Unvarnished politics -- marked by revenge and blind ambition -- were on display last week during the D.C. Council's selection of Phil Mendelson as interim chairman and Michael A. Brown as interim chairman pro tempore.
The spectacle brought Ward 7 Councilwoman Yvette Alexander to tears. Many residents watching the government's cable channel probably shouted a few choice words at the screen.
Here's the take-away: Legislators have mastered ethics rhetoric and adopted restoring-the-public's-trust verbiage but they have yet to place the District's image or its residents before their own political concerns.
Mendelson told me before his selection, "The council has to rebuild trust in our government that has been shaken."
Still, he used his credibility to prop up Brown -- a man who was at the center of the Internet gambling scandal; who only paid outstanding property taxes after press revelations; and who pleaded guilty in 1997 to campaign finance violations that mimic those at the core of the current federal investigations of District elected officials, including Mayor Vincent C. Gray.
During debate over the pro tem selection -- a choice between the flawed Brown or the less flawed but narcissistic Vincent Orange -- Mendelson said he "liked Brown and wanted to have him at his side."
Is that any reason to choose a leader -- one who could become head of the legislative branch, if the mayor were forced to resign?
Mendelson gave no weight to that possibility; neither did at-large Councilman David Catania or former Chairman Pro Tempore Mary Cheh -- although Kwame Brown's resignation elevated her, albeit briefly, to acting chairman.
I agree Orange's fist-pounding, self-aggrandizing performance was appalling. Still, he was the better of the two choices.
No one cared. It was time to stick it to Orange and hedge bets on the November general election.
Cheh, who introduced the nominating resolution, had issues with Orange; among other things, he strenuously fought her effort to regulate gas station ownership. Catania had been singled out by Orange when he sought to restrict legislators' outside employment.
Seemingly mild-mannered, Mendelson was determined to protect political turf. He wasn't about to share power with Orange, who, like Mendelson, had said he may run for the permanent post.
The Mendelson-Brown alliance is past and prologue. In 2010, it appeared Mendelson, up for re-election, was losing support, particularly in the black community. Residents were confused about his opponent: Was it Michael A. Brown, the sitting, African-American legislator or another Michael Brown? Michael A. Brown came to Mendelson's rescue, clarifying the issue in campaign literature.
This November, Brown is running for re-election. He faces a strong challenge in David Grosso, who is expected to do well among young progressives, especially those in white communities. Mendelson could help Brown eat into Grosso's base. In turn, Brown could help Mendelson shore up support in black areas, where Orange is likely to do well.
"Let us be honest. Let us act with integrity," Mendelson admonished his colleagues during post-selection comments.
Surely he realized the contradiction between what he said and what had just happened.
Jonetta Rose Barras' column appears on Monday and Wednesday. She can be reached at email@example.com.