But after Mendelson spoke, council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) suggested that the chairman was insensitive, saying the neighborhood was still recovering from the damage caused by the riots that followed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968. And council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) sought to link the project to the historically black university.
“We have given support to all these universities, and I have not seen the same support for Howard University,” Alexander said before the measure was approved.
The debate and eventual vote in part highlighted Mendelson’s limited influence over some council members and underscored the potential pitfall that awaits him as he manages uncomfortable topics of race and politics.
Although the council had white chairmen through most of the 1980s and a majority of its members from 1999 to 2009 were white, the results of the November election mark the first time under home rule that it will be led by a white chairman and be majority white.
The council’s new racial makeup — at a time when many longtime black residents worry that their influence is waning — will test Mendelson as he seeks to exercise his authority while stitching together a reliable working majority.
“You manage it by making a disagreement a disagreement rather than something that is broader,” Mendelson said. “But I think the council needs to be constantly sensitive to ensuring that we are being inclusive.”
Mendelson’s effort to establish a diverse, effective coalition is magnified by what some observers say has been a lack of forceful leadership. Meanwhile, Mendelson is also overseeing a body in which at least three members are considering a run for mayor.
The 2014 race could include discussion about whether the District could elect its first white mayor under home rule in part because council members Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) have shown interest in the contest. It’s a debate Mendelson, long known as a politician who transcends racial lines, would be eager to avoid, some observers said.
“It is not going to be something that is going to jump out in front of you, but it’s going to be the undercurrent of the session,” said Sandy Allen, a former Ward 8 council member. “Phil is going to have to bring that together, and I don’t know if he can do that, because you got some hard-hitters down there.”
Support throughout city
The council unanimously selected Mendelson to serve as interim chairman in June when Kwame R. Brown resigned after pleading guilty to bank fraud and a campaign finance violation. Last month, Mendelson won 71 percent of the vote in his bid to finish Brown’s term, reflecting his reputation as a District politician with support throughout the city.