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Tensions reach a new high on D.C. Council as lawmakers grapple with scandal

Heated fights at the D.C. Council over how to discipline a lawmaker under federal investigation and whether to approve a controversial gambling contract have deepened a growing rift among city leaders.

Tensions have been simmering after repeated revelations about council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), the longest-serving lawmaker, and his private business dealings with companies with interests before the D.C. government.

The divisions escalated at Tuesday’s legislative meeting when a group of lawmakers tried but failed to strip Evans of all committee assignments. Next, they tried unsuccessfully to stop a no-bid sports betting and lottery contract that several said “stinks” of cronyism.

Instead, council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and allies were able to approve the sports betting contract and avoid harsh penalties for Evans.

The meeting descended into acrimony, with sharp criticism, accusations of backroom deals and close votes. Some say the tumult was made worse by the way Mendelson managed the proceedings.

The five lawmakers who voted against the gambling contract said the council, which has long been dogged by ethics scandals, missed an opportunity to restore faith in government and attack a system that rewards lobbyists, campaign donors and other politically connected people or businesses.

“It shows the friction between the old ways of doing business and new ways of doing business,” said council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), who first ran for office in 2013 as a reformer after three council members were convicted of federal crimes.

Latest D.C. ethics scandal evokes city’s long history of corruption

But the lawmakers who backed the sports betting deal say concerns about cronyism are exaggerated and a fixation on public perception eclipses issues’ merits. For example, some members said that it would be premature and unprecedented to strip Evans of all committee assignments before completing an investigation and that a sole-source gaming contract would generate revenue for the District.

The 13-member D.C. Council has transformed in recent years as younger liberals, many elected in the wake of scandal, have replaced an older generation of moderate, mostly black leaders. The body is now majority white and under the age of 50, mirroring the changing demographics of the city.

After Tuesday’s contentious session, council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large) was overheard on the dais talking to Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) about the need to “stick together, no matter how crazy they can be on an issue,” an apparent reference to the younger lawmakers who opposed the betting contract and wanted tough sanctions for Evans.

In an interview, Bonds said she was not trying to disparage colleagues. But she did say that some are too quick to cry corruption.

“They are looking for innuendos,” said Bonds, a longtime political player and local Democratic Party leader who was elected in 2013. “Just because a business is doing business or trying to do business with the government and they have some relationship to any one of us does not necessarily mean this is something we have massaged.”

The debate over political connections also exposed racial divides on the council.

Only white lawmakers on Tuesday raised concerns about politically connected subcontractors, who are predominantly black. And they angered some who saw their criticisms as attacks on minority-owned companies and said there’s nothing unsavory about black business leaders having relationships with black elected officials.

“I felt like it was divided more among racial lines rather than anything else,” said Yvette M. Alexander, a former Ward 7 council member who watched the debate Tuesday. “Some people were arguing it was helping the politically connected. Some people were arguing it was in support of minority businesses.”

Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large), who is African American, provided a crucial seventh vote for the contract, despite expressing concerns about the suspension of competitive bidding. He said he thought the contract would help minority-owned businesses grow and was swayed by entreaties from several black businessmen who stood to benefit.

But Silverman suggested he voted for the contract after Mendelson awarded him oversight of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, an agency that White has criticized for the way transit police interact with black youths. White called that insinuation insulting.

The gambling contract was approved 7 to 5, with council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) absent because of the birth of a child.

The council’s political divisions don’t always fall along neat racial, ideological or generational lines.

On Tuesday, the council deadlocked 6 to 6 on an amendment that would have stripped Evans of all of his committee assignments, minimizing his influence.

The measure was supported by Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and a group of left-leaning lawmakers: Silverman, White, David Grosso (I-At Large), Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) and Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1).

It was opposed by Mendelson (D), Bonds, Gray, Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4) and Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who lean moderate. Evans cast the deciding vote on his own fate — a move that triggered objections from Cheh and others but which Mendelson allowed.

Mendelson, who rose to power as a good-government advocate is now lambasted by critics who paint him as a defender of a corrupt status quo.

Lawmakers said Mendelson used hardball tactics to push through the sports betting contract and tried to stifle dissent on how to punish Evans.

Evans struggles to persuade colleagues to hold off on punishing him

They accused him of trading pieces of Evans’s dissolved Committee on Finance and Revenue in exchange for votes on the gambling contract, a charge that Mendelson did not deny.

Mendelson also moved up a vote on legislation that Gray wanted passed in exchange for his vo te and tried to silence lawmakers who questioned his motivations.

“All of these tactics create ill will among members and set a tone that’s quite unhealthy,” said Cheh, who was elected in 2006 and is often a swing vote. “It can demoralize you and make you distrust other members, distrust the chairman, and that’s what I’m seeing.”

In an interview, Mendelson dismissed complaints about his leadership as coming from lawmakers frustrated that they lost.

He said he resisted efforts to boot Evans from all committee assignments because the council was split and he wanted to present a unified front when the council disciplined one of its own.

“It’s important that we not show divisiveness, which unfortunately happened on Tuesday,” Mendelson said.

But that attitude rankles some on the council who say Mendelson confuses unity with falling in line.

“He wanted to have unity in a situation where unity did not exist, and it’s unfair to just try to browbeat everybody into some kind of false portrayal of unity,” said Grosso, who led the charge to strip Evans of committee assignments.

Mendelson was once similar to the lawmakers rebelling against him.

Profile of Phil Mendelson

First elected in 1998, he was often a dissenting voice on the council and a critic of pay-to-play politics. In 2012, his colleagues chose him to lead the council as a noncontroversial choice to restore the body’s reputation after the previous chairman resigned amid a federal indictment.

In the years since, Mendelson has transformed from an agitator to a political insider. He easily defeated a primary challenger from the left last year with the fundraising help of lobbyists and real estate and corporate interests.

In 2009, Mendelson cast the sole dissenting vote on a D.C. Lottery contract with Intralot that benefited the then-mayor’s fraternity brothers and suggested the “fix was in” for the contract selection. A decade later, he championed renewing and expanding Intralot’s lottery contract, urging his colleagues to swallow their discomfort.

Mendelson said that city contractors’ political connections are inevitable and that rejecting the contract wouldn’t change reality but would hurt the city’s finances.

“If we disapprove this contract, there will be many more subcontractors, and they will be on both sides of the issue, and it will be inescapable that there will be allegations of favoritism or cronyism,” Mendelson told colleagues.

But some say Mendelson and his allies are losing sight of how their actions are affecting faith in local government.

“The newer members are trying their best to reflect and instill more confidence in the public when it comes to trust in the council,” said Jeremiah Lowery, chairman of the liberal group D.C. for Democracy and a former council candidate. “But the old guard is still playing the same old games.”

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