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.”
Mr. Orange said at the John A. Wilson Building he plans to run for the chairman’s seat — he is also up for re-election to his at-large seat — although he offered less definitive answers to reporters who asked him about the November election moments later.
Mr. Orange had pitched his potential partnership with Mr. Mendelson in the interim as a sign of unity among Democrats and “good symbolism for this council.” He did not always refer to Mr. Brown by name, but called him “an independent that has some issues.”
Mr. Orange also pointed to recent news columns that highlighted Mr. Brown’s past mistakes, including failing to pay taxes, violating campaign-finance rules in the 1990s and pushing an ill-fated attempt last year for an online gambling program through the city’s lottery system.
For his part, Mr. Brown said he has taken responsibility for his past and would not trade barbs with his fellow members.
“At some point, positivity has to rise up over negativity,” he said.
Council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, successfully moved to split the resolution so that interim chairman and the pro-tem position would be selected individually. He said he made the motion so Mr. Mendelson could enjoy unanimous support from his colleagues without interference from the pro-tem debate.
Shouting at times, Mr. Orange challenged his 10 fellow Democrats on the dais to send him to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., as part of a unified team of party leadership and not “make me look like an idiot.”
Mr. Orange even compared himself to a popular Philippine boxer who lost a recent bout, despite widespread criticism that judges should have awarded him the victory.
“Looks like a [Manny] Pacquiao moment,” Mr. Orange said, arguing he is the most qualified option for pro tem. “I’m the best. I’m the best.”
Council member Yvette M. Alexander, Ward 7 Democrat, eventually softened the tone of the debate by chastising her colleagues for their “backbiting and foolishness” and the hypocrisy of relying on media accounts to promote themselves and disparage others.
“When it’s about us, maybe it’s not so right … . We have to stop this behavior,” Ms. Alexander said,
Council member David A. Catania, at-large independent, reminded his colleagues that the chairman pro-tem position is “largely ceremonial.”
Council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, was among them despite questions surrounding a series of money orders that Mr. Orange received in 2011 from the network of donors around Jeffrey Thompson, a prolific political donor whose home and offices were raided by the FBI in March.
“He hasn’t been convicted of anything,” Mr. Wells said after the meeting, noting almost every member of the council has accepted bundled campaign contributions and it was the “wrong time” to support Mr. Brown in light of his past problems.
“But in the end,” he said, I will support the leadership.”