Phil on Parade: For Mendelson, slow and steady may win the day.
Phil on Parade: For Mendelson, slow and steady may win the day. Credit: Photo by Darrow Montgomery

When Clark Ray announced plans to run against Phil Mendelson for his At-Large D.C. Council seat last September, there was some speculation that the race might be this election season’s most interesting race—as long as no serious challenger emerged to take on Mayor Adrian Fenty.

We all know that didn’t happen. And the At-Large race has sunk to the bottom of our collective consciousness, buried by an exciting mayoral race and a higher profile battle to be the next council chairman.

But a boring race is probably fitting: Phil Mendelson is D.C.’s most boring politician.

On a local political scene with its fair share of grand-standing, flashy pols, Mendelson sits apart as the nerdy, balding middle age man with nicknames like “wonk” “nitpicker” and “Staffer Phil.” (The last one is a nod to Mendelson’s work as a council staffer before being elected.) But opponents underestimate his drabness at their peril. In 1998, he won despite alarmism by then-mayor Marion Barry that he would end the council’s African-American majority. In 2002, he won re-election by more than 13 points. And in 2006, Mendelson crushed the well-funded A. Scott Bolden by 28 points.

To supporters, his boring ways are part of his appeal.

“He’ll drive his 1998 Mercury Mystique into the office…he’ll have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch at his desk while he’s on his phone reading a committee report, and he’ll stay there,” says Jason Shedlock, Mendelson’s former chief of staff.

Ray has tried to portray Mendelson as an out-of-touch insider. While campaigning, Ray often carries Mendelson’s official picture to show voters; he says 90 percent of people can’t identify Mendelson. But even Ray adds that he doesn’t think Mendelson is doing a bad job. He just thinks the council is ready for new blood.

“I think 12 years in one spot is long enough,” Ray says. “If you’re that great of a councilmember you should either move up or move out.”

The energetic Ray seems to be having a tough time landing a strong blow. There’s little mention of the race in the press; the last big story involved Ray’s losing the endorsement of the prominent gay-rights group, the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club to Mendelson.

Ray, who is gay, tried to convince the group the council needed another gay representative besides David Catania and Jim Graham.

But that approach didn’t work. Mendelson has been one of the gay community’s biggest supporters, and was key in legalizing gay marriage in the District. Bob Summersgill, a Stein member and Mendelson supporter, said the Stein loss bodes poorly for Ray. “If he can’t win the endorsement of a group he’s been a member of many years…it’s unlikely he’s going to pick up enough votes to win [the election],” Summersgill says.

He adds that Mendelson, as a straight man, is less likely to simply assume he’ll get gay support—and thus more apt to listen to gay community concerns.

“Frankly, I don’t want another gay person on the council,” Summersgill says. “They don’t listen.”

Mendelson supporters say that willingness to listen—dull as it may seem—is part of his appeal. Monica Green, a Ward 4 resident who blasted Mendelson for two years on neighborhood message boards over his alleged leniency on crime, says she became a fan after he helped her get answers about a murder on her block. “I told him what happened and literally within 24 hours he had somebody from his office give me a call back. Within a week I’m on the phone with Chief [ Cathy] Lanier about the murder on my block.” Green says in an email. “I shouldn’t cuss but honestly, Mendelson is no bullshitter.”

Mendelson disputes that he’s a bore.

“I actually think I’m kind of interesting,” Mendelson says as he drives said ’98 Mercury to the Georgia Avenue–Petworth Metro station to do some retail campaigning. (For whatever it’s worth, he’s not a boring driver: LL braced for a crash when Mendelson absent-mindedly tried to pass a bus). The awkward scene is reminiscent of the sequence in Borat when Sacha Baron Cohen tries to introduce himself to random New Yorkers, who uncomfortably scurry away from him.

They also scurried away—with a better excuse—at a Tenants Advocacy Coalition forum Tuesday night. Mendelson was going on about a tax code provision. Then the fire alarm suddently went off. Undaunted, he forged ahead as audience members fled.

But Boring Phil plugs away. And the fact that few of the commuters know him might help. There’s a difference between being a ward representative—the sort of pol that gets called every time a streetlight burns out—and being an at-large member, running in a re-election contest where money and a vague good reputation trump personal contact.

Fashion Ground Zero: D.C.?

Buried in D.C. Auditor Deborah Nichols’ 67-page report earlier this year on the sorry state of the city’s earmark process is a brief paragraph describing the lack of “sufficient detail” on how a $100,000 earmark was spent for a fashion merchandising program at the University of the District of Columbia.

The program “provided a one-line budget item allocating the entire $100,000 earmark to support a program officer’s full time salary and benefits,” Nichols wrote. “The budget did not indicate the total number of hours the program officer would work or the hourly rate of pay.”

The unnamed program officer is Stephany Greene, a style expert who has been trying for years to get the fashion merchandising program at UDC off the ground. The program is set to start this fall at the Community College of the District of Columbia. But the city has been funding it since 2007, spending nearly $400,000 on the program even before a single class has been offered, according to public records.

What interests LL about the earmark—besides, of course, his keen fashion sense—is the connections Greene has to powerful folks. Greene is a childhood friend of D.C. Council chairman hopeful and At-Large Councilmember Kwame Brown, who secured city funding for the fashion program. Greene’s brother, Brett Greene, is Brown’s best friend since childhood, according to his stepmother, Linda Mercado Greene. (If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Linda Mercado Greene recently quit working for Brown’s main rival, former Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent Orange, citing her close relationship with Brown.)

Both Brown and Stephany Greene bristled when LL asked whether the councilman should push for funding that benefits a family friend. They say they aren’t close. Both stressed that public money has been properly used to promote a high-demand program that’s been championed by UDC officials.

“I’m very offended if anyone even comes close to implying that I got some type of favoritism,” says Greene, noting her 20-plus year professional experience that includes working for Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, and Ralph Lauren.

“I’m the At-Large councilmember who is probably the most active everywhere,” Brown says. “I know a lot of people.”Brown dismissed LL’s questions as part of the circus that surrounds an election.

On the CCDC’s website, the fashion merchandising program promises to help graduates “launch lucrative careers within the District of Columbia by seeking immediate employment in entry level positions,” as retail buyers, purchasing managers, and fashion product designers.

Greene disputes Nichols’ findings that the submitted budget didn’t provide enough information, saying all of her budgets have been proper and that she’s averaged 70 hours a week working for the program.

“Because I feel passionate about this program, I took a significant pay cut to come here,” Greene adds. It’s taken several years to get off the ground because it had to pass a rigorous review process, Greene says.

UDC Board of Trustees Chairman Joseph Askew Jr. tells LL he’s not surprised by the time it took to implement the program because of turnover at the school’s top spots. He added that Greene has been “very diligent” in managing the finances while implementing the program.

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