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At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson has become a bit self-conscious about how he measures up to his male cohorts on the D.C. Council.

Literally.

Ward 4’s lean runner, Adrian M. Fenty, sits to his direct right on the dais. At-Large Councilmember and Washington Sports Club regular David A. Catania lurks on the other side of the council chambers. And right in the middle, he sees the likes of Ward 2’s svelte Jack Evans and Ward 7’s Kevin P. Chavous, a college hoops star who has kept his athletic physique. Mendelson worries that he might turn into the “chunkiest” guy on the council—and he has a reputation already in place for it. At the monthly council breakfasts, Mendelson likes to stack high the eggs, sausages, and hash browns.

“I think Mendelson is pretty much recognized as a pile-on-the-plate guy,” observes one of his colleagues.

In the at-large councilmember’s utopian future, however, those greasy offerings will come garnished with a placard detailing calories per serving and other nutritional information to guide his eating choices. On July 8, the council’s newest calorie counter introduced the Nutritional Information at Restaurants Act of 2003. The proposed legislation would require restaurant chains with 10 or more locations nationwide to provide diners with info on calories, grams of saturated fat, grams of carbohydrates, and milligrams of sodium in all food and drink on the menu.

According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Mendelson nutrition bill is the first of its kind in the nation.

On a recent visit to the doctor, the 50-year-old pol learned that his cholesterol level had catapulted into the 230s. That’s not David Letterman-high-alert level yet, but the medical profession generally advises keeping the number under 200. His doctor’s suggestion? Reduce his daily intake of saturated fats, such as those found in bacon and eggs, and substitute with leaner meats, grains, fruits, and vegetables.

The switch to a more wholesome diet should go well with Mendelson’s legislative agenda, which is heavy on the Brussels sprouts of public policy, including clean air and the 911 emergency system. The councilmember is a few weeks into his new unsaturated-fat regimen. Fat counting can be accomplished without too much difficulty at home, because the feds require nutritional labeling on almost all food packaging. But like many of his workaholic constituents, Mendelson often eats out, working in a sandwich and chips between Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments soirees, D.C. Council Education Committee hearings, and evening meetings in the neighborhoods.

A note to the restaurant lobby: When you try to knock Mendelson off his platform, take him to the M&S Grill, part of the McCormick & Schmick restaurant chain, at 13th and F Streets NW. The councilmember likes to talk policy while scarfing down an M&S cheeseburger and fries—or the calf’s liver, which he recently ordered during a discussion of the bill with council Chair Linda W. Cropp. Mendelson hopes that the bill will force himself and others toward the mixed greens salads at joints like M&S.

“Obesity is one of the greatest public-health challenges facing us today,” Mendelson reminded his colleagues on the dais that Tuesday.

“Watch it, Mr. Mendelson,” Cropp responded with a laugh.

Cropp’s an inveterate dieter—and she often calorie-counts with members of her staff as well as colleagues, including Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen and At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz. Schwartz has experimented with different regimens herself, including a diet a few years back that allowed the expat Texan to munch on pork rinds.

An observant Catholic, At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil fasts during Lent, often with much complaint. Ward 2’s Evans eats his tuna-and-mayo sandwich without lettuce or any other vegetable clutter.

(LL encourages readers to insert their own Evans Wonder Bread joke here.)

Councilmembers sometimes sneak in snacks on the dais. Catania often sucks on a super-size drink from McDonald’s, though LL has also spotted the Republican grabbing a sandwich from the more upscale Dean & DeLuca. Ward 3’s Kathy Patterson prefers cans of Diet Coke, Starbucks cappuccinos, and a Slim-Fast shake when she stirs up witnesses in oversight hearings during lunchtime.

The dietary proclivities of the various councilmembers usually get a thorough vetting at the monthly council breakfasts. Fenty, for instance, sponsored July’s breakfast, which was catered by Ward 4’s own Colorado Kitchen.

The breakfast responsibility rotates among the councilmembers, falling on each member about once a year. Many rely upon the culinary talents of Lamont Mitchell, owner of the now-defunct Imani Cafe in Anacostia and the former east-of-the-river coordinator for the Williams administration. He knows the do’s and don’ts of his eaters. Cropp insists on turkey bacon. Fenty and Ward 1’s Jim Graham drink tea—not coffee.

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In the annals of council breakfasts, Graham seems to have sponsored the most memorable get-togethers. A few years back, he offered his colleagues a vegan council breakfast cooked by a Ward 1 constituent. Vegans, of course, shun any foods that come from animals. “I think everyone was more or less happy with what we served,” Graham recently told LL.

Not according to the Phyllis Richmans on the council. “Ugh, it was awful!” cries one member. The meal was so tasteless, in fact, that Catania ordered his staff to McDonald’s. Other members appreciated the unconventional dishes, including ‘quiche.’ “I thought they were lovely, myself,” remembers Ward 6’s Sharon Ambrose.

Graham’s council breakfasts always lack sausage, bacon, or any other meat or poultry product because as an animal-rights activist he objects to the consumption of those foods. The Ward 1 Councilmember does eat fish. “I eat seafood, because shrimp don’t have brothers or sisters. Or hopes and dreams,” he tells LL. “Seafood are largely harvested in the wild. They don’t have the same level of consciousness as farm animals.”

He discusses his investigation into the city’s Office of Property Management for a moment and then veers back to the topic of the day: “Do you know that chickens have been taught to play the piano?”

NUMBER CRUNCHING

William Lockridge, the school-board member who represents Wards 7 and 8, has a solution to the school system’s budgetary problems: Just keep spending.

In a snafu custom-made for the District, city schools were slated to start the fiscal year with an estimated $82 million shortfall—thanks to unfunded teacher raises and other unbudgeted spending imperatives. So last Wednesday night, Lockridge & Co. faced tough decisions over where to trim the fat.

Lockridge, who co-chairs the board’s finance committee, didn’t want to sit down, red pen in hand, with the budget book. “This board shouldn’t sit down—it should stand up!” Lockridge told the audience. In other words, Lockridge advocated spending about $820 million this school year, even though those who hold the purse strings had put only $738 million in the bank.

What Lockridge failed to mention in his clarion call was that D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi was ready to cut any dollar above $738 million that the board decided to appropriate for next year’s budget. Or, in other words, Lockridge—along with compatriots District I rep Julie Mikuta and District II member Dwight E. Singleton—advocated abdicating the board’s power to an unelected bureaucrat who spends his time working with spreadsheets, not children.

The no-cut faction tarted up its irresponsible decision with irrepressible rhetoric. Mikuta, for example, told those in attendance, “We cannot educate our children for this much money.” It’s certainly true that D.C. schools need more funding. But whiffing on financial oversight is just the sort of misfeasance that nearly forced the extinction of the school board several years ago. After the evening’s vote—in which the mayor’s appointees carried the day with a spending plan that freezes teacher salaries—some suggested the superiority of an appointed board.

LL disagrees. Democratic process should rule—and remove members who shy away from tough decisions.

POLITICAL POTPOURRI

Ward 2’s Evans has been barraged with phone calls, e-mails, and letters to the editor in the Washington Post since he slammed Virginians as “narrow-minded,” “greedy,” and “backward” for decrying a commuter tax.

LL would like to add to the Evans list: unfunny.

Empirical evidence? The creation of Kcaj Snave Day by Sean T. Connaughton, chair of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors. “A perfect way to celebrate Kcaj Snave Day is for enthusiastic taxpaying Virginian commuters to walk backwards from Mount Vernon, the Virginia home of the person after whom Washington, D.C. is named, to the Jefferson Memorial in the District,” reads a press release from Connaughton. “The really enthusiastic commuters can even wear their clothes backward.”

A straightforward recitation of the facts for LL’s daily Potomac crossers, as well as those heading out I-270 or I-95 each night: D.C.’s municipal freeloaders, er, commuters, would pay the same income-tax load, but it would be split between their home state and the District, where they earn their money. So those schlepping in from Shady Grove on the Metro or waiting in I-395 slug lines wouldn’t pay a penny more. The big losers would be Annapolis and Richmond, which have long hoarded state income taxes while many of their constituents spent all day using services in D.C.

The commuter-tax lawsuit, which Evans, his council colleagues, and Mayor Anthony A. Williams agreed to sign on to as plaintiffs along with lawyers from the D.C. Appleseed Center, asks Congress to give the District the ability to tax income at its source—a right every other state in the nation has. Yet the bastardized form of autonomy we have, dictated by 1973’s D.C. Home Rule Act, prohibits the District from taxing those who work in the District but live elsewhere.

“If the Prince William or Fairfax County [Board of Supervisors] passes a resolution about me, you have to wonder what they do,” says Evans. “They shouldn’t take themselves so seriously, because nobody else does.”

Back in January, Mendelson attended a meeting in Benning Heights, where neighborhood youngsters had come up with an unconventional after-school activity: Breaking into cars and rolling them down the 46th Street SE hill toward Benning Road SE.

After neighbors complained to the at-large councilmember, he asked Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey for an account of enforcement actions in the area. The chief responded in late March that the department had “significantly impacted crime in the Benning Heights community,” resulting in “over one hundred arrests and the recovery of over one hundred stolen vehicles.”

By June, however, it appeared that the department had un-arrested a couple of suspects. In response to another query from Mendelson, Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Margret Nedelkoff Kellems wrote in early July: “Of the ninety-eight (98) arrests made for unauthorized use of vehicles (UUV) made in the Sixth District thus far in 2003 (as of June 20), nearly one-half were juveniles.” CP

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