Better Political Leaders Needed
The new chairman of the D.C. Council is being lauded by blacks in the District for being inclusive and open-minded but what residents are really clamoring for are leaders who are competent and not stained by scandal.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) becomes the second white politician since David Clarke's tenure in 1993 until his death in 1997 to lead the legislative body. Mendelson, 59, assumed the chairmanship on Wed., June 13, a week after Kwame Brown pleaded guilty to criminal charges in federal and D.C. Superior courts.
Mayor Vincent Gray (D) commended the council on its choice.
"I give them high marks for selecting Phil and I think he will do an excellent job," said Gray, 69. "I think that the citizens of the District of Columbia will get an earnest effort from him."
Mendelson overwhelmingly defeated D.C. Council member Vincent Orange (D-At-Large) in a council session straight out of the Hatfields and McCoys that included Council member Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) tearfully pleading with her colleagues to be more cordial and the new Pro Tempore, Michael Brown verbally sparring with Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8). A petulant Orange banged on the table while trying to convince anyone who would listen that he's the best man for the job.
Gray said that despite the colorful personalities serving on the city's legislative body, Mendelson should fare well.
"Phil knows how to run a meeting and is knowledgeable about the rules," the mayor said. "He also is a hard worker. When I was the chairman, I would work late hours and when I would leave [the John A. Wilson Building in Northwest]; I would still see Phil in his office."
Former D.C. Chairman Kwame Brown, 41, resigned on June 6, 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.
That Mendelson is white and given that the city is no longer majority black would give rise to concerns that African-American political power is waning. Not true, says Darrell Gaston, a Ward 8 advisory neighborhood commissioner.
"I think the vote that the council made was more for a perception of [stability]," said Gaston, 25. "The Civil Rights era leadership and the family dynasties in the city no longer have the sway that they used to. I know Phil Mendelson and anyone who would suggest that he is not sensitive to the needs of blacks doesn't know who he is."
Mendelson, first elected in 1998, has been seen at numerous meeting and events in Wards 7 and 8 over the years.
Carolyn Palmer of Southeast said that race is not an issue for her as far as Mendelson is concerned.
"It does not bother me that [he's] a white man," said Palmer, 58. "As long as he does what he is supposed to do, I am fine."
Michael Fauntroy, a political scientist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., said that the "real issue is not that Phil Mendelson is white but that the black politicians are so inept."
"Washington, D.C. has the deepest, most talented black professional class in the country," said Fauntroy, 46. "Yet, if you look at the D.C. Council, I am not sure that the best and the brightest want to go into politics. The quality of talent is there but D.C. politics tend to be more of a popularity contest as opposed to who can do the best job."
Fauntroy, who lives in Northwest, said that blacks in the District "elect people who they like" too much.
"Look at Ward 8," he said. "Black people there have been repaying the Barry debt for years because he helped them get a summer job years ago."
Gaston agrees with Fauntroy on the need for more capable and robust political leadership.
"We need black leaders who can not only address the issues in predominantly black neighborhoods but who can also reach across the racial lines in the city to get things done," he said.
Palmer said that what she wants from people who are in office, black or white, is good government.
"We need somebody in power who will do something and do the right thing to help people in this city," she said. "It is all about money with some politicians and that is wrong. Talk is cheap and I want someone who will deliver."