- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 11, 2016

The D.C. Council will face a crisis in leadership when it is seated in January: Freshman lawmakers are barred from holding committee chairmanships, but the council will have more chairman posts than veteran legislators to fill them.

The 13-member legislature already has four lawmakers serving their first terms and is set to add three more freshmen after November’s elections because of incumbent losses in the Democratic primaries in June. But there will be only six veterans to fill the council’s eight committee chairmanships.

The situation adds to concerns roiling the District’s political scene. The D.C. Democratic State Committee is dealing with internal pressures over filling the seat for the remainder of lame-duck council member Vincent Orange’s term, although the at-large Democrat has not yet resigned.

Democratic leaders’ plans to install activist Robert White, who likely will win the seat in November, have met with intraparty resistance. Some state committee members have complained about a lack of communication from leaders, and longtime activist Anita Shelton has made a bid for the interim legislative position.

The D.C. Council is scheduled to return from its summer recess on Sept. 20. Lindsey Walton, spokeswoman for council Chairman Phil Mendelson, said he will not talk about committee chairmanships until December.

As it stands, the council will lose the leaders of its Committee on Health and Human Services and its Committee on Business, Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. Yvette Alexander, the Ward 7 Democrat who chairs the health committee, and Mr. Orange, who heads the business committee, lost their re-election bids in the primaries. Freshman council member LaRuby May, Ward 8 Democrat, also lost her primary election.

Those three lawmakers most likely will be succeeded by, respectively, former Mayor Vincent C. Gray, Robert White and activist Trayon White — given the overwhelming dominance of the Democratic Party among the District’s registered voters.

They would join first-term lawmakers Elissa Silverman, at-large independent; Brianne Nadeau, Ward 1 Democrat; and Charles Allen, Ward 6 Democrat; as well as Brandon T. Todd, a Ward 4 Democrat who is completing the council term of Mayor Muriel Bowser and begins his own term in January. None holds a committee chairmanship.

Each veteran member — Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat; Kenyan McDuffie, Ward 5 Democrat; Anita Bonds, at-large Democrat; David Grosso, at-large independent; and Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat — already leads a committee. Mr. Mendelson chairs the Committee of the Whole.

As chairman, Mr. Mendelson could fold committees together or eliminate some of them. When he became chairman in 2013, he made the Education Committee a stand-alone panel, separating it from the Committee of the Whole. Last year, he scrapped the Economic Development Committee.

The current council committees are the Judiciary (Mr. McDuffie), Transportation and the Environment (Ms. Cheh), Finance and Revenue (Mr. Evans), Education (Mr. Grosso), Housing and Community Development (Ms. Bonds), Health and Human Services (Miss Alexander), and Business, Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (Mr. Orange).

Questions arise over how Mr. Mendelson will consider the incoming freshmen, particularly Mr. Gray, who has six years of experience as a council member and chairman, and four years as mayor.

“Who decides how tenure is measured? Mendelson. So does Gray’s six-year tenure as Ward 7 member and council chair count? Does tenure as mayor count, too?” said a longtime council watcher.

“What is the purpose in assigning committees based on tenure? If it isn’t purely political, it should be to ensure that residents get the best representation, right? Tenure reflects experience, knowledge, etc.,” said the council watcher, who requested anonymity.

Another consideration is geographical: If freshmen lawmakers remain barred from committee chairmanships, then no council panel will be led by a representative east of the Anacostia River — an impoverished area comprising Wards 7 and 8 — after Miss Alexander’s departure.

It’s tough to judge how the first-term legislators will approach requests for chairmanship or whether they will ask at all.

The council watcher said it would be bad form for freshmen to publicly ask to head a committee.

“Mendelson would frown on any of the incoming council members for weighing in publicly before a private discussion of potential committee assignments took place,” he said.

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