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When At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson won an overwhelming citywide victory in the 2006 Democratic primary, D.C. politicos began playfully tossing around a derisive quip: “I guess Phil has a mandate,” they joked.
As an at-large councilmember with a reputation for delving into minutiae, the wisecrack was an underhanded shot at a politician who had never been known for laying out an overarching vision.
Mendelson comes across as a sincere, somewhat nerdy guy. He’s not rhetorically gifted, gregarious, or perpetually angry like some pols. Mendelson has often been pegged as an annoying nebbish whom council colleagues can dismiss with a roll of the eyes and a “there goes Phil again” attitude.
Now the joke is on Mendelson’s detractors.
The designated council wonk has finally found his calling: councilmember most likely to piss off Mayor Adrian Fenty.
Last week, during a hearing on the mayor’s nomination to head up the D.C. Zoning Commission, Mendelson employed a laser-focused attack to shred Fenty pal Geoffrey Griffis.
The mayor already knew Mendelson opposed the nomination, but most of the councilmember’s stated objections involved unsubstantiated charges that a personal relationship may have influenced Griffis’ decision-making when he chaired the city Board of Zoning Adjustment (a different body from the Zoning Commission).
Those were easy charges for Griffis to swat away. During one point in the hearing, Council Chairman Vincent Gray even questioned the use of anonymous e-mails about Griffis that Mendelson read at the hearing.
But Mendelson wasn’t ready to cease his angry assault on the mayor’s nominee.
Maybe it had something to do with Fenty’s Jan. 29 form-letter response to a detailed Mendelson missive about Griffis’ shortcomings. The mayor dismissed the at-large councilmember’s concerns with one boilerplate sentence: “I believe that Mr. Griffis’ professional qualifications support his appointment to this position.”
End of discussion—if you think this mayor deserves an ounce of deference.
So when Mendelson got his second chance at the hearing, he nailed Griffis on a few points that, left unanswered, could prompt the mayor to find somebody else for the Zoning Commission post:
• Mendelson asked Griffis if he knew he was receiving the homestead tax deduction on two properties, a write-off that should only apply to one principal residence. Griffis responded that he was not aware of the problem.
• He prompted Griffis to admit he had raised money for the Fenty campaign by asking whether donors who come before the commission would be treated any differently than nondonors. As a member of the Board of Zoning Adjustment, Mendelson believes Griffis is barred by federal law from soliciting campaign funds.
• Mendelson coaxed Griffis to reveal that he works as a consultant for several development projects that could have issues before the zoning board.
During the grilling, Mendelson was no stumbling nitpicker. He displayed a Perry Masonnlike prosecutorial zeal that surprised several of his council colleagues. Rookie Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells, a Mendelson ally on the Griffis matter, gushed with praise. “Have you ever seen Phil like that before?” he asked. “He just killed him.”
Mendelson also played a role in devising the lobbying strategy that brought Ward 8 Councilmember “I have never seen so many people come through my office to oppose a nominee,” Barry said from the dais. “Usually, there is more of a balance.” Barry—who is no Mendelson fan—is inclined to vote against Griffis, according to council sources.
When Fenty was asked this week about Griffis’ nomination and Mendelson’s new allegations, he expressed continuing support for his nominee but added that “any new charges brought up at the hearing are being checked out right now.”
The Griffis case is only one indication that Mendelson plans to be a pain in the mayor’s ass. He has also emerged as a vocal opponent of Fenty’s school-reform plan. He’s asked difficult questions of Fenty’s nominee for attorney general, Linda Singer, who has only recently become a member of the D.C. Bar. She is also married to Joe Sternlieb, a big political player in town and a Fenty loyalist.
“I’m not sure it suits [Mendelson] well,” says Fenty backer and Griffis supporter Terry Lynch. “He is being far more aggressive [on the Griffis nomination], but it is over something very few people care about.”
The idea that he is viewed as one of the mayor’s toughest critics is a surprise to Mendelson, who says his positions haven’t changed since the election. “I look at these issues on the merits,” he says, noting that he has always opposed a mayoral takeover of the schools. “It’s not like I’m happy about being in the position where I have to go against the new mayor.”
But even Mendelson admits that his electoral success has generated a bit more swagger. “I’m in my third term at-large and I was reelected comfortably,” he says. “I might have a little more confidence.”
Mayor Fenty didn’t pass on the opportunity Monday to talk about the city’s snow-removal prowess following an impressive looking but wimpy storm that briefly covered the city’s streets on Sunday.
Why not? He got plenty of grief about the can-do mayor’s performance during the mid-February “wintry mix” storm.
So Fenty lined up a PR stunt at the Kennedy Recreation Center in Shaw. There, he was set to deliver the irresistible snow-shoveling shot for TV news hounds, who were assigned to a story that would melt away before the 4 p.m. local report.
But when LL arrived at about 10:30 a.m., the walk and steps at the front of the building were dry and salted. What was the mayor to do?
Thank goodness for competent handlers. Loyal rec staff had intentionally left some slush out back around the basketball court for the mayor. According to rec center employees, the accumulation would have been cleared hours earlier if not for the staged mayoral scooping.
When Fenty arrived clad in his black overcoat, gloves, and fedora, he quickly got to work pushing an ergonomically correct, Day-Glo orange shovel. “This is good exercise,” the mayor noted as he sloshed through the slop using the bulldozer technique with lots of encouragement from city staff. From the peanut gallery, one maintenance worker advised the mayor to “bend your knees a little more so you won’t hurt your back.” Fenty assured the crowd that he knew how to handle a shovel. “I’ve been doing this since I was 9 years old,” he shot back. The mayor completed clearing and salting a 20-foot stretch of sidewalk in about three minutes.
Fenty was ostensibly at the rec center to highlight the resident’s role in snow removal. “Everyone has to shovel their own sidewalk,” said the mayor, who added that he personally cleared the snow at his Crestwood home.
The reserved snowy sidewalk may have been a cheap publicity stunt, but the show was appreciated by Kennedy staffer Donald Felder, who usually handles the shoveling duties. “We’re going to let him do all he wants,” said Felder. “If he wants to get the baseball season started early, we’ve got a whole field under snow out there.”
Felder’s idea never got an airing during the event. He was instructed to stop speaking to the press by a rec department supervisor.
Max Brown is an effective lobbyist because he refuses to give up. But during the past few weeks, he may have finally found a client for whom persistence won’t help: Max Brown.
Brown is one of Fenty’s nominees to fill vacancies at the coveted Sports and Entertainment Commission. His appointment to that slot has been stalled ever since the Committee on Economic Development Chairman Kwame Brown refused to hold a confirmation hearing on the nomination. Officially, the chairman has demanded that more women be put forward for the prestigious sports panel, but Kwame Brown hasn’t forgotten that Max Brown worked for Harold Brazil, the guy he beat in 2004.
Wilson Building sources report that Max Brown has been working his lobbying magic in the hopes of getting his nomination back on track. The plan also involves Max Brown’s pals being dispatched to talk to close political associates of Kwame Brown. Councilmembers have been cajoled by various bigwigs backing the Fenty choice, including Republican eminence Jack Kemp and Federal City Council chief John Hill.
Max Brown has enlisted grassroots activists as well. When Ward 8 activist Philip Pannell saw Kwame Brown at a recent meeting, he brought up the nomination. “All I asked was if Max was going to get a hearing,” says Pannell, who admits he did so at the urging of Max Brown.
None of the pressure seems to have had any impact on the only member who really matters—Kwame Brown. “I’ve been very clear about what I want,” he says. “Nothing has changed.”
• D.C. pols will soon find out just how much political and fundraising muscle D.C. Council Chairman Gray has at his disposal.
At a Saturday afternoon event, Gray will officially endorse community activist Yvette Alexander for the special election to fill the Ward 7 seat he vacated when he was elected to the council’s top post. At-large councilmember and Ward 7 resident Brown will also be on hand and is expected to endorse Alexander.
The happening isn’t billed as a fundraiser, but influence peddlers around town are bright enough to figure out that Gray would love to see the checkbooks come out on Saturday.
When it comes to greasing the skids for cronies, Gray has some tough competition. In January, Fenty held a bash officially announcing his support for Muriel Bowser to succeed him in Ward 4. Some not-so-subtle arm twisting by Fenty’s henchmen resulted in an overflow crowd and a lot of check writing for the Bowser cause at the home of attorney Bill Lightfoot. A big chunk of the candidate’s nearly $200,000 war chest was raised at Fenty’s endorsement fest.
LL hasn’t heard as much talk about the chairman’s loyal troops putting the heat on the reliable crowd of developers and city contractors who make their living pleasing political bigwigs. But city politicos have been given one sure sign that coming out for Alexander is considered a great way to curry favor with the chairman: Legendary suck-up and Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham recently attended a fundraiser for Gray’s candidate at Creme Cafe on U Street NW.
• Two D.C. political operatives are hoping to use the Alexander campaign to lose the stink left over from big 2006 losses.
The first is Marshall Brown, the prominent campaign guru who worked last year for mayoral runner-up Linda Cropp. Brown hopes to hone Alexander’s ground-level political instincts. “We’re going to win,” says the always-confident Brown, who claims no revenge motive in his desire to take down the Ward 7 candidate who has claimed the Fenty mantle, Victor Vandell. “I’m doing this out of loyalty to the chairman,” says Brown.
J. R. Meyers, who ran A. Scott Bolden’s ill-fated challenge of Mendelson, is with the Alexander campaign. “Who doesn’t want to get back in the win column again?” asks Meyers. “But this is about getting behind the best candidate for Ward 7.”
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