The Boring Charms of Phil Mendelson The wonkiest member D.C. Council faces a dynamic challenger. Again.

Phil on Parade: For Mendelson, slow and steady may win the day.
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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Our Readers Say

Mendelson is the worst. He's the NIMBY in Chief, Chief Apologist, and #1 Ivory Tower "Let them Eat Cake" Liberal (second behind Cheh). Has he ever crossed Connecticut Ave?
Council Member Mendelson has a track record of responding to concerns and getting things done. He has been diligent in responding to concerns in my ward (Ward 5) when others have paid nothing but lip service or have failed to respond. Clark Ray has done little or nothing of substance during his tenure as Rec Department Director to deserve our votes for at-large council member.
Mendelson opposed any attempt to reform the District's revolving door juvenile justice system, even allowing records of the most violent offenders to be seen by officials who deal with those offenders. And he said "crime shouldn't be a political issue." Of course, he changed his tune recently following several high profile murders and some scathing Colbert King columns in the Post.

Ray wants to have the District issue Amber Alerts when juvenile offenders abscond from their detention facilities. Phil wants even the names of escaped criminals kept from the public.
Rob, did you read the article? It talks about his campaigning at Petworth. I for one am glad to have a Councilmember that is more interested in doing the job than his own hype.
I am leaving DC due to crime and, more specifically, Mendelson. During an uptick of violent juvenile and other crime in my area of Ward 4, coupled with an existing culture of criminality, I emailed Mendelson desperately seeking help and information. He essentially told me I was imagining this and dismissively told me that if I wanted to talk to him I could schedule a meeting at his office between 9 and 5pm, Monday - Friday, not an option for a working stiff like me. It was at this point I realized DC would not change enough to suit me in my lifetime, and the areas I could afford to live in were dangerous and unsafe by my standards. I paid almost $150K in taxes here in my almost two decades as a resident and am glad it improved some areas and some peoples lives. I am sad to go but feel its the right choice.

I wish Ray had made more an issue of crime and juveniles, but he didn't, and now we're looking at another Mendelson term. Crime and poverty are an industry for such guys like him and our other councilmembers, none of whom live in dangerous parts of town and generally drive through such areas only. Mendelson gets to coddle criminals and appear compassionate for votes, and poverty pimps collect that great section 8 federal money in large swaths to the city. Glad I am getting out, DC is for the poor and rich and I am middle class.
Good article, It opens the doors and turns on the lights to some interesting events.
First off, I fully support Phil Mendelson for re-election. He is the only one with the insight and ability to stay the course on public safety. He is liberal but the eye he brings to detail is vastly important.
Secondly, I agree that Clark Ray is going to struggle if he can't gain the support of his peers.

But your article now opens up my thoughts on the Fashion Merchandising Program at UDC. This is interesting since most buying positions aren't considered entry level at all. In fact most buyers positions in most major retail organizations these days consists of a process where they buy just about everything and over price it then mark it to half price to confuse the buyer into thinking they are getting a deal and finally punting the rest on final sale at the real price that they all should have sold for to begin with.
Ms.Greene's ties to those that have helped her is interesting at best. $400,000 for several years for a course that hasn't even been introduced yet is frightening. This is something we should all be keeping our eyes on.
Any chair of the economic development oversight should be there for every citizen or business owner when they ask for funding from the District. Let's hope we can all be treated as well as Ms. Green.
There is up-front cost associated with higher education development.

Curriculum research (benchmarking), curricular design, lesson planning, forging relationships with business leaders (it is a community college), recruiting and preparing qualified faculty, acquiring necessary classroom & lab equipment, and preparing appropriate marketing materials... I could go on.

Sounds like $70k plus benefits. To be the founding director of a department, that's actually rather modest.

This assumes, of course, that she's actually developed anything. Show us the money, err, finished program and we'll all shut up. And show up (could be fun)!
mendo makes his bread and butter assuring wealthy folks that their kids won't get arrested for skateboarding at Freedom Plaza, and ensuring that the rest of DC's kids will have their records expunged at 21.
Of course he and his family live in a crime-free neighborhood. He's a parasite.
Mendelson is a honest, hard-working council member. He listens carefully to concerns and is responsive. He calls you back and he often answers his own office phone. You don't have to like him and you don't have to think him flashy or dull - he gets the job done.
In this town, the press typically prefers to amplify easy generalizations and "perceptions" rather than getting and reporting facts. Thanks for your report on Mendelson. Mendelson is smart, and frankly I'd rather have a smart, result oriented, responsive representative, than a guy whose claim to fame is campaigning for high profile pols. Ray may be a nice guy, but his accomplishments as a public servant don't compare to Mendelson's.
That he "answers the phone" and "calls people back" is pretty much the bare minimum one should expect. Think about it. If you didn't do that in your job- regardless of how well you did anything else- how long would you last? And WTF is his "accomplishments" anyway? Going along and getting along? His resume is as thin as his face recognition.
This will be the last I post on this.
What has Clark Ray done to be an at-large council-member besides touting his gay stance on life. Nothing wrong with being gay but is this a reason to vote for somebody. Clark is a transplant that has no experience in running anything. Clark is a patsy of Cora Barry's and was fired by Fenty for not completing the recreation department rifs that Fenty ordained. On the other hand, Mendelson is a staunch supporter of all that is right with government. He supports seniors, attends almost all community events, and somehow gets elected when no one seems to know who he is. Clark will get crushed and Mendolson will plod along again for another 4 years.
Let us not forget the relationship between Fenty and Ray and the curious circumstances surrounding his stint at the Department of Recreation and those who were hurt by his cowardly management. Though Phil may be boring, I fear that Ray is a wolf in sheep's clothing. The council doesn't need "new blood" if its only been transfused into a new body from Fenty's veins. Muriel Bowser is no different.
Now get this...the coincidence is just too tremendous. I am not understanding...a program that has been funded at the rate of 400,000 but is not materializing until NOW!!! I am not understanding...the reference of that "there not that close" we all know how family and friend dynamics are in this city. But when someone is still associated with someone since childhood...you have crossed the threshold of being close. I no that Ms. Stephany is touting that she worked with some heavy-weights in the fashion world. But one can't equate to selling "CK" tee-shirts as working with Mr. Klein himself.

Mendelson will win this one. Ray may be gay and 'new blood' but those reasons aren't good enough for him to replace Phil. Sure, someone could do better, especially in matters of crime and juvenile offenders. Until that someone steps forward, I'd rather have Mendelson plod on and get results for us. There's nothing in Ray's record that convinces me he's better than Mendelson in those areas.
Mendelson has not done enough on the council to keep the job. What legislation has he introduced that is significant. He keeps his head down and only holds public meetings close to election time, what a phony. We need new blood and someone who will be more active, involved and actually care what happens in this city. So I am voting for Clark!
This is city is just a joke. 400 K spent and nothing to show for. After checking out Ms. Greene's website (www.stephanygreene.com) I couldn't figure out what makes her such an expert in developing and implementing such a program. Moreover, does it really take 4 years?
Sounds like business as usual in this city....
This is an outrage. It does not take 4 years to start a program. She is not certified to be a professor at all so that is very shady. In addition, why in the world do they have her as the founder??? The program was there years ago which should have made it easier to get it up and running. It is sad that they allowed her to take advantage of how this money is being used and we desperately need the money for the kids. I do not support people who are out for themselves and not others.
I agree! A style expert and 20 years experience with fashion heavy hitters does not make you qualified as an educator or education administrator so maybe that is why it is taking so long to implement- You don't know what you're doing!!!!. I attended UDC a long time ago and you are right the fashion merchandising program was there before the school lost funding or something and it was a BA program I know people that majored in it. Ms. Greene should have been able to update the curriculum and recruit and implement that program long before now. Not starting from ground zero. In addition, agree with the previous comments about the careers promised in the AA program why would someone go to CCDC to receive an AA in fashion merchandising then go to Howard Univ or MaryMount and receive a BA. The careers promised are unrealistic coming out with an AA. The graduate will need a degree and experience. So again the city and Councilmember Kwame Brown wasting tax payers dollars. And to say they aren't close...sound like a lie to me because for Ms. Greene to not be qualified she had to know someone to get this special treatment. Also I am confused aren't earmarks suppose to fund programming not fund someone salary solely and especially UDC when they are already getting funding out of the city budget. Why was this not included in the UDC budget vs Ms. Greene getting additional funds if UDC officials so called championed the high-demand program? And if Ms. Greene was so diligent in managing the finances why was that not uncovered or disclosed by the DC Auditor, Deborah Nichols. UDC and City Council should do an investigation of this especially since the DC Auditor stated that the budget did not indicate the total number of hours the program officer work. The city is looking into the funding Fenty's development friends received. The City should look into this funding $400,000 is a lot that could have went to another program like Hoops Dreams or something. And for Ms. Greene to state...more less sound like a lie.... her budgets have been proper and she averaged 70 hours a week...then why were they not supplied to the auditor and if she worked 70 hours then why has the program not been launched sooner. Believe UDC officials have not championed this...UDC officials are looking into this and we all should question what other "special treatment" Councilmember Brown has done. The Councilmember fault Mayor Fenty for funding his friends, look like Kwame Brown pulled a "Fenty"!

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