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

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 25, 2010

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."

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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.

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