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
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