D.C. Council members eye mayor’s office, and the political jockeying takes off

Chairman Phil Mendelson hoped his sweeping reorganization of the D.C. Council would give members a chance to move beyond the ethics scandals and investigations of the past two years. But it’s unlikely he saw those changes as a platform from which to campaign for the 2014 mayoral race.

Now the political jockeying has begun.

(Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post) - Phil Mendelson (D) reorganized the D.C. Council in January 2012. As several council members consider campaigning for mayor, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) said he would work with the chairman to limit the election’s impact on city business.

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Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) said that as the new public safety committee chairman, he wants to push the city to employ more surveillance cameras to fight crime. He has created an exploratory committee for a possible mayoral run.

Muriel Bowser, the Ward 4 Democrat, said that as the newly minted Economic Development Committee chairman, she will steer the city’s development strategy away from downtown. She is widely expected to announce a mayoral candidacy this spring.

And at-large independent David A. Catania has made truancy a priority as the new Education Committee chairman. Catania has said he is keeping his options open for 2014.

All three have said they won’t let politics influence their committee work. And Mayor Vincent C. Gray said he would work with Mendelson (D) to limit the impact of the election on city business.

“We know how this campaigning stuff goes,” said Gray (D).

But with Wells raising money for his exploratory effort, Bowser reaching out to activists and Democratic leaders to measure support, and Catania not ruling anything out, the election creep has threatened the balance of power between the mayor and the council members rumored to want his seat.

In an interview, Bowser said she wants to shift the Gray administration’s development focus away from flashy downtown projects and toward residential neighborhoods. A neighborhood-centric strategy helped propel Bowser’s political mentor, Adrian M. Fenty (D), to the mayor’s office in 2006.

“Neighborhood development is tough . . . but when you go out in the communities, people ask about the corridors in which they live to make sure they have the same amenities as everyone else,” she said.

Bowser, who has had an awkward relationship with the mayor since he defeated Fenty in 2010, is concerned that Gray is taking too much credit for projects that originated with his predecessors. “Every mayor is the beneficiary of the groundwork that previous mayors have made,” she said. “Some mayors are better at acknowledging that than others.”

With the city nearing its debt limit, Bowser plans to take a central role in planning future growth and “ask very pointed questions” of administration officials about whether some projects should be shelved to free up more borrowing authority for other development.

Bowser is expected to concentrate her efforts on the Georgia Avenue corridor, which bisects her home ward.

“It’s our turn,” said Bowser, who will now interact more with developers and business leaders, who traditionally account for a large share of contributions to mayoral contests.

Gray legislative director Janene Jackson defended the administration’s strategy for development, citing plans for six new neighborhood Wal-Mart stores, new projects at Skyland Shopping Center in Ward 7, the campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital in Congress Heights and the grounds of the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Ward 4.

The administration’s relationship with Wells, who has been generally supportive of the mayor’s agenda, has been strained recently.

Wells said his oversight would demonstrate that safer streets created a more “livable, walkable” city — his campaign theme. He wants greater use of police surveillance cameras to fight crime, despite the concerns of some progressives that the technology infringes on civil liberties.

Meanwhile, Wells has stepped up his criticism of the administration’s inability to finalize a contract with the city’s 3,900 sworn police officers and vowed to make a new contract a top priority for his committee. But senior administration officials warn that only the mayor’s office can negotiate collective-bargaining agreements.

“We have real concerns about Mr. Wells interfering,” said one senior official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the ongoing contract talks.

Tension surfaced recently between Wells and the mayor over who was to get credit for the recent hiring of 50 police officers.

When Gray’s proposal came up before the council in December, Wells was the only council member to vote for it. Gray and Mendelson later worked out an agreement to fund the positions, and Wells issued a statement taking some of the credit for the new officers.

Gray administration officials pushed back, saying Wells tried to take credit for a deal the mayor brokered with Mendelson. They added that Wells also successfully pushed to reduce fines for speeding violations, cutting into the revenue that Gray had available to hire new officers.

“Mr. Wells didn’t play any role in funding of any officers, and if it hadn’t been for him, we would have 100 officers,” said Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro.

When Gray spoke about the matter in his recent State of the District speech, he publicly thanked Mendelson but never mentioned Wells, who sat in the audience.

Gray is also expected to face head winds from Catania over schools oversight.

Although the 2007 education reform law gives the mayor control over schools, Catania may test that authority. He has argued at community meetings that there has not been enough “leadership” from city officials to ensure reform efforts are successful. Recently, for example, Catania suggested that he wasn’t impressed with the principal at Ballou High School.

“I am not concerned about what people think as it relates to, ‘Is this your job, or is that your job,’ ” Catania said. “I was elected by my colleagues to chair this committee, and I intend to be a leader on this subject,” he added.

When asked whether he is concerned about Catania’s approach, Gray warned against the council “intervening” in education. “I think being able to continue on a path, without a constant debate with the council, is important,” said Gray, who added that his leadership is responsible for stable enrollment and rising test scores.

The two are also at odds over Catania’s proposal to hold parents criminally accountable if their high school children have 10 or more unexcused absences. Gray opposes the plan, saying “in some instances, the parents really can’t control these children.”

Last week, Catania presented his vision for education to the Ward 4 Democratic Committee. While Catania spoke, an aide handed out Education Committee fact sheets that bore the same green font and “Catania” logo as his recent campaign signs. His aide also collected names and e-mail addresses so the office can build a database of residents interested in education issues.

“I’m here to make everyone mad,” Catania told about 50 activists, explaining how he will push for more accountability in schools. “We can do better in this city.”

 
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