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Score One For Fenty & Nickles

Just when it looked like the D.C. Council might rear up and bite back at the mayor and his eager beaver of a lawyer, Adrian Fenty and Peter Nickles emerged victorious from last night's showdown over the attorney general.

By a 7-5 vote, with Chairman Vincent Gray making the winning difference for the mayor he so often slams up against, the council confirmed Nickles as attorney general, the position he has held on an interim basis for most of the past year.

The decision demonstrates the enduring power of a popular mayor who has treated the council with disdain bordering on contempt, just as the debate that led to the vote illustrated the unusually bitter relationship that has developed between the city's chief lawyer and its legislative branch. Nickles may have won himself a job, but the process of getting there has only further poisoned the waters that flow through the Wilson Building.

Even Nickles's supporters on the council felt compelled to take him down a notch or two. "Peter Nickles is not always a day at the beach," said Jim Graham (Ward 1).

Nickles "is his own worst enemy," said otherwise staunch defender David Catania (At large). "He is not nearly as politically evolved as he is legally evolved."

Those who voted against him were far harsher. Phil Mendelson (At large) said straight out that Nickles "is not independent" and has acted as "chief lobbyist for the mayor" rather than as advocate for the District's residents.

Mary Cheh (Ward 3) said Nickles's ability to do his job is diminished by his "fierce personal loyalty" to Fenty and his "unwillingness to see many sides" of tough issues. Skeptical that Nickles will live up to the spirit of his promise to obey city rules and move from Virginia to the District, Cheh asked, "Would the people of the state of Maryland accept an attorney general who lived in Virginia?"

And, blowing away my theory of 24 hours ago that Marion Barry would be the swing vote in the Nickles decision, the former mayor stuck to his guns and voted and spoke against the nomination: "What bothers me is the line between policy and legal representation has been completely blurred." Barry recalled having established the office of counsel to the mayor back in 1978 "because I recognized there might be a conflict between" the job of representing the District and that of representing the mayor.

But in the end, Gray, who, like Barry, had worked with Nickles through many years, put mayoral privilege and Nickles's obvious qualifications for the post ahead of his aggressive nature, prickly personality and decidedly different concept of the job.

The chairman made it clear that this was not a foregone conclusion, that he had literally lost sleep over the decision, and that Nickles has, at least in recent weeks, made something of an effort to reach out to the council's leader--something that many council members say has been sorely lacking in the AG's approach to his work.

Nickles's approval doesn't portend any era of good feeling between council and mayor; to the contrary, the relationship is likely to remain difficult bordering on dysfunctional, especially after Michael Brown takes the seat he won earlier this month, replacing Carol Schwartz, who voted for Nickles.

But the big loser in this vote was the one member of the council who took the weaselly route and failed to register a view at all: At large member Kwame Brown, seemingly paralyzed by indecision, voted "present," which is to say, he didn't take any side at all. That's the kind of thing voters remember, even if Brown was just reelected very handily.

More immediately, Nickles will be under considerable pressure to pull back on his petty refusals to allow city agency heads to testify freely before council oversight hearings. But Nickles is not one to bend easily because of political or personal pressure. He takes on every hot issue with the piercing oppositional force of a courtroom lawyer intent on shredding the other side. It's an approach that made him a big success in the private sector and has won him nearly unquestioned support from Mayor Fenty. But it's a recipe for continued battle with the council, even if they did give him a nice present yesterday.

By Marc Fisher |  November 19, 2008; 7:20 AM ET
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Kwame Brown voting present on the Nickles confirmation confirms once again my view of this "man." He is someone who clearly lacks testicular fortitude. Another sad example of the future leadership of the District. Will anyone spare us from these fools?

Posted by: NewEra | November 19, 2008 8:24 AM

Wow! Mendelson, Cheh, Barry. And Brown taking a bold stand of admitting he was present at the vote.

Nice to know the forces of stagnation crime and corruption are marching in lockstep!

Posted by: icoleman | November 19, 2008 8:59 AM

Peter Nickels is exactly the kind of strong, get-it-done Rottweiler the District NEEDS(sans the lipstick, thank God). I hope he continues to roar through with what needs to be done and send all these mamby-pamby, business-as-usual WEENIES running back to their mommies.

When the people of this city voted for Mayor Fenty, they voted for someone to finally change how things are done (or more precisely, NOT done). Those council members who are doing all they can to keep the absurd status quo ought to sit up and take notice, before the voters do it for them.

And Mary Cheh, stop your whining. Peter Nickels has indicated that he will comply with the residency requirement if he is confirmed, which he has been. Get over it, and get on with the work of the people.

Posted by: Orsalia | November 19, 2008 12:01 PM

I could see why someone would be conflicted as Gray was with the Peter Nickles pick. He is extremely qualified. He has been a serious value added. But not so much with Nickles comments but with Rhee's recent statement that she does not need to listen to the council. The council is on edge about maintaining the checks and balance system within this administration.

And Kwame's vote of present answers the persisting question of wether he would run for mayor.

Posted by: 411Tibby | November 19, 2008 3:27 PM

The city of San Diego, CA just voted out their City Attorney (it's an elected position there). He was elected as a guy who would shake up the status quo and be a hard charger who got things done. He was kicked out after spending millions on lawsuits that judges said were poorly written and even more poorly argued. He had a contentious relationship with the City Council, because he forgot he represented the City as a legal entity. He fired or forced to quit most of the experienced staff of the City Attorney's office. He called news conferences every two minutes about his actions (except when being investigated by the State Bar). Anyone who disagreed with him was labeled corrupt or greedy.

See any parallels, folks? Unfortunately, you can't vote Nickles out of office.

Posted by: epjd | November 19, 2008 3:45 PM

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