In the days since former D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown was forced to step down after pleading guilty to financial and campaign-related improprieties, council members who've been left behind are eager to put the sordid affair behind them.
Brown's abrupt resignation and his unexpected fall from grace has thrown the council into disarray and created a leadership crisis. His absence has ignited a frenzy of politicking, deal-making and the shuffling and reconfiguration of the legislative body.
Members have been meeting behind closed doors to plot the way forward, and on Wednesday were scheduled to meet, confer and choose an interim council chairman. That person would serve until D.C. voters choose a new chairman in November.
At press time, Phil Mendelson (D-At-Large) was the odds-on favorite to assume the role of acting chairman. He has the support of the majority of his colleagues and is regarded as a calming influence, an experienced hand and the voice of reason on the body.
"All of this is very disappointing," said Mendelson of the scandal that broke down Brown. "I take no pleasure in any of this."
Mendelson, 59, said during an interview Tuesday that while he has talked to his colleagues and is optimistic, he doesn't like to comment on issues that have yet to be settled.
"We won't know until tomorrow," he intoned.
But if chosen, Mendelson said, he would seek to inject stability and cordiality to the discordant and fractious body.
"My appointment would be to be as collaborative as possible," he said. "I would work closely with members and do business as best as I could."
Mendelson, who was first elected to the council in 1998, acknowledges the spate of squabbling and nastiness that has consumed the council over the past 18 months or so.
"We have been less collaborative [and that's because] it's kind of a top-down style from the chairman down. That needs to change," he said.
Mendelson said he plans to run for council chairman and finish out Brown's term which ends in 2014.
But even the process of choosing Brown's replacement has left Chuck Thies, a local communications expert and political consultant, shaking his head.
"Look at the process of making Mendelson the interim chairman – it's a done deal. It was done behind closed doors," said Thies, who moderates the program DC Politics every Thursday on WPFW, 89.3 FM. "There should have been a debate about it on TV."
Thies, 47, said the scandals and ethical problems that currently envelope the council and Mayor Vincent C. Gray are the worst he's seen.
"Things are terrible. If we're not at one of the lowest points, we're equal to or at an all-time low," said Thies, a New Jersey native who has lived in the District for 20 years. We have two rising political stars forced out, two close aides of the mayor who have pled guilty [to illegal campaign activities], [members of] the council fighting like cats and dogs in public and behind closed doors – none of this is going away."
"The feds have peeled back the lid on a can of worms and it's a deep can. I see no end to this."
Thies likened the situation facing the city's elected officials with someone who bought a computer 10 years ago and hasn't updated it.
"Older political players' view of politics and contracting was shaped in the '80s and '90s," he said. "Twelve years into the new century, what may not have been illegal then, may be now and people care about these issues."
"The city has changed a lot but people's view and MOs don't. They need to update or they'll run into problems. You have to update your game."
Former City Administrator Michael Rogers said the ethical and other problems that have enmeshed some public officials belies the honesty and hard work of most government employees.
"It's very unfortunate for Brown and his family, but especially for the District of Columbia, which once again is cast in a bad light because of the personal indiscretions of leaders in prominent positions," said Rogers. "You should not say that the whole council is corrupt. When you look at the number of men and women who have served – in the hundreds – you only have two."
Brown, 41, resigned on June 8, after signing a plea agreement where he admitted submitting false information to secure a $166,000 home equity loan, as well as a $55,000 loan he used to buy a powerboat. Brown, also pleaded guilty to violating a District campaign law that bars candidates from paying campaign employees more than $50. Brown – who acknowledged aiding and abetting a relative to pay $1,500 to a campaign worker during the 2008 campaign – faces up to six months in jail.
In addition to Brown, former Ward 5 Council member Harry Thomas, Jr., faces prison time for stealing $353,500 and filing false tax returns. A federal judge sentenced the 51-year-old to 38 months in prison.
And in recent weeks, two campaign aides of Mayor Vincent C. Gray pled guilty to campaign violations during the 2010 election cycle.
A source who moves in D.C. political circles said there needs to be mechanisms in place for attracting men and women who care about the city, who are knowledgeable about public policy, politics, and government, and who are of unquestioned integrity.
"These politicians had demonstrated potential, But for bad judgment on both their parts, they could have continued to rise in D.C. politics," he said. "People elected [them] to serve, not to demonstrate bad judgment. If you're just about yourself, seeking to improve yourself and your lifestyle with the people's money, you should not be there. People don't forget that."
But Ward 8 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Dionne Y. Brown said the type of people with unimpeachable integrity and who aren't interested in enriching themselves from the public coffers generally will never get to the point of running for public office because of an outdated and essentially ineffective political machine.
She said prospective candidates are groomed – taught how to play the game the way it has always been played – how to win and how to raise, hide and launder money but not how to conduct themselves properly.
Customarily, a candidate is on his or her way if the political establishment buys in to that person. Then the party machine will burnish that person, give them the exposure they need and the financial lubricant for any race.
"Good political grooming involves giving a candidate an ethical wash, not just polishing the veneer of outward appearances," she explained.
But it is clear the system isn't working.
"The political machinery is in bad shape and needs reinventing," said Brown "Good people seldom make it especially if they don't kiss the right rings, move in the right circles and choose not to be beholden to the machine. The patronage system consists of self-seekers and slaves to the machine."
"We need more people who lead with independence and irreverence like the late John Wilson and Tommy Wells."
But as a result of the scandals and ethical lapses Gray and the council continue to lurch through, Brown said she expects changes.
"I think there'll be some fundamental changes to the political machine. The influence of those pipelines will be diminished."
Thies said it's significant that none of D.C.'s white elected officials was born or raised in the District of Columbia.
"And none of them was raised here in the '70s and '80s," he explained. "Kwame Brown and Harry Thomas are children of long-term city politicians. Their sense of entitlement may have been developed in the environment in which they were raised."
Barbara Lang, president and CEO of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, said she is most concerned about the corrosive effects of the scandals on the city's image and the distractions they are causing.
"With all the attention lately on indictments and plea deals of a few of D.C.'s elected leaders, it is difficult, but important, to focus on the important work that there is to be done in this city," she said in a blog. "I cannot mince words here – I am extremely disappointed with Chairman Brown's activities, and overall I find the lapses in personal judgment amongst our elected officials extremely disturbing. These are the people we have chosen to lead and manage our city; that they should be trustworthy shouldn't even need to be said."
"... I am calling for ... all elected officials to redouble their efforts to regain and restore the public trust. I've expressed my outrage over the ethical missteps made by other members of this government. This is a serious issue, affecting the economic health as well as reputation of our city. We cannot continue to have our leaders in the spotlight for one indiscretion after another."
At the end of the day, said Brown – who has been an ANC for 10 years – D.C. will ultimately ride out this storm.
"This is politics. It's not unique to D.C., it's everywhere," she said. "It isn't cataclysmic. This is not the end of the world. But we have to do better and make better choices. Voters have to be more discerning, more discriminating."