Balance of power in play in reshuffled D.C.

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Local,DC,Harry Jaffe

Tell me it wasn't amusing to witness the tussling this week between Phil Mendelson and Marion Barry: the still-green chairman versus the crafty old bull. When it came to using arcane city council rules to push through his bill on ex-offenders, Barry seems to have outmaneuvered Mendo.

At the conclusion of the council session and in the aftermath of months of corruption investigations -- some pending -- it's time to ask the question: Who's got juice in the current, refashioned political scene?

Let's begin with the ethical matter of campaign cash. Certainly the political classes are in need of cleansing, given the ongoing federal investigation into Mayor Vincent Gray's 2010 campaign. The FBI has ventured into council campaigns, as well.

But the council punted on campaign finance legislation.

My colleague at The Washington Examiner, Alan Blinder, button-holed Mayor Gray, who had proposed legislation in August that would have imposed limits on donations from city contractors and restrictions on funds from money orders.

"We thought this should have been at the top of the agenda," said the mayor, "given all of the concerns that have been expressed about it."

Especially given U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen's unearthing of money order contributions for a "shadow" campaign that helped elect Gray.

Said the mayor: "It's just hard to understand why the council didn't move."

Two reasons: The members didn't really want to limit campaign contributions. And this mayor has little or no sway over the council, which is saying a lot, since he chaired the group just two years ago. But it is not the same council.

Kwame Brown and Harry Thomas Jr. resigned, thanks to federal investigations. Both were close to Gray. Michael Brown, who had been mentored by Gray, lost his at-large seat. Three of the sitting council members -- David Catania, Mary Cheh and Muriel Bowser -- have suggested Gray resign. They can't expect much from Gray, nor he from them.

And we know that at least five council members have designs on running for mayor. I don't see them doing much to make Gray look good.

This power outage on the executive side leaves an opening for a strong city council chair. But Phil Mendelson seems unwilling and uninterested in the leadership role, in part because he's a creature of the legislative process. He's comfortable in the collegiality of the council, he's told me, and prefers not to use raw muscle.

"The council is unsettled," says Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations. "We don't have a John Wilson up there. It lacks direction."

With the mayor sidelined and the council divided into fiefdoms, who can exercise power and get things done?

Two veterans: Jack Evans, because of his sheer time on the council, expertise in finances and ability to work with Gray. And Marion Barry, because he's smart and cagey and can cobble together a coalition by corralling African-American members and guilt-tripping whites. Barry flexing his muscles -- never good.

Harry Jaffe's column appears on Wednesday. He can be contacted at hjaffe@washingtonian.com.

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Harry Jaffe

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The Washington Examiner