Chairman Phil Mendelson faces potential pitfalls as he manages uncomfortable topics of race and politics. (Sarah L. Voisin/WASHINGTON POST)

When the D.C. Council considered an $11 million tax break last week for a private developer seeking to build apartments and retail shops near Howard University, Chairman Phil Mendelson urged members to oppose the move.

Mendelson (D) questioned whether it was needed in an area where other projects are proceeding without big tax incentives.

But after Mendelson spoke, council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) suggested that the chairman was insensitive, saying the neighborhood was still recovering from the damage caused by the riots that followed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968. And council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) sought to link the project to the historically black university.

“We have given support to all these universities, and I have not seen the same support for Howard University,” Alexander said before the measure was approved.

The debate and eventual vote in part highlighted Mendelson’s limited influence over some council members and underscored the potential pitfall that awaits him as he manages uncomfortable topics of race and politics.

Although the council had white chairmen through most of the 1980s and a majority of its members from 1999 to 2009 were white, the results of the November election mark the first time under home rule that it will be led by a white chairman and be majority white.

The council’s new racial makeup — at a time when many longtime black residents worry that their influence is waning — will test Mendelson as he seeks to exercise his authority while stitching together a reliable working majority.

“You manage it by making a disagreement a disagreement rather than something that is broader,” Mendelson said. “But I think the council needs to be constantly sensitive to ensuring that we are being inclusive.”

Mendelson’s effort to establish a diverse, effective coalition is magnified by what some observers say has been a lack of forceful leadership. Meanwhile, Mendelson is also overseeing a body in which at least three members are considering a run for mayor.

The 2014 race could include discussion about whether the District could elect its first white mayor under home rule in part because council members Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) have shown interest in the contest. It’s a debate Mendelson, long known as a politician who transcends racial lines, would be eager to avoid, some observers said.

“It is not going to be something that is going to jump out in front of you, but it’s going to be the undercurrent of the session,” said Sandy Allen, a former Ward 8 council member. “Phil is going to have to bring that together, and I don’t know if he can do that, because you got some hard-hitters down there.”

Support throughout city

The council unanimously selected Mendelson to serve as interim chairman in June when Kwame R. Brown resigned after pleading guilty to bank fraud and a campaign finance violation. Last month, Mendelson won 71 percent of the vote in his bid to finish Brown’s term, reflecting his reputation as a District politician with support throughout the city.

The November election also saw David Grosso (I), who is white, unseat Michael A. Brown (I), who is black, for one of two at-large council seats reserved for a non-Democrat.

Grosso’s win ensures at least seven white council members next year. Depending on the outcome of a special election in April to fill a vacant at-large seat, that number could grow to eight for the first time under home rule.

Former council member William P. Lightfoot said the changing demographics of city leadership will probably prompt “a more defensive” posture from some black council members, who he said are under pressure from constituents concerned about gentrification.

“They see the city slipping from their control and influence,” said Lightfoot, who is black and served as an at-large independent from 1989 to 1997. “So black people who remain in the city do become defensive and try to defend the territory and influence that they still hold.”

So far, Mendelson is trying to unify the council while trying to keep antagonists — including Barry and Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) — from running roughshod over his authority.

On Nov. 29, the same day he was sworn-in as chairman in full, Mendelson was outmaneuvered by Barry and Orange when he tried to kill a bill Barry supported to create new employment protections for ex-offenders.

The dispute carried over into Tuesday’s council session, when Orange and Barry accused Mendelson of being insensitive to the city’s 60,000 ex-offenders, many of whom are African Americans.

Barry also suggested that Mendelson wasn’t as fair as several past chairs, all African Americans.

“Don’t try to railroad members,” Barry told Mendelson during a debate. “Kwame Brown didn’t act this way. Vince Gray didn’t act this way. Linda Cropp didn’t act this way.”

In an interview, Orange accused Mendelson of “an extraordinary abuse of power” that could “upset the balance” on the council.

The tensions are not new. Orange has eyed the chairmanship for years, and earlier this year, Mendelson didn’t back Orange’s bid as chairman pro tempore.

As a community activist, Mendelson helped organize a write-in campaign against Barry when he was mayor in 1986. Twelve years later, after Mendelson won the Democratic primary for an at-large seat, Barry declined to support him because his election would create a majority-white council. Barry said then that the council should “reflect the makeup of the city,” at the time 63 percent black.

Risk of polarization

Barry said his latest disagreement with Mendelson “is more about philosophy than race” but warned that the council risks becoming polarized along racial lines.

“It’s up to Mendelson to keep it from arising,” said Barry, who on Friday released a statement accusing the chairman of supporting “discrimination” by opposing the ex-offender bill.

Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) , who won a special election in May on a message of unity, said he expects members to treat Mendelson “with respect” and work toward common goals.

“We are not always going to agree on the issues, but I believe we can disagree in a way that demonstrates respect for one another worthy of the positions that we hold,” said McDuffie, who is black and supported the ex-offender bill.

The Rev. Willie F. Wilson, a longtime Ward 7 activist, said many black residents have concluded that “there is no need to spend a lot of time thinking” about the council’s racial makeup, as the city’s black population is now 50 percent. But Wilson said Mendelson should display a “heightened sensitivity” to issues of concern to the black community — one reason he was disappointed that the chairman opposed Barry’s measure.

“That really hits home when it’s your family, your friends, your loved ones who are trying to get a grip on their life and don’t have that opportunity when there is this mark on them,” Wilson said.

Mendelson’s clash with Orange and Barry also underscores his struggle to assemble a diverse inner circle he can trust.

Although generally respected by his colleagues, Mendelson has developed a reputation as a political loner, often casting sole dissenting votes. As chairman, he lacks a group of experienced allies.

In recent days, Mendelson has invited members to his home to discuss the council’s future as he prepares to assign key positions, including chairman pro tem, according to friends and supporters.

Evans said Mendelson must “establish himself as the chair, particularly in dealing with council members, including Marion, who are going to challenge his authority. . . . He has to be assertive and lead.”

But Mendelson said it’s not his style to carry a big stick.

“I do have the power to get my own Lincoln Navigator, but then we can see what happens,” said Mendelson, a reference to Kwame Brown’s controversial decision to spend tax dollars on a luxury sport-utility vehicle when he became chairman in 2011. “Ultimately, the greatest power comes from being persuasive on the merits and being fair so members are willing to work together.”