“He has paralyzed people regarding laws because of the penalties but didn’t make sure people got the treatment,” said Ron Moten, a co-founder of Peaceoholics, a violence-prevention organization.
A recent Washington Post poll found that Mendelson is no more popular with black voters than three of his white colleagues: David A. Catania (I-At Large), Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and Jack Evans (D-Ward 2). About a quarter of black voters hold a favorable view of Mendelson, while just 13 percent hold a negative view. Over six in 10 have no opinion of him, the survey found.
But political strategists and community activists warn against underestimating Mendelson’s popularity with politically active African Americans most likely to participate in District elections.
The electoral strength of Mendelson, including winning a three-way race by better than 2 to 1 in 2010, has apparently persuaded some potential black candidates to skip the chairman’s race in November.
“Phil is just a regular guy with an appeal that doesn’t appear threatening,” said Sean Metcalf, an adviser to D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large), who considered running for chairman. “He is ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’ and gets away with that . . . Vince counts on the black vote to beat people, and that strategy doesn’t work against Phil Mendelson.”
The relative ease with which Mendelson travels in the African American community can be partially traced to his upbringing as the child of an activist in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. His mother was an advocate for nursing home reform, and his grandmother was president of the Michigan League of Women Voters and a founder of the Grand Rapids Urban League.
“I would have to say my family was liberal,” Mendelson said.
But much of Mendelson’s political acumen was formed as an activist for tenant rights and environmental issues in the 1970s and 1980s. He also worked as an aide to former council members James E. “Jim” Nathanson and David A. Clarke, the council’s only other white chairman.
A native Washingtonian who became immersed in the civil rights movement, Clarke enjoyed broad black support. Howard Croft, former chairman of the Urban Studies Department at the University of the District of Columbia, said Clarke’s death in 1997 presented Mendelson with an opportunity to step in and fill a “vacuum as the white guy that African Americans could trust.”
Yet African American activists and analysts caution that that support may not necessarily transfer to a Mendelson mayoral run should he seek the office.
Although The Post’s poll found that 53 percent of residents don’t think it’s important that the city’s mayor be black, both white and African American leaders said the city’s changing demographics may lead some black to prioritize electing black candidates more so than in the past.
“People are more sensitive today to the numbers game,” said former council member Carol Schwartz, who is white and enjoyed considerable black support during her four terms in the 1980s and 1990s.
Doris Cooper, 86, former president of the Dupont Park Civic Association in Ward 7, said Mendelson is the only council member “to pay attention” to her group’s meetings and complaints.
When asked whether she would back a Mendelson candidacy for mayor, Cooper paused, then said his race “may matter somewhat” due to the adage “the white man takes over and he keeps the black man down.”
“But you know what? For Phil Mendelson, it wouldn’t matter to me,” she said.
Peyton M. Craighill and Scott Clement contributed to this report.