Loose Lips

Smooth Operator

How Phil Mendelson Rose to the Top of D.C. Politics

Well, that was fast.

Last week, LL had his hopes up for an epic political punch-off between the boring but likeable Phil Mendelson and the loud, proud, acquired taste of Vincent Orange for the D.C. Council chairman’s seat. Now it looks like Mendo will win it easy in November. God of exciting political campaigns, why has thou forsaken LL?

On Monday of last week, Orange told the Associated Press the job should be his, and that he was going to run in the Nov. 6 special election whether his council colleagues picked him for the post or not. (In case you missed it, former Chairman Kwame “Fully Loaded” Brown resigned two weeks ago and pleaded guilty to bank fraud.)

Sure enough, the council voted to put Mendo in the top spot and also kept Orange out of the ceremonial No. 2 spot. Orange went mad with rage that Michael A. Brown was voted chairman pro tempore, giving a series of self-promoting soliloquies from the dais that will likely go unrivaled in terms of pure, embarrassing spectacle for years to come. Then again, this is D.C. politics, so maybe it’ll be for months to come.

“Vincent Bernard Orange Senior is the best candidate,” Orange said. That was one of many lines that found its way into a mocking YouTube clip of Orange’s boastful banter put together by Kojo Nnamdi’s producers. (When you’re being taunted by public radio, you know you’re in trouble.) Orange also seemed to be in full campaign mode, talking about how “the people” were going to be the ultimate deciders of the council’s leadership posts.

But VO’s juice faded fast. The Washington Post this Monday quoted sources close to Orange saying he’d pass. LL’s own unnamed sources close to Orange confirm that it’s very unlikely that he’ll run. Orange, who keeps his own counsel, hasn’t told the Post or LL either way, so never say never.

Another possible Mendo foe, former school board president and city administrator Robert Bobb, has been mentioned often. But LL can find no signs that he’s in. Says Bobb of his plans: “I’m keeping that to myself.” Former Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson’s name keeps popping up as a possible contender also, but she says no way.

There are usually a dozen solid reasons for any sane person to avoid a political contest. But there’s one, maybe not-so-obvious reason why big names are staying out of the race: They would almost surely lose to one of the District’s most successful political operators.

Yes, you read that right: Philip Heath Mendelson, the uncoolest of councilmembers, has become a rock star in city politics. The balding middle-aged white guy with the unassuming self-described “nitpicker” personality has quietly built a reputation as one of the few trustworthy adults on the council, successfully bridged the city’s racial divide, and become one of the biggest vote-getters in D.C.

In his 2010 at-large race, Mendelson got more votes than any candidate on the ballot besides Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton. When Adrian Fenty made history winning every precinct in 2006, Mendelson won every ward and got 2,000 more votes than Fenty. Mendelson’s successes are more impressive due to his comparatively meager fundraising ability and lack of historical support from sometimes influential groups, like the business community or the Post editorial page (though trial lawyers and labor unions have been strong backers).

“I think Phil’s unbeatable,” says Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans.

A former council staffer, Mendelson won a seat in 1998 in a crowded field of 10 candidates in the Democratic primary, with 17 percent, mostly from areas with lots of white voters. But Mendelson’s base now crosses demographic and geographic lines, thanks to his efforts to appear at as many community events as possible. Mendelson’s success, bluntly put, is a testament to the power of being there.

“He just shows up, which is what a smart politician does,” says Paul Savage, a longtime politically active Ward 7 resident who says he expects to see Mendelson at a community event in Hillcrest this weekend.

During campaign season, he often hits four or five events in a night.

“In terms of Mendelson’s opponents, no one has ever outworked him,” says consultant Chuck Thies, who ran Mendelson’s campaign in 2002, then worked on the campaign of his opponent, A. Scott Bolden, in 2006 (That year Mendelson gave Thies his blessing to go make more money working for Bolden.)

Aides praise Mendo for not panicking when things look bad. In 2006, volunteer Bob Summersgill says, supporters worried about a lack of urgency in Mendelson’s approach against Bolden, the former head of the city’s Democratic Party and the Chamber of Commerce, who outraised Mendelson by several hundred thousand dollars. But Mendelson kept up his regular attendance at community events and heavy emphasis on direct mail—“Phil likes to explain things,” says one former aide—and won with 64 percent.

“He just sort of poo-pooed our concerns,” says Summersgill.

In 2010, a Post poll found that with only weeks left before the primary, Mendelson was down 12 points to Shadow Sen. Michael D. Brown, who undoubtedly benefited from having the same name as Councilmember Michael A. Brown. Mendelson launched a mail and poster campaign noting that Michael D. Brown was different from Michael A. Brown. He won with 63 percent.

Of course, Mendelson’s also been lucky. In 2002, Mendelson ran against Marion Barry for an at-large seat. For a month. Barry dropped out after U.S. Park Police found trace amounts of drugs in his car that March (no charges were filed, and Barry came back two years later to win the Ward 8 seat). And in 2006, Mendelson’s opponent, Bolden, ran a campaign that several political observers have described to LL as one of the worst in recent memory. Thies says Bolden spent more money catering meetings than attacking Mendelson. “He pissed his money away,” says Thies (who, remember, ditched Mendo for Bolden’s higher pay).

Or maybe not. “Was it his fault, or was I a good candidate?” asks Mendelson.

Whatever the case, this time around it looks like Mendelson won’t need any luck.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

Got a tip for LL? Send suggestions to lips@washingtoncitypaper.com. Or call (202) 650-6951.

  • Bob Summersgill

    He poo-pooed our concerns and proved that he knows a lot more about how to run a campaign then any of us around him. he also showed that he is not fickle and don't yield to the urging of his supporters. I'll be supporting him again.

  • Notletting go

    Mendelson is a puppet of whatever coalition is put in place by Cheh et al.
    He does not have a mind of his own, he is lazy and does not care. That is the only reason why he doesnt have a record.

    He is the worse of all because he has allowed bad things to happen and will use the same passive agressive style Gray used.

    He is bad news.

  • John

    Agreed! He is bad news for the city. He only wants to stay in office and only speaks up when an organization that supports him is involved. By doing little and saying little no one looks closely to see how lazy he has become.

  • The Java Master

    And precisely how is Mendo "bad news for the city"? He is not a pefect public servant, but he has never embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars from city coffeers, or made a public spectacle of himself in council chambers, or engaged in public race baiting, or pushed coke up his nose, as some otherr folks have done!

  • KeepinItReal

    Robert Bobb is running but just isn't talking to Satanman.

  • Mr.Remember

    If Bobb runs, all bets are off. He will win, just because.

  • LTR

    Whenever the POST starts wringing it's hand about the number of people beaten up for their wallets and cell phones, or another kid gets killed because there are no repercussions for anything other than murder, you can thank Phil Mendelson and his stewardship of the Crime Committee.

    But as long as the crime isn't happening on Mass Ave NW and no black kids are being punished, everyone will continue to think that Mendo's doing a bangup job.

    What he's been masterful is talking out of both sides of his mouth depending on what side or Rock Creek Park you live on.

  • Truth hurts

    Too bad Kathy Patterson soured on the city council after one city won the council chair election. She's the best public servant in recent dc history.

  • SEis4ME

    Mendelson a rock star? Have I missed something?

    Until recently, I never knew who he was but always voted for him because I recognized his name. I imagine this was the case for lots of dC residents.

    The real test of whether he "crosses racial lines" is will his numbers remain the same in a race against Orange. I'm rather confortable saying that I will vote for the latter.

  • I.J.

    Phil Mendelson has not bridged any racial divide in this city - he is a smooth liberal cracker.

  • I.J.

    Kathy Patterson was trailer park trash white woman who hated black people.

  • ward3er

    How is having a career bureaucrat in government a good thing?

  • http://www.glaaforum.org Rick Rosendall

    I agree with Bob Summersgill. Phil's unflappability is an asset both in campaigns and on the Council. And I am sure he will not be thrown by the nasty comments on here either.

  • N.E. John

    Your Comment is awaiting moderation

    Good thing I am on the moderation list. Yeah, I'm much worse than those posting above. Only comments from my VA office's IP address seem to get through.

  • KeepInItReal

    Robert Bobb is keeping his chair ambitions close to the chest. HE will decide when he wants to make and announcement. It won't be at the behest of Satanman.

  • Typical DC BS

    Mayor Bob Bobb? You must be joking.

    He was last seen trying to stop Detroit from digging their hole deeper at their school system. How did that all turn out?

  • Anonymous, Too


    Robert Bobb is much more interested in being DC mayor. Some inside dope: Mendo's main squeeze for some time now is former Zoning Commission chair and uber Tony Williams backer, Carol Mitten, who was Bobb's right-hand woman in his campaign for head of the school board.

    Fenty ditched both Mitten and the school board once he took office and Bobb left (professionally, but kept his home here in DC) for greener pastures in Detroit.

  • KeepInItReal

    My understanding is that the business community is courting Tony Williams to run for Mayor again.

  • kob

    Anyone who hasn't been arrested, or is under suspicion, or isn't being hammered at day-after-day by you-know-who-daily-newspaper, has an excellent chance of becoming a political giant. That's what I love about DC.

  • Tom

    Because of his anemic fundraising he is still vulnerable. He has been very lucky to date. A well funded and likeable candidate who is willing to pound the pavement could easily beat him. He shows up, but those rooms typically have 30 people in them

  • Anonymous

    Why would anyone in this town vote for BobBobb for anything? He was city administrator - BFD! John Koskinen was a much better CA and then went on to become Chairman of Fannie Mae.
    BobBobb, not so lucky, not so smart, just a career mid-level hack. Mayor? Please!

  • Anonymous, Too

    "John Koskinen was a much better CA and then went on to become Chairman of Fannie Mae."

    LOLOL... you're kidding, right?

    "For that reason, the Fannie Mae scandal is the most important political scandal since Watergate. It helped sink the American economy. It has cost taxpayers about $153 billion, so far. It indicts patterns of behavior that are considered normal and respectable in Washington."


  • KeepinItReal

    I liked John Koskinen but it is laughable to suggest that he was a more effective City Administrator in the city than Robert Bobb. Under Bobb's leadership crime went down dramatically and economic development went up. He was no nonsense, which explains why many don't and didn't like him. He didn't take excuses for not getting things done. But he WAS a man among the people. He walked the alleys with constituents and he was fair with city employees. Your job security, said Bobb, was doing your job.

    Bobb, if nobody else, would being some long needed discipline and leadership to this rag-tag Council.

  • Sammy

    Bobbobb has not had any involvement with Washington, DC in some years. I suppose the only reason he might be presumptuous enough to carpet bag his way into the council chairman race is his belief that there is a sizable segment of the electorate that will not accept a white chairman.

    Of course, Phil M. might find himself in another office soon. the way things are going for Gray, he might decide to stay in China. There are better than even odds that Phil might become Mayor Mendo before long.

  • Jeri Hughes

    Mendelsohn is an honest man, a staunch supporter of civil rights, and a extraordinory legislator. Does he nitpick over language? Absolutely, as does any serious legislator. Mendelsohn is a good man, and we in the District are fortunate to have him working on our behalf - because he works hard for ALL of us.

  • KeepInItReal

    I like Mendleson too, but not as Council Chair. @Sammy, it is carpetbaggers, like Mayor Anthony Williams and his CA Robert Bobb that raised this city back up from the dust.

    It is you that are making this about race. Robert Bobb has always been an effective City Manager. As I said, he never accepted excuses for not getting things done. It was he that kept rec centers open and mandated alley lighting be improved during the city's crime emergency. It was under his leadership, with Chief Ramsey, that violent crimes dramatically decreased. It was under his leadership as CA that economic development prospered.

    However, it was native washingtonian politicians that have stolen from the city. Just saying.

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