He earned a reputation for returning phone calls and making good on his word.
“He’s probably the fairest one on the council. He’ll get on your nerves, but he’ll do his homework,” said Sandra Seegars, a Ward 8 activist. “When he says something, he means it. He’s detailed. And he comes to Ward 8 all the time. He supports us, and we support him.”
He embraces the nitpicker moniker, even making it the headline on his campaign literature in 2006. He tells people that he’s been compared to the rat terrier breed of dog, known for its stubbornness.
“It’s important to be committed,” Mendelson said. “And stick to important issues and keep after government to get it right.”
Mendelson has heard his critics accuse him of being paralyzed by detail or missing the big picture — but he rejects that.
“People want a legislator who is paying attention to what they’re voting on. They want substance,” Mendelson said. “When the Supreme Court strikes down our gun law, we have to rewrite it, and that’s paying attention to details.”
Leader on major issues
Mendelson has been chairman of the Judiciary Committee since 2005, overseeing police and courts at a time of a decline in violent crime. He said he is proud that public-safety agencies are operating within their budgets, something that hadn’t happened in at least two decades, he said.
“Our agencies are in a better place to do their work than they have been in a long, long time,” he said.
As a legislator, he has taken a leading role in major issues, including the fight to legalize same-sex marriage, and he often champions environmental causes.
When Adrian M. Fenty (D) was mayor, Mendelson was one of his first and most strident critics, saying Fenty was autocratic and did not respect government process — intolerable qualities to Mendelson. The accusations became widespread and ultimately helped lead to Gray’s unseating of Fenty.
Mendelson led opposition to many of Fenty’s key initiatives, including Peter Nickles’s nomination as attorney general and police checkpoints in the Trinidad neighborhood, which a court later ruled unconstitutional.
Mendelson also voted against Fenty’s takeover of city schools, saying it could create more uncertainty than accountability. Mendelson has a personal stake in the welfare of the school system because his daughter is a sixth-grader at a D.C. public school. Several fellow council members who voted for the takeover send their children to private schools.
In addition to the Judiciary Committee, Mendelson is a member of the committees on housing and workforce development; libraries, parks and recreation; public services and consumer affairs; and redistricting.
Over time, he has ruffled some feathers because of his positions. His relationships with two unions have soured in recent months: He had a falling-out with the D.C. police union over its perception that Mendelson sided too often with Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier. And he lost the support of the D.C. Tenants’ Advisory Coalition over his failure to back their candidate for the Public Service Commission.
Mendelson also faces some uncertainty over the unfolding federal investigation into Jeffrey E. Thompson, owner of Chartered Health Plan, the city’s largest contractor. Mendelson and several of his colleagues were served subpoenas for years of records related to donations from Thompson, who has helped raise tens of thousands of dollars for political candidates. Mendelson accepted 15 checks from Thompson in September 2010.
“As far as I know, there was nothing inappropriate in regard to my campaign,” Mendelson said.
Mendelson grew up in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, where he was influenced by the women in his family who were politically active. His mother, a high school government teacher, unsuccessfully ran for city council and was a tireless activist for nursing home reform. His grandmother was president of the Michigan League of Women Voters and a founder of the Grand Rapids Urban League.
“Growing up, I used to listen to my mother rant about bad politicians,” he said. “The ones who didn’t care, the ones who were part of an old boys’ network.”
His staff says he works all the time, and when he’s not at work — for fun — he works.
“I can’t say I really have hobbies,” Mendelson said, then paused. “I’d like to.”
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