Phil Mendelson was selected Wednesday as interim chairman of the scandal-plagued D.C. Council, pledging to restore trust in a legislative body that's lost two members this year to criminal convictions.
Mendelson replaces Kwame Brown, who resigned last week after he was charged with lying on bank loan applications. Brown pleaded guilty to that bank fraud charge along with a misdemeanor campaign finance violation.
Mendelson, a Democratic at-large councilmember in his fourth term, will serve as interim chairman until a special election in November. The winner of that race will serve the remainder of Brown's term, which runs through 2014, and Mendelson intends to run.
The 59-year-old Mendelson is quiet and detail-oriented -- a contrast to the flashy, ambitious Brown -- and is largely untouched by scandal. While he is not universally well-liked, he is respected for his meticulous approach to legislation.
"Right now, the symbol that is this council is tarnished," Mendelson said in brief remarks on the council dais. "I ask everyone to pursue with me a very basic and seemingly lofty goal: Let us be honest, let us act with integrity, let us become individually and collectively an institution people can trust."
The Council of the District of Columbia is a unique body that serves the functions of a local, municipal and state legislature. Council chairman is the district's second-highest local elected office, and Mendelson will wield considerable influence over the city's spending and legislative agenda. Should Mayor Vincent Gray leave office, Mendelson would succeed him, which would make him the first white mayor in the city's history.
Gray, a Democrat, is the subject of a federal investigation for activities during his 2010 campaign, and two aides have already pleaded guilty to funneling payments to a minor mayoral candidate and trying to cover it up. Gray has denied knowledge of the payments and has not been accused of any wrongdoing.
Federal authorities are also investigating prominent political donor and government contractor Jeffrey Thompson, a major Gray backer who has donated to nearly all the city's elected officials, including Mendelson. The interim chairman was one of several councilmembers whose campaign received subpoenas seeking details of any Thompson-linked contributions. People familiar with the probe say Thompson is suspected of using straw donors to evade contribution limits. Mendelson has said there was nothing amiss about the money he got from Thompson.
In addition to Brown, former councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. stepped down this year after pleading guilty to embezzling more than $350,000 from the city. He was sentenced to three years in prison.
Councilmember Vincent Orange, an at-large Democrat who also sought the interim chairmanship, intends to challenge Mendelson in the special election, which has no primary and is open to outside candidates. All the current councilmembers can enter the race without risking their seats.
While Mendelson's colleagues voted unanimously to install him as interim chairman, the fight over interim chairman pro tempore, a largely ceremonial position, was contentious and exposed deep divisions in the 12-member council.
Michael A. Brown, an at-large independent who is not related to Kwame Brown, was ultimately tapped for the position after a vigorous challenge from Orange, who brought up Brown's past failures to pay his taxes and his 1997 guilty plea to a misdemeanor campaign finance violation. Orange was backed by Councilmember Marion Barry, the former four-term mayor who called this year's turmoil the most serious crisis the district government has faced since the beginning of home rule in 1973.
"The city's in serious trouble, credibility trouble," Barry said. "We are the laughingstock of the nation."
Councilmember Jack Evans, D-Ward 2, said then-mayor Barry's 1990 arrest for smoking crack in a hotel room, among other crises in the 1990s, were worse than the current problems.
Orange said he was better-suited to the role of chairman pro tempore because of Michael Brown's past and compared himself to welterweight boxer Manny Pacquiao, who lost over the weekend in a widely criticized split decision.
"I'm the best! I'm the best!" he shouted. "Right now, Vincent Bernard Orange Sr. is the best candidate for chairman pro tempore."
Michael Brown said voters were well aware of his record and elected him anyway. Ultimately, the council voted 8-4 in Brown's favor, and then 11-1 on a resolution installing both Mendelson and Brown.
Councilmember Yvette Alexander chided Orange for his tactics, saying they reflected poorly on the council.
"When we're so self-righteous, tomorrow we could be in handcuffs," Alexander said, drawing laughter.
But the chamber quieted as she choked up while asking her colleagues to treat each other with respect.
"Stop promoting yourselves by the demise of others," Alexander said, fighting back tears. "It's sickening."
BEN NUCKOLS Associated Press
Follow Ben Nuckols on Twitter at http://twitter.com/APBenNuckols.
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