District voters who sorted through a deluge of political mailers ahead of last month’s Democratic primary would have been forgiven for thinking the D.C. Council chairman’s race was as contested as the mayor’s race. Multiple mail pieces sent out before April 1 denounced incumbent Phil Mendelson as the enemy of city’s police officers. “Phil Mendelson, we thought you were different,” read one. “Thought you were not like the others. WE THOUGHT WRONG.”
Online, the anti-Mendelson website “Mendelson Must Go” portrayed the stereotypically bookish councilmember as the scourge of law-abiding District residents, complete with a cartoon of a chalk outline around a corpse to make the point.
The attacks on Mendelson’s weren’t coming from one of his challengers. Mendelson’s only opponent in the race, Calvin Gurley, is a perennial candidate who raised less than $3,000 in the race—hardly enough to buy the postage for all the anti-Mendelson mailers. Instead, the slams came from the Fraternal Order of Police, the Metropolitan Police Department’s union.
Launching an expensive campaign to make enemies with a Wilson Building bigwig who faces only token opposition might not look like smart politics. Still, the union says it was just responding to a combination of Mendelson’s policies and a years-old grudge dating back to his time running the Council’s public safety committee. And it’s a campaign union officials say they’re willing to expand in the general election.
“It’s just an obsession,” Mendelson tells LL, reading off headlines from the union’s round-up of news stories. Since fellow FOP enemy Vince Gray lost in the mayor’s race, the FOP has focused its entertainingly overheated blog posts on Mendelson. (Sample headline: “Homicides Up 76% In D.C.– Phil Mendelson’s Paradise, The Consequences Of Being Soft On Crime.”)
Outspoken FOP politics and legal committee chairman Kris Baumann (the union’s former head) can rattle off a long list of police grievances with Mendelson, from arguments over the police contract to whether he supported an MPD whistleblower on police escorts for actor and “tiger blood” enthusiast Charlie Sheen. But the roots of the union-Mendelson feud date several years earlier, to when the union invited Mendelson to attend a roll call at a police station to see whether MPD was inflating its officer numbers.
Before Mendelson could come to the roll call, though, MPD brass got wind of the plan. Baumann blames the botched effort on Mendelson.
“Not only did he burn us, he got some folks in trouble and caused a real problem,” Baumann says.
Baumann says he never thought the union’s campaigning would get Gurley elected (the union won’t reveal how much it spent on the effort). Instead, he wants to soften up Mendelson for a general election challenge and plans to do polling to help convince some potential independent candidate to enter the race.
“If you get an organization together and you have the message, Phil Mendelson’s beatable,” Baumann says.
Maybe. But with Mendelson receiving more than 80 percent of Democratic votes in a town that’s 75 percent Democratic, LL thinks the union should either make nice or start saving for 2018.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery