“Some people have even lost faith in our citizens’ ability to elect good government, which imperils not only this institution but the autonomy of the District overall,” said Phil Mendelson, second from right. (Sarah L. Voisin/WASHINGTON POST)

D.C. Council members overwhelmingly selected their new leaders Wednesday, but not before a ruthless debate that drove one member to tears and included references to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a former mayor’s drug arrest and boxer Manny Pacquiao.

By a vote of 11 to 1, council members coalesced behind council member Phil Mendelson as interim chairman, a low-key lawmaker who became only the second white politician to lead the council since home rule. After he took the gavel, Mendelson pledged to restore “honesty and integrity” to the weakened council.

“Right now, the symbol of this council is tarnished,” Mendelson (D) said in a monotone voice that highlights his subdued personality. “Some people have even lost faith in our citizens’ ability to elect good government, which imperils not only this institution but the autonomy of the District overall.”

But the Mendelson vote was overshadowed by a blistering fight on the dais over who should be the council’s chairman pro tempore: Michael A. Brown (I-At Large) or Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large).

Brown eventually prevailed in an 8 to 4 vote, but only after some members suggested that his past ethical lapses should disqualify him from a leadership role.

The debate was capped by Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), who broke down as she pleaded for civility while delivering an unusually frank assessment of life in the John A. Wilson Building.

“Tomorrow, we could be in handcuffs, so I wouldn’t be so quick to say how honest and forthright we are,” Alexander said while pleading with colleagues to “stop all the backbiting.”

“I’m sick of it,” she said, trying to regain her composure. She later said, “I can say you will not see me in handcuffs.”

Earlier this year, former council member Harry Thomas Jr. was convicted of stealing $350,000 from taxpayers, and former chairman Kwame R. Brown pleaded guilty to bank fraud last week. Also, two former campaign aides to Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) pleaded guilty last month in connection with an ongoing federal probe into the mayor’s 2010 campaign.

Shortly after Kwame Brown resigned last Wednesday as part of a plea agreement with federal prosecutors, Mendelson and Orange started to quietly lobby for his seat pending a special election Nov. 6. The council quickly solidified behind Mendelson, drawn by his reputation as a trustworthy colleague with 14 years’ experience on the council.

Instead of forcing a public fight for the top job, Orange instead sought the largely ceremonial post of chairman pro tempore. But Mendelson asked his colleagues to instead elect Michael Brown, noting that the chairman normally recommends the person for the post.

Orange teamed up with Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) for a public assault on Brown’s record. The two noted that Brown pleaded guilty in 1997 to misdemeanor federal campaign-finance violations after he facilitated straw donations.

They also said that Brown has struggled to keep pace with his personal debt, including failing to pay his property taxes on time in 2010. The Internal Revenue Service also filed a $50,000 lien against him for failing to pay income taxes dating to 2004.

“In my public service record of 25 years, I have never been under any investigation. I have never had to pay a fine,” Orange said. “I have no conviction. I am up to date on my personal income, my property taxes.”

Later, Orange pounded his fist on the dais, shouting that he was the best person for the job and comparing himself to Pacquiao, the welterweight boxer who lost a fight in a controversial decision over the weekend.

“I’m the best!” Orange shouted.

Brown defended his record, noting that he won his 2008 election despite his past legal troubles.

“All of those things . . . are old news,” Brown said in an interview. “The voters have vetted me on all of those issues, but I am very proud of my legislative record.”

But Barry stressed the importance of the vote and warned council members that they were “making a mistake” by electing a non-Democrat with past ethical lapses.

“This has been one of the most serious government crises since home rule,” Barry said. “The only thing I can think of more serious than this is 9/11. . . . We can stick our heads in the sand if we want, but the majority of people have lost confidence in this council. . . . This is serious. This is no game. . . . It’s like Lincoln at Gettysburg.”

Barry’s and Orange’s comments touched a nerve with some of their colleagues, who criticized the pair.

Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) suggested that the District government faced a for more serious crisis in 1990, when Barry was arrested on charges of cocaine possession in a D.C. hotel. David A. Catania (I-At Large) noted that Barry, too, has had trouble paying his taxes.

In the end, Orange wasn’t able to win over his home ward’s council member, the newly elected Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5).

In an interview, McDuffie said he thought that Mendelson would bring more “stability” to the council.

Some council members also privately raised concerns about the federal investigation of city contractor Jeffrey M. Thompson’s political donations. Orange has accepted more than $100,000 from Thompson and his associates, but he noted that many city politicians, including Mendelson, have also received donations from the businessman.

Wednesday’s leadership fight set the stage for Nov. 6, when voters will elect a permanent chairman to fill out the remainder of Kwame Brown’s four-year term.

Mendelson plans to run, and earlier this week Orange indicated to media outlets that he’s also likely to be a candidate.

Catania predicts that the council will remain in an uncomfortable place until after the election.

“I fear it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” he said. “With the special election looming, I don’t think we have seen an end to the acrimony. . . . It’s nothing but naked ambition on display.”