In a city full of theatrical politicians
, Mendelson is a nitpicker. He is a legislator more concerned with details than charisma, a quality that in part explains why the council is poised to elect him as its interim chairman Wednesday.
The stakes for Wednesday’s vote are higher than who will lead the council for a few months. The interim leader will replace former council chairman Kwame R. Brown, who resigned last week after pleading guilty to a bank-fraud charge. Brown, a Democrat, was the second council member to resign in scandal, leaving the panel aching for some stability.
In addition, the interim chairman could have a significant advantage at the ballot box in November, when voters will choose a permanent replacement for Brown. Mendelson already has said he wants the job, but he will likely face Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) and others.
The next chairman also will be next in line to the mayor’s office, should Vincent C. Gray (D) be unable to finish his term. Gray’s 2010 campaign is under federal investigation, and two of his top campaign aides have pleaded guilty in the probe.
If Gray were to leave and Mendelson becomes chairman, Mendelson would become the District’s first white mayor under home rule.
“How we got here is very unfortunate,” Mendelson, 59, said in an interview this week. “I’m not happy about that. But here we are, and the council needs leadership. I have the experience and the skills, and I care about the council as an institution.”
Mendelson’s respect for process and his laserlike focus on detail — and the fact that he is largely untouched by scandal in his 14 years on the council — are among the reasons a majority of his colleagues are backing him.
An Ohio native who has lived in the District his entire adult life, Mendelson is viewed by his peers not as a visionary but as a caretaker who would manage the affairs of the council responsibly until the election this fall.
“Mendelson, at this time, will bring us the kind of steady hand and continuity we need,” said Michael A. Brown (I-At Large). “He’s been here awhile. He knows the folks. He’s extremely methodical.”
Mendelson said he knows how to start building trust with city residents again. “It’s getting back to legislating and oversight and being responsive to citizens,” Mendelson said. “It’s toning down what citizens see as arrogance and aloofness.”
As chairman, he said, he would be more of a facilitator than a dictator.
Often underestimated, Mendelson’s forte appears to be his focus on minutiae, a formula that has made him politically resilient. He won every ward in the past two elections, even in 2006, when he faced formidable competition from high-octane lawyer A. Scott Bolden.