The D.C. Council chose veteran lawmaker Phil Mendelson on Wednesday to lead it as chairman until a Nov. 6 election to replace Kwame R. Brown in the wake of his resignation and guilty plea to fraud and campaign-finance charges.
But the body took a tortured and bitter path to its decision after council member Vincent B. Orange asked his colleagues to support him as Mr. Mendelson’s second in command rather than Michael A. Brown, at-large independent.
“Black and whites together, east and west together, Democrats together,” Mr. Orange, at-large Democrat, said in a failed bid that stressed party unity.
Mr. Mendelson, a 59-year-old Ohio native who got involved in local D.C. affairs in the 1970s, long before his election to the council in 1998, assumed the center seat on the dais for the first time in the closing moments of the meeting. In a short address to the chamber, he encouraged the council to restore its reputation for the sake of the District.
“Right now, the symbol that is this council is tarnished,” he said. “Some people have even lost faith in our citizens’ ability to elect good government, which imperils not only this institution, but the autonomy of the District overall.”
Mr. Mendelson takes the reins of a council that is reeling from the sudden resignations of two members — Mr. Brown and before him Harry Thomas Jr. — within a span of six months. Both former officials admitted to felony charges after separate probes by the U.S. attorney for the District, which is still investigating the 2010 campaign activities of Mayor Vincent C. Gray.
Mr. Mendelson would rise to mayor if a federal probe into Mr. Gray’s 2010 campaign heats up to the point that he would have to step down.
On Wednesday, Mr. Mendelson reminded his colleagues that “the foundation of good government is trust.”
“We have lost that,” he said. “It will take time to rebuild.”
Mr. Mendelson said he will use the chairman’s ornate office for meetings with his colleagues, but is unlikely to make a wholesale move to the fifth-floor digs from his fourth-floor office.
The council’s debate on Wednesday sets up a potentially caustic campaign between Mr. Mendelson and Mr. Orange this November, when city voters will select a candidate to finish Kwame R. Brown’s term through 2014.
Mr. Gray declined to comment on whom he would like to see in the chairman’s seat for the long term.
“I think we’ll have time to look at it, won’t we?” Mr. Gray said at his biweekly press briefing. “We’ll see how Mendelson does over the next several months. I like to think I can work with anybody.”