D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson is still trying to determine which members will chair what committees next year, but plans to finalize his decisions by Dec. 19.
On Sunday, The Washington Post explored the difficulty Mendelson faces in putting together a diverse, effective team of council members he can rely upon.
The organization of committees is a crucial part of Mendelson’s job, and members are lobbying for key assignments. Mendelson’s task is complicated by several new members, and others remain caught up in ongoing ethics investigations, making it difficult for Mendelson (D) to entrust them with major authority.
But before the assignments can be sorted out, Mendelson must decide whether he, as chairman, wants to continue to oversee either the education or judiciary committees.
After suddenly becoming chairman this summer, Mendelson kept his longtime oversight over judiciary issues while also assuming the chairmanship of the Committee of the Whole, which oversees education.
Few observers or Mendelson advisers expect him to keep oversight of both issues in 2013.
In an interview last week, council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) publicly expressed his interest in giving up oversight over the Health Committee to become chairman of a new Education Committee.
“I wanted this committee for two years,” Catania said. “The education disparities, it’s the last frontier, the great frontier we need to tackle to make this truly a great city we know it can be.”
If Mendelson opts to give up the Judiciary Committee, Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) has been mentioned as a potential replacement.
If Cheh were to move to Judiciary, that could leave an opening for Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) to return as chairman over Transportation issues. Cheh currently chairs the committee on Public Works, the Environment and Transportation, but Mendelson could also break up the committee into responsibility areas.
In an interview, Cheh said she has told Mendelson “she is happy to stay” with her current committee “but wants to be a team player” if Mendelson has an “urgent need.”
“I’m not looking for anything, I am looking to stay right here,” said Cheh, noting that her staff also prefers she remain as chairman of the Committee on Public Works, the Environment and Transportation. “They want to stay with this for a while.”
Mendelson could also turn to council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) to oversee judiciary. McDuffie, an attorney, is a former trial attorney for the U.S. Justice Department and former assistant state’s attorney in Prince George’s County. But McDuffie only joined the council in May, and some members argue that he may be too green for a major committee assignment.
In an interview, McDuffie declined to comment, saying he had yet to speak to Mendelson about his preferences.
Mendelson must also decide who will chair the Economic Development Committee. Council member Michael A. Brown (I-At Large) currently chairs the panel, but Brown lost his bid for reelection this year to Independent David Grosso.
Council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) has expressed interest in the past in economic development issues, but it’s unclear whether Mendelson is satisfied that Orange is not going to be implicated in the ongoing federal investigation into contractor Jeffrey E. Thompson’s campaign activities.
Orange received more than $20,000 in self-described “suspicious” money orders from Thompson last year, but the at-large member has argued that he’s since been cleared of wrong-doing.
Likewise, council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) could be a contender to chair economic development. But Mendelson would likely have to be comfortable that Graham (D-Ward 1) will not become a target of ongoing federal probe of the D.C. lottery contract. Graham has denied wrongdoing.
In an interview, Graham said he’s discussed his committee preferences with Mendelson recently but declined to detail the nature of those discussions.
“He’s obviously being very thoughtful and deliberate, but we are all in the dark for the moment,” Graham said.
Council members Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), two likely candidates for mayor in 2014, are also available to oversee economic development.
But Mendelson could inadvertently boost campaign cash for either Wells or Bowser if he puts either in charge of a committee that does extensive business with developers and business leaders.
Finally, Mendelson must decide who should be second-in-command as president pro-tempore. Though largely a ceremonial position, some members are urging Mendelson to bolster the influence of the job by also making the new president tempore a whip who keeps a majority of members behind the chairman’s priorities.
Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who served as president pro-tempore under several past chairs, would likely be eager to fill that job.
But Mendelson must also decide whether he can afford politically to have no diversity in the council’s top two leadership positions.
In an interview, Mendelson said “an argument can be made” that seniority, not racial balance, should dictate who gets the president pro-tempore position. Evans, who is white, is the longest-serving council member.
Another possibility, Mendelson said, is to make “someone who isn’t the busiest” with other committee work the president pro-tempore.
“There are a lot of ways to splice this,” Mendelson said.
Correction: This post has been corrected to reflect that Vincent B. Orange has not chaired the Economic Development Committee.