As the Nov. 6 general election inches closer, the District's at-large race has become the city's most highly anticipated as it produces some nail-biting moments, at least for one incumbent, Council member Michael A. Brown [I-At-Large]. It didn't have to play out this way for the 47-year-old Brown, who many believe represented a new, promising, ascendant group of D.C. politicians.
"I like him. He's personable but I cannot help you regain your credibility," said longtime Ward 7 activist Geraldine Washington, 50. "I told him people will remember his involvement in iGaming."
Washington referred to Brown's introduction of a proposal to create legal Internet gambling, during the 2011 budget cycle, as a way to generate revenue. It was enacted as a budget provision and was not subject to public hearings. It was unpopular among residents who felt it lacked transparency and citizen input. The D.C. Council later repealed the measure.
iGaming is just one in a laundry list of faux pas and bumps in the road – many self-inflicted – entangling the council member who was first elected to the D.C. Council in 2008. A recent poll by Washington City Paper and the Kojo Nnamdi Show shows Brown with a scant five percentage point gap between himself and his closest challenger, David Grosso, a former council aide.
Washington said what frustrates her [is] "when she sees wasted potential."
In his re-election for the Council's non-majority seat, Brown is fighting off six challengers – Grosso, Leon Swain and A.J. Cooper, all independents; Mary Brooks Beatty, a Republican; and Ann Wilcox, a Statehood Green candidate. Council member Vincent Orange is vying for a seat but in an overwhelmingly Democratic city is widely expected to win. Brown's ambition to become the District's mayor is one of the city's worst kept secrets.
"This is affecting his shot at becoming mayor," Washington said. "Instead, he's fighting for his political life."
Lula Evans, a Ward 8 resident since 1976, said you can't always judge a book by its cover.
"As far as I'm concerned, his record speaks for itself," said Evans, 79, one warm evening in October, as she sat at the front desk at THEARC in Southeast. "You actually have to look at the person and see behind because if you keep up with him, you can't always go by what you're hearing."
Evans said she didn't have any personal interaction with Brown and he hasn't done anything specifically to help her but keeps abreast of what he's done on the council.
A third generation Washingtonian, Brown, is the scion of a prominent political family. He is the son of Alma and the late Ronald H. Brown, former Commerce Secretary under President Bill Clinton, and chair of the Democratic National Committee. In recent months, Brown seems less tied to legislation he's introduced or co-sponsored; and more affixed to a series of personal transgressions. And there are many: He overcame two ballot challenges to the validity of signatures he filed with the D.C. Board of Elections. He barely survived.
Then there are a succession of financial issues such as not paying income and property taxes on time; not paying his rent and having his drivers' license yanked five times. Perhaps the most troubling development is the cloud lingering over his campaign where he is said to have discovered that $100,000 disappeared from campaign coffers. He calls it embezzlement by a trusted aide, his former campaign treasurer calls it valid payments for work performed.
"There's just too much stuff that it seems like a pattern," said Colin Van Niel, 57, a Ward 6 resident and federal employee. "I'm totally disappointed with these politicians. I have so much expectation but they end up distracted." Van Niel said he probably won't vote for Brown.
Washington added that the combination of the problems "just leaves a bad taste in my mouth."
Brown's difficulties are just one of a litany of stains against members of the D.C. Council.
Several members of the council have been entangled in federal investigations into theft, improprieties and ethical lapses that have raised the ire and disgust of residents. The chairman of the council and a council member resigned in disgrace and the U.S. Attorney's Office is investigating whether Jeff Thompson, a major donor to D.C. political campaigns, violated local and federal campaign laws. In addition, Mayor Vincent C. Gray [D] has been embroiled in campaign-related scandals that have led to the resignation of campaign aides and a close personal friend and strident calls for his resignation following guilty pleas by his aides and his friend and associate.
Ward 6 Council member Tommy Wells, an outspoken critic of the ethical problems on the legislative body, has endorsed Brown's opponent.
"There is a crisis of ethics with our elected officials in D.C. and I am confident David Grosso will hold himself to a very high standard," said Wells, 55.
Critics have described Brown as aloof and possessing an inflated sense of entitlement, both of which Brown disputes. Despite what seems to be the unraveling of his campaign, Brown doesn't seem too worried. He said it's these political maneuvers by his opponents – actions unrelated to his legislative work – are what rivals try to get voters like Van Niel, Washington and Evans to focus upon.
"Though my issues have rational explanations, I still take full responsibility for them," said Brown, who holds a law degree from Widener University [Delaware] School of Law, and a bachelor's from Clarke University in Massachusetts. "They know they cannot run against my record."
He said this "political angling" is meant to undermine his accomplishments as an advocate for all District residents.
As a legislator, Brown extended rent control for the next 10 years; strengthened tenants' rights laws to preserve their "opportunity to purchase;" protected funding and stronger housing affordability standards and increased support for affordable housing programs. He touted his success in getting the city to reimburse employees for four furlough days last year and helped reform the food stamp program.
Brown, chair of the Committee on Economic Development and Housing, is also the chairman pro tempore.
It's a late Friday afternoon. Brown appears relaxed as he sits in a Starbucks near the John A. Wilson Building in Northwest in early October. His shoulders are straight and he wears an easy smile. Brown is animated, his eyes lighting up as he leans forward to hammer home his advocacy for affordable housing, jobs, rent control, safety net programs and responsible and community-oriented economic development east of the river. He has the legislation to back the claim.
Ed Lazere of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, a policy research and advocacy organization that focuses on low-and moderate-income residents, said Brown was one of the early supporters for creating a new income tax bracket for higher income households in the District – those earning more than $250,000 a year which helped increase revenue to pay for education and human and public services.
Chuck Thies, a political consultant and co-host of WPFW's "DC Politics" show has a theory on why Brown
hasn't been able to demonstrate to voters that he's a leader on jobs and housing – his main campaign theme.
"It's part him and part the plight of a legislator. Council members rarely get credit [or blame] for 'big picture' issues," said Thies, 47.
"Brown didn't frame his campaign as a crusade for jobs and affordable housing until things began to unravel for him. Add to that the past year of scandal after scandal, plus many lingering, unanswered questions and you've got a perfect environment for voters to be fed up with a politician who is less than inspirational."