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D.C. Political Justice? Will Barry Decide Nickles' Fate?

This promises to be the best bit of D.C. political theater since the wild machinations over whether to give Major League Baseball the deal of a lifetime:

During today's D.C. Council meeting, members will vote on Mayor Adrian Fenty's nomination of Peter Nickles as the city's attorney general. The fiercely self-confident Nickles, who has been a key adviser to the mayor since Fenty was a mere pup and who has been interim chief of the city's legal department for nearly a year, has managed to so alienate and offend members of the council that its judiciary committee voted 3-2 yesterday not to approve his nomination.

Today's vote will be close--very close. Three council members told me they expect a 7-6 vote. As of last evening, most bets were that Fenty would lose his biggest confrontation with the council to date--and would lose (at least in this position) his closest and most trusted sidekick, someone whose quick legal mind, confrontational strategy, and impolitic manner have become synonymous with the Fenty administration.

But the vote could just as easily go Fenty's way--by the skin of his teeth.

And no one believes this was a lock to go against Fenty--no, there's a strong consensus that this should have been a fairly easy win for the mayor, if only he could overcome his evident distaste for making nice to the council, let alone for groveling before their emotionally needy majesties.

What do council members have against Nickles? They accuse him of steering city agency chiefs away from the oversight hearings where council members are supposed to grill them. They say he overreaches and too quickly resorts to sacking city workers when something goes wrong and ends up in The Post or other media. They say he fails utterly to consult with them on issues big and small. They resent his refusal so far to move into the city he claims to serve and love (Nickles lives in Virginia.) And they say the mayor relies on Nickles for far more than legal advice--a level of influence that they believe is inappropriate for the attorney general to wield.

Some of the council members' gripes about Fenty are petty beyond belief. Several council members really believe that Fenty's decisions not to be generous with them with the District's tickets to Washington Nationals games last summer and now to the presidential inauguration are reasons that justify their estrangement from the generally popular mayor.

But the council has real and legitimate beefs too. Members too often feel ignored, cut out of policy making, kicked to the curb rather than honored as an essential part of the city's governance.

Ok, enough of that: Now to the vote-counting.

Here's the consensus count that I compiled by talking to a bunch of people who know how some--but not all--council members are thinking:

Jim Graham (Ward 1)
Jack Evans (Ward 2)
Muriel Bowser (Ward 4)
Tommy Wells (Ward 6)
David Catania (At large)
Carol Schwartz (At large)

Mary Cheh (Ward 3)
Harry Thomas Jr. (Ward 5)
Yvette Alexander (Ward 7)
Marion Barry (Ward 8)
Kwame Brown (At large)
Phil Mendelson (At large)
Vincent Gray (chairman)

But those positions are not set in stone. (And others count the votes somewhat differently.) Cheh, Alexander and Mendelson voted against Nickles in committee and aren't likely to switch sides. The other four antis have long menus of complaints against Nickles but really are where they are as a proxy for their frustration with the mayor. Rejecting the mayor's nomination in this case would pretty well mean open warfare between council and mayor.

Although Gray is massively annoyed by the way the Fenty crowd gives him the high hat, the chairman also likes to see himself as the conciliator, as a grownup in a group that can sometimes be quite adolescent. So it's possible that he flips--similarly Thomas and maybe even Brown. But they are potential pro-Nickles voters only if Fenty and Nickles come to them and make the case, perhaps offer some concessions, even a goody or two.

Don't bet on that having happened overnight. Fenty and Nickles are just too proud for that.

That leaves one man in the middle, the man who thrives on that pivot position perhaps more than anyone else in Washington political history, the mayor for life himself, Marion Barry.

Although Barry has been goading Fenty to a battle royal for many months now, and Fenty has refused to take the bait, this is one instance in which Fenty might have the upper hand: If Nickles were willing to make the play, he could have taken the overnight hours as the time to reach out to Barry. The two worked together closely for years when Nickles was a private lawyer fighting to force the District to reform its child welfare program, and there's enough of a personal bond there that Nickles could turn Barry around, with the requisite promises of future cooperation and assistance.

At least, that's the view of some in the council chambers who can't wait for today's show to roll out. Whichever way the vote goes, the relationship between the mayor and the council is a frayed and troubled one, and even those who support Fenty now say that he has unnecessarily poisoned his ties to the council.

Coming up today at noon on Raw Fisher Radio: How transient is the Washington area really? Does the election of a new president create much turnover in real estate, or does the same old set of people simply change jobs? How dependent is the Washington economy on things federal? And will President Obama change the face of some neighborhoods as John Kennedy is credited with doing? We'll talk to two demographics experts for an inside look.

By Marc Fisher |  November 18, 2008; 5:56 AM ET
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The rub is, Carol Schwartz is jobless, Fenty covertly supported the Republican in the election, so look for Schwartz to show up in some Fenty position in exchange for her lame duck vote. To Barry, Thomas, Brown, Alexander, Mendelson, Cheh and Gray, the Attorney General position is not one to play political games with; alot is at stake. Nickles is a political watchdog of the Mayor. Sometimes he acts like the an agency head, sometimes the mayor's general council, and others like the mayor himself, all of which places him in conflict with a position that represents one, and only one, client, the Government of the District of Columbia.

I expect an Attorney General who would hold even he Executive Office of the Mayor legally accountable, not one that will craft and interpret law to fit policy of the Mayor when that policy is harmful to the District.

I don't trust that Peter Nickles is capable of making that division between himself and the Mayor.

Is he a good attorney, obviously, is he capable to representing the District, as his one and only client. I think not.

Posted by: concernedaboutdc | November 18, 2008 7:20 AM

He's a hack, who should be sacked for his role in the stupidity of the gun ban litigation.

Posted by: ronjaboy | November 18, 2008 7:31 AM

What is with this mayor? He picks an Attorney General just in time to LOSE the Supreme Court battle over the gun ban. He picks a Chief of Police who apparently can't face a camera without Hizzoner, and who wouldn't know a HATE CRIME if a gang had taken out an ad and then went out to beat up (oh and kill, by the way)a gay man, and are laughing about the involuntary manslaughter charges against the hating perpetrators. This guy is a danger and a huge embarrassment to the city. VOTE HIM DOWN!!!

Posted by: wleldred | November 18, 2008 7:57 AM

If Nickles can't be bothered to actually live in the District, let him become attorney general of whatever podunk Virginia town he lives in.

Posted by: registration | November 18, 2008 9:08 AM

Glad Carol is jobless, look at how she is acting at the legistative session. Goodbye and good riddance.

Posted by: zippergyrl | November 18, 2008 12:09 PM

If the biggest gripe is that he lives in Virginia, then you can obviously see how DC's government has forever been the laughingstock of the region...right REGISTRATION? OMG, he lives in podunk Virginia, the horror!#!$#@$! Let me guess, you are a come-lately from New Jersey or Boston who settled into Dupont Circle and think "culture" stops at the DC line. Get in your car if you have one, and you will see that the DC suburbs are some of the most culturally diverse areas in the world. Us native DC-area suburbanites...even liberals, such as myself, who are from Virginia, continue to laugh at your elitist snobbery.

Posted by: rocotten | November 18, 2008 9:17 PM

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