Mendelson overcomes unexpectedly strong challenge for his council seat

Voters in D.C. cast ballots Tuesday in the closely watched Democratic primary race for mayor between Adrian Fenty and Vincent C. Gray.
By Ann E. Marimow
Wednesday, September 15, 2010; 3:41 AM

Veteran D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) fought off an unexpectedly strong primary challenge on Tuesday from Michael D. Brown, one of the District's little-known shadow senators.

Mendelson had struggled in recent weeks to overcome voter confusion about his main rival's name. Listed on the ballot as simply "Michael Brown," some voters said Tuesday that they thought they were voting for council member Michael A. Brown (I-At Large), who was not up for election this year.

But Mendelson rallied, getting 64 percent of votes citywide, compared with 28 percent for Brown. The remaining votes went to former parks and recreation director Clark Ray.

"It appears that we were successful in educating voters," Mendelson said in an interview as he gathered with supporters at a restaurant on U Street NW.

Campaigning at polling sites Tuesday, Michael D. Brown, a former political consultant, acknowledged that "name recognition helps." But he said he was not trying to hide his identity. "I'm not out trying to confuse people."

A Washington Post poll last month surprised Mendelson, first elected to the council in 1998, by showing he was trailing Brown by 12 points among likely voters. Mendelson afterward sent a series of mailers with photos of the two Browns: Michael A., who is black; and Michael D., who is white.

Voters in some neighborhoods were greeted at their polling sites by banners featuring pictures of Mendelson, Michael A. and Michael D., with a red "X" over Michael D.'s face and the message "Don't be fooled."

Mendelson's message seemed to get through to more than a dozen voters interviewed in communities east of the Anacostia River in Ward 7, who said they were aware of the two Browns from TV ads paid for by Mendelson's supporters.

But James Simms, a budget analyst and Ward 4 resident, said he had studied the candidates and had even taken to watching council meetings on television. "I really like what Michael Brown contributed," he said after voting for Brown in Northeast Washington.

Told of his mistake, Simms's face grew red. "It's too late now," he said.

Yet Iris Parks of Ward 4 said she was turned off by what she considered Mendelson's "negative campaign." Parks, 53, said she knowingly voted for Brown -- Michael D., that is.

Until recently, Mendelson had run a low-key campaign with one paid worker. Michael D. was a late-entrant into the race and had raised no money as of the Aug. 10 filing deadline.

Mendelson expected his main challenger to be Ray. But by late August, the Post poll showed Brown gaining traction, scoring highest among blacks. More broadly, support for Michael D. Brown across the city tracked almost exactly with Michael A. Brown's showing in his 2008 election.

Staff writers J. Freedom du Lac, Annys Shin and Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.

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