D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson picked up his petitions on Monday in his bid to permanently win the seat in November, but there remains uncertainty as to whether he will draw a high-profile challenger after a leading potential candidate appears to have pulled back from the race.
People familiar with his thinking said Monday that Council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) has concluded he’s not running for the chairman’s seat to focus on his at-large contest. Orange relayed his intention to stay out of the race to Mendelson over the weekend, the sources say.
Mendelson became chairman last week after his colleagues overwhelmingly selected him to serve on an interim basis pending the Nov. 6 special election. He replaces Kwame R. Brown, who resigned earlier this month after he pleaded guilty to fraudulently obtaining two bank loans.
Mendelson, 59, a four-term at-large council member, began signaling immediately after Brown stepped down that he would seek to fill out the remainder of Brown’s term through 2014.
But by picking up his petitions from the Board of Elections and Ethics, Mendelson took his first step toward putting together his campaign.
In an interview, Mendelson said he’s optimistic District voters will view him as a steady leader who can unite a council rocked by the recent resignations of two members and divisive internal and public battles among some members.
“The council right now needs stability and I can offer that as we work to regain the public’s trust,” Mendelson said.
Candidates from any political party can run in the special election so long as they collect 3,000 signatures from registered voters.
So far, four candidates have picked up petitions to appear on the ballot including Dorothy Douglas, a Democrat who sits on the board of education, Robert L. Matthews, a member of the Statehood Green Party, and John C. Cheeks, an independent.
Orange initially appeared interested in the race, including telling The Associated Press last week he would be a candidate. But sources said Monday Orange wants to focus on his reelection bid to an at-large seat in November. Orange did not return calls seeking comment.
He was criticized for his comments during a council meeting last week, when he unsuccessfully sought the council’s president pro temp position.
Mendelson said he sat with Orange in the John A. Wilson Building on Saturday to try to smooth over tensions. When asked whether Orange told him whether he would be a candidate, Mendelson said, “I’m not going to get into that.”
“We talked about a wide range of issues and we started talking about council issues and business, and we ended talking about council issues and business,” Mendelson added.
The meeting reflects what Mendelson hopes will mark a new tone for the troubled council. In the coming weeks, Mendelson said he intends to build a more “collaborative” body, but is otherwise not planning any big shake-ups.
“People love to see the dramatic, but the dramatic is not what the council needs right now,” Mendelson said. “It needs for some calming and just getting back to the focus of legislating and oversight.”
How much time Mendelson has to work on building relationships in the Wilson Building could depend on how much he’ll have to spend on the campaign trail.
Though Mendelson has easily dispensed of his past challengers in citywide Democratic primaries, this year’s contest will be unique because it corresponds with the presidential election.
In 2010, when Mendelson defeated his neared Democratic challenger by better than 2 to 1, about 123,000 ballots were cast. In the 2008 general election, 265,000 voters showed up to the polls for President Obama’s contest against Arizona Sen. John McCain (R).
With Obama on the ballot again this year, there could be another surge in black turnout. Mendelson is only the second white politician to chair the council since Home Rule. It also remains unclear whether Mendelson will have to fend off an anti-incumbent tide in local politics following the recent scandals and controversies.
But with an electoral track record that includes picking up support citywide, Mendelson said he’s not worried about having to reach out to tens of thousands of voters who don’t traditionally pay close attention to District politics.
“I am comfortable campaigning in every neighborhood so I am not concerned it’s a presidential election,” said Mendelson, who is putting together his campaign staff.
Former city administrator Robert Bobb, former Ward 3 council member Kathy Patterson and Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) also have been mentioned as potential candidates.
Patterson and Evans have said they are not interested in running for the job.
Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.