D.C. Council members were deep into a recent budget hearing, debating affordable housing and health care for the poor, when Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) introduced an amendment correcting a keystroke error in an obscure subsection of the draft.
“Are you correcting a typo?” snapped an exasperated Jim Graham (D-Ward 1). “Are you now in charge of typo corrections in the budget? How many more of them are there?”
In a city full of theatrical politicians , Mendelson is a nitpicker. He is a legislator more concerned with details than charisma, a quality that in part explains why the council is poised to elect him as its interim chairman Wednesday.
The stakes for Wednesday’s vote are higher than who will lead the council for a few months. The interim leader will replace former council chairman Kwame R. Brown, who resigned last week after pleading guilty to a bank-fraud charge. Brown, a Democrat, was the second council member to resign in scandal, leaving the panel aching for some stability.
In addition, the interim chairman could have a significant advantage at the ballot box in November, when voters will choose a permanent replacement for Brown. Mendelson already has said he wants the job, but he will likely face Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) and others.
The next chairman also will be next in line to the mayor’s office, should Vincent C. Gray (D) be unable to finish his term. Gray’s 2010 campaign is under federal investigation, and two of his top campaign aides have pleaded guilty in the probe.
If Gray were to leave and Mendelson becomes chairman, Mendelson would become the District’s first white mayor under home rule.
“How we got here is very unfortunate,” Mendelson, 59, said in an interview this week. “I’m not happy about that. But here we are, and the council needs leadership. I have the experience and the skills, and I care about the council as an institution.”
Mendelson’s respect for process and his laserlike focus on detail — and the fact that he is largely untouched by scandal in his 14 years on the council — are among the reasons a majority of his colleagues are backing him.
An Ohio native who has lived in the District his entire adult life, Mendelson is viewed by his peers not as a visionary but as a caretaker who would manage the affairs of the council responsibly until the election this fall.
“Mendelson, at this time, will bring us the kind of steady hand and continuity we need,” said Michael A. Brown (I-At Large). “He’s been here awhile. He knows the folks. He’s extremely methodical.”
Mendelson said he knows how to start building trust with city residents again. “It’s getting back to legislating and oversight and being responsive to citizens,” Mendelson said. “It’s toning down what citizens see as arrogance and aloofness.”
As chairman, he said, he would be more of a facilitator than a dictator.
Often underestimated, Mendelson’s forte appears to be his focus on minutiae, a formula that has made him politically resilient. He won every ward in the past two elections, even in 2006, when he faced formidable competition from high-octane lawyer A. Scott Bolden.
Mendelson prevailed by showing up everywhere he was invited, and in many places he wasn’t. Several years ago, he began holding “office hours” outdoors in various communities. He stands for an hour with a clipboard and makes himself available for residents who need help with a city service or cutting through government red tape or people who simply want to meet a council member.
He found campaigning sometimes frustrating, he said, because he was forced to produce pithy responses to complex questions. “I do not support corruption,” he deadpanned in 2006 to an audience at Takoma Park Baptist Church.
He earned a reputation for returning phone calls and making good on his word.
“He’s probably the fairest one on the council. He’ll get on your nerves, but he’ll do his homework,” said Sandra Seegars, a Ward 8 activist. “When he says something, he means it. He’s detailed. And he comes to Ward 8 all the time. He supports us, and we support him.”
He embraces the nitpicker moniker, even making it the headline on his campaign literature in 2006. He tells people that he’s been compared to the rat terrier breed of dog, known for its stubbornness.
“It’s important to be committed,” Mendelson said. “And stick to important issues and keep after government to get it right.”
Mendelson has heard his critics accuse him of being paralyzed by detail or missing the big picture — but he rejects that.
“People want a legislator who is paying attention to what they’re voting on. They want substance,” Mendelson said. “When the Supreme Court strikes down our gun law, we have to rewrite it, and that’s paying attention to details.”
Mendelson has been chairman of the Judiciary Committee since 2005, overseeing police and courts at a time of a decline in violent crime. He said he is proud that public-safety agencies are operating within their budgets, something that hadn’t happened in at least two decades, he said.
“Our agencies are in a better place to do their work than they have been in a long, long time,” he said.
As a legislator, he has taken a leading role in major issues, including the fight to legalize same-sex marriage, and he often champions environmental causes.
When Adrian M. Fenty (D) was mayor, Mendelson was one of his first and most strident critics, saying Fenty was autocratic and did not respect government process — intolerable qualities to Mendelson. The accusations became widespread and ultimately helped lead to Gray’s unseating of Fenty.
Mendelson led opposition to many of Fenty’s key initiatives, including Peter Nickles’s nomination as attorney general and police checkpoints in the Trinidad neighborhood, which a court later ruled unconstitutional.
Mendelson also voted against Fenty’s takeover of city schools, saying it could create more uncertainty than accountability. Mendelson has a personal stake in the welfare of the school system because his daughter is a sixth-grader at a D.C. public school. Several fellow council members who voted for the takeover send their children to private schools.
In addition to the Judiciary Committee, Mendelson is a member of the committees on housing and workforce development; libraries, parks and recreation; public services and consumer affairs; and redistricting.
Over time, he has ruffled some feathers because of his positions. His relationships with two unions have soured in recent months: He had a falling-out with the D.C. police union over its perception that Mendelson sided too often with Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier. And he lost the support of the D.C. Tenants’ Advisory Coalition over his failure to back their candidate for the Public Service Commission.
Mendelson also faces some uncertainty over the unfolding federal investigation into Jeffrey E. Thompson, owner of Chartered Health Plan, the city’s largest contractor. Mendelson and several of his colleagues were served subpoenas for years of records related to donations from Thompson, who has helped raise tens of thousands of dollars for political candidates. Mendelson accepted 15 checks from Thompson in September 2010.
“As far as I know, there was nothing inappropriate in regard to my campaign,” Mendelson said.
Mendelson grew up in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, where he was influenced by the women in his family who were politically active. His mother, a high school government teacher, unsuccessfully ran for city council and was a tireless activist for nursing home reform. His grandmother was president of the Michigan League of Women Voters and a founder of the Grand Rapids Urban League.
“Growing up, I used to listen to my mother rant about bad politicians,” he said. “The ones who didn’t care, the ones who were part of an old boys’ network.”
His staff says he works all the time, and when he’s not at work — for fun — he works.
“I can’t say I really have hobbies,” Mendelson said, then paused. “I’d like to.”
More from The Washington Post: