Phil Mendelson's challengers try to break through a 12-year legacy

By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 25, 2010; B01

In Clark Ray's back pocket is a wrinkled photo of the man he wants to replace on the D.C. Council. He pulls it out for prospective voters and asks, with a hint of Southern twang, "Do you know who this is? I bet he's never knocked on your door and asked for your vote. I'm doing both today."

Ray, a former D.C. Parks and Recreation Department director and Clinton administration official, is campaigning citywide to make the case that after a dozen years in office, it's time for Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) to go.

But Mendelson, in his mild-mannered, no-frills way, has quietly built a network of goodwill throughout the city, crossing racial boundaries and winning more votes than Mayor Adrian M. Fenty did in the 2006 primary.

Mendelson, a self-described "nitpicker" who lives in Glover Park, has had a hand in some of the council's most far-reaching legislation -- from legalizing same-sex marriage to the rewriting of the District's gun laws after the Supreme Court's Heller decision, which struck down the city's long-standing ban on handguns.

"He's spent his entire career rolling up his sleeves and working very hard, particularly in low-income neighborhoods that are not part of his natural constituency," said Chuck Thies, a political consultant who in 2006 worked for Mendelson's opponent, lawyer A. Scott Bolden.

The wild card in the Sept. 14 at-large Democratic primary race is the late entry of a third candidate: the city's little-known shadow senator, Michael D. Brown, whom many people have confused with D.C. Council member Michael A. Brown (I-At Large).

Michael D., a former political consultant who had raised no money as of the Aug. 10 campaign finance filing, beat Mendelson and Ray in a straw poll of Ward 5 Democrats this week. The shadow senator, who lobbies for congressional representation, said he is running to ensure that the council has a full-time advocate for voting rights.

"We don't have anyone at city hall who takes this seriously," said Michael D., 57.

Michael A., son of the late Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown, has accused him of "political identity theft" and issued a news release to explain that he is not on the ballot next month. In a sign that Mendelson is also concerned, he has handed out fliers with photos of the two Browns and plans a mailing to clear up the confusion.

To Mendelson and his supporters, he has been a steadfast champion of civil rights, an ally to labor unions and one of the Fenty administration's most vocal critics. He led council opposition to Peter Nickles's nomination as attorney general and police checkpoints in the Trinidad neighborhood, which a court later ruled unconstitutional.

Ray and his backers say Mendelson, who chairs the council's Public Safety and the Judiciary Committee, had not been tough enough on crime until it became politically convenient, and they take him to task for being one of only two votes against mayoral control of schools in 2007.

"It's time to say to Phil, 'Thank you for the things you've done, but it's time to move on and give someone new a chance to bring new ideas and new energy,' " said Peter Rosenstein, a gay-rights activist who was one of Ray's earliest supporters.

The Fenty problem

Ray, 46, talks fast, walks quickly and says he has knocked on nearly 12,000 doors since announcing his candidacy in September. The former assistant to two secretaries of agriculture has tapped his national political connections to raise $140,000 as of Aug. 10, including a fundraiser with Tipper Gore.

Even so, Ray has struggled to distinguish himself from Mendelson on the issues and at times appeared uneasy when asked to outline why he thinks voters should dump the incumbent, other than to say that after 12 years on the council, "you get stale, stagnant and comfortable."

Ray also finds himself in an awkward situation with Fenty, his former boss, who is unpopular with many of the same voters Ray is courting. Ray got his start in city government doing neighborhood outreach for former Mayor Anthony A. Williams and later directing Fenty's community relations office before being tapped in 2007 to lead the Recreation Department. He said he is proud of pushing through stalled playground renovations, like Stead and Hearst in Northwest, and expanding summer camp enrollment. But he is undecided in the mayor's race.

Fenty abruptly fired Ray last year without explanation. At the time, Fenty said he wanted to "shift gears." By Ray's account, he was unwilling to go along with the privatization of day-care services and objected to plans to move contracts for parks projects out of his department -- which became the subject of an ongoing D.C. council investigation.

On the campaign trail, Ray said, the conversation with voters inevitably turns to the leadership of the District's public schools, an issue on which there is some daylight between him and Mendelson. Ray said Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee should stay and be given the opportunity to finish what she has started.

Mendelson, whose daughter attends a D.C. public school, also said Rhee should remain as chancellor, although he described her at a recent campaign forum as "terrible with employees" and not "working well with parents." And he defended his vote against the school takeover, saying the District government has often politicized schools by trying to remake the long-troubled system.

Hearing out complaints

Mendelson, 57, came up through the council as an aide to David A. Clarke, whom he admired for his ability in the 1970s and 1980s to transcend race as a white politician in a predominantly black city. To that end, Mendelson has long held sidewalk office hours, handling constituent complaints that are typically the work of the ward-centric council members.

Mendelson also won over the city's leading gay Democratic organization, the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club -- a disappointing outcome for Ray, who hopes to become the council's third openly gay member. Council member David Catania (I-At Large), who has not made an endorsement in the race, called Mendelson an "unapologetic champion" of the same-sex marriage bill Catania wrote, adding that Mendelson's attention to detail also means he is "generally the only member who cares what font the type is in."

As chairman of the Public Safety Committee, Mendelson also has not shied from confrontation. Kristopher Baumann, chairman of the local Fraternal Order of Police, watched as Mendelson told an agitated crowd concerned about crime in Shaw that he could not support an anti-gang provision central to the mayor's crime legislation last spring. The so-called civil gang injunctions, which were blocked by the council in part because of concerns about racial profiling, would have prevented people identified as gang members from associating with other alleged members.

Baumann's group sided with Fenty on the anti-gang effort but has endorsed Mendelson. "He doesn't go out and tell people what they want to hear," Baumann said.

This spring, Mendelson faced the family members of teenagers killed in a drive-by shooting on South Capitol Street. They pleaded with him to do more to keep violent offenders, including juveniles, off the streets.

"People have a right to vent, and it's better for the politician to go out and feel the fire," he said.

He has introduced a bill, which is pending a final vote, that would make public the identity and previous arrests of juvenile offenders after a second serious crime.

Nardyne Jefferies, who lost her 16-year-old daughter in the drive-by, praised Mendelson's personal concern for her. But she said the council and the mayor have long known about shortcomings in the juvenile justice system -- and ignored them.

"It shouldn't have taken this massacre," said Jefferies, who is undecided in the contest. "They all need to be much more committed and more proactive."

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