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The polls have opened at H.D. Cooke Elementary in Adams Morgan. Councilmember Phil Mendelson pulls up in his 1998 Mercury Mystique, ready to start a crosstown precinct blitz to save his job. He hasn’t had breakfast. And things are already going wrong.
“The crises have already started,” he says—a precinct in upper Northwest didn’t have campaign materials. We hop in a blue van piloted by Ward 7 Committeeman Juan Thompson, careen around Columbia Road, and race off up 16th Street, taking advantage of the open outbound lane.
“Try not to hit any voters,” says Mendelson drily.
Things shouldn’t be this tense. Mendelson only realized his dire straights just last month, when straw polls revealed that masses of voters confused little-known shadow senator Michael D. Brown with sitting at-large councilmember Michael A. Brown.
With a hand from unions and Vince Gray, the Councilmember and his team started executing an emergency anti-confusion plan, which involved email traffic, a robocall from the “real” Michael Brown, and giant signs warning voters, “Don’t Be Fooled.”
Sometimes, though, it’s not that simple.
“It’s a challenge for some people, because they don’t get it,” Mendelson says. “If you don’t think you’re confused, then I’m confusing you by saying, don’t be confused.”
Mostly, it’s just frustrating. And it’s got to be a bit angering, too—Michael D. Brown has claimed that he wasn’t invited to debates, for example, which Mendelson thinks is just an attempt to capitalize on the name mix-up by not making himself overly visible.
“I can’t believe he says this stuff,” he says. “It’s a small thing, but I think it speaks to this intentionality.”
As luck would have it, we ran into Mike D. at our second stop, Lafayette Elementary. The rivals were cordial, but Brown couldn’t resist a swipe as we were heading out.
“Do you want some of my lit? It has issues!” he said. “Maybe you could tack one on your sign, then you’d have issues too.”
As we wind our way through Ward 3—with some sense of urgency, since Ward 3 is Mendelson’s base—the councilmember gets sympathetic looks and handshakes from supporters. Most everyone he talks to voted him, and he spends long minutes nodding quietly in conversations with residents whom he knows by name, about uncollected fines, or a dangerous pedestrian intersection.
But up here in Fentyland, he also gets some flak for backing Vince Gray, who appeared on one of his mailers.
“That was a little edgy of me,” said Mendelson, as if wondering whether that could have been the move that costs him a close race.
As the morning winds on, things get more relaxed. The crises subside, and we don’t run into many precinct workers for either of the councilmember’s opponents. Mendelson points out bits of area trivia, as if giving a tour—the newly-constructed Chinese Embassy residences on Porter Street (“I can’t believe that they would tear down mediocre buildings and put up ones that are ugly”) and a wrought iron gate off Mt. Pleasant Street that had been put in to keep drunks from peeing in the alley.
But Mendelson isn’t breathing easy yet. After hitting John Eaton School, where his 10-year-old daughter goes, I asked if he was
starting to feel better about his chances.
“No. No,” he said emphatically. “One person came out of a precinct having been confused.”
At this stage, every vote counts. At Bancroft Elementary, he chatted enough with a lady wearing a Clark Ray sticker that she promised to put his on instead.