her fellow council members. As Orange waxed on, saying, “All is well in my soul; I made myself vulnerable for the citizens of the District of Columbia,” and then spelling out “U-N-I-T-Y,” Cheh cut him off. “Unity is also about staying within your time,” she said, and moved on with the meeting.