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If a member of the D.C. Council ever asks to borrow money and promises to pay you back, look them squarely in the eye and give them a firm “no.” Then run away.
Because otherwise, there’s a good chance you’ll never get your money back.
But that’s pretty obvious. The bigger question is: Should you—or rather, will you—vote for a councilmembers who can’t pay their bills?
Take the case of big-spending Kwame Brown, the at-large councilmember who’s running to be the next council chairman. Brown is up to his eyeballs in debt after a prolonged spending spree—that records and recent published accounts show included boats, luxury cars, and a Harley Davidson motorcycle—and wound up being sued by three credit card companies for more than $50,000. Public records show Brown also had four outstanding speeding tickets from his college days in Maryland in the early ’90s he never bothered to pay, and three unpaid District parking tickets from 2005. (Brown has since sold many of the luxury rides, including the Harley, and his campaign spokesman says the parking tickets are “being taken care of.”)
Brown isn’t the only member of the council’s scofflaw club, but he is the only one running for chairman. The position gives him the biggest megaphone for setting the city’s financial priorities, and news of Brown’s personal financial mismanagement has some at the Wilson Building spooked at the prospect of his taking charge of the city’s $5.2 billion budget at a time when the city’s finances are on shaky ground.
“People are scared around here,” said one Wilson Building insider.
And the disclosure of Brown’s personal financial failings isn’t doing anything to help the perception shared by some of his colleagues on the council that the personable and politically astute Brown lacks what one councilmember called “gravitas.”
“Kwame is pretty much retail,” said the councilmember, who didn’t want to be quoted by name bashing a candidate who has won the endorsement of almost the entire council (including this member). “There’s no there there.”
Anonymous potshots aside, though, do any voters care? Conventional wisdom had Brown on the easy road to victory over former Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent Orange. Have Brown’s chances come down a peg or two after news of his personal financial problems surfaced?
History, guide us!
Probably the closest parallel to Brown’s situation is Eleanor Holmes Norton’s run for Congress in 1990, in which a late disclosure that her now ex-husband failed to pay the couple’s taxes for nearly a decade cost her the support of many voters west of Rock Creek Park.
Philip Pannell, president of the Congress Heights Community Association in Ward 8, was a campaign aide to Norton during that race and remembers white, affluent voters in Ward 3 being furious at Norton over her financial problems. “They raked her over the coals,” he said. But Pannell said black voters—especially women—were much more sympathetic, and voted for her by large margins to help her win the election.
“They remember Eleanor being a strong, black woman whose husband had fucked her up,” Pannell said. “A lot of them can relate to that.”
Pannell thinks there will be a similar divide in Brown’s situation, a viewed shared by several other political observers privately.
Sure enough, Brown got an almost rock-star like greeting from his supporters at a forum in Ward 8 Monday, the day after The Washington Post splashed his debt problems on the front page of the Metro section. And when he answered a question about his financial problems by talking about his accomplishments on the council and saying he probably spent “too much” time working to improve communities, Team Kwame gave him a 30-second long ovation.
Then again, Brown is in fairly good company in the wonderful world of District politics. Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. is being sued by the federal government for failing to pay $5,000 in student loan debt from the early 1980s. The feds are seeking more than $16,000, including interest and attorney fees. He also has five speeding tickets in Maryland of his own that he hasn’t paid, according to court records. (Thomas blamed “administrative errors” for both the student loan lawsuit and the outstanding tickets.)
Meanwhile, The Washington Times reported recently that At-Large Councilmember Michael A. Brown was slapped with a federal lien, too, for owing more than $50,000 in unpaid income taxes. Brown told the Times he’s close to paying off those debts and has done nothing wrong.
And, of course, there’s Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry, who has failed to pay both taxes and credit card debts. Barry has landed in hot water with the feds on numerous occasions for not filing tax returns, and lost a lawsuit last summer over $10,712.57 in unpaid credit card costs, records show. (Even with the courts siding in their favor, a lawyer for the credit card company tells LL he doubts his client will be repaid—because so many creditors sit ahead of them in the Barry wage-garnish line).
But Thomas’s student loan and ticket problems are kind of a yawner. Michael Brown’s tax lien looks kind of lame, and he’s not even up for re-election this year. And Loose Lips is willing to bet enough money to put himself into (more) debt that the mighty oak of Marion Barry’s political legacy won’t be felled by mere reports of unpaid credit card debts. (Meanwhile, voters don’t even seem to be giving Ward 1’s Jim Graham any hint of electoral trouble over allegations that his former chief of staff, Ted Loza, took bribes to promote taxicab legislation.)
So while Kwame Brown may have company in his need for a stern talking to from Suze Orman, he’s likely the only one whose problems may become a campaign issue. That’s because his opponent, Vincent Orange, plans on making it one.
“I’m going to keep talking about it because it is an issue. At the end of the day I’m talking about leadership, maturity and accountability and he has not demonstrated that in his past activity,” Orange, who has a law degree and is a certified public accountant, told LL. His angle: Brown isn’t the guy the city wants representing it before Congress and Wall Street bond rating agencies.
That message will surely resonate with some voters, but almost as surely won’t be enough to derail Brown’s campaign all by itself. Orange wasn’t taken particularly seriously when he ran for mayor in 2006, and won only 2.9 percent of the vote.
Perhaps working to Orange’s advantage is that the city and media will be focused so intently on an exciting mayoral race that the Brown’s debt will be the only thing people remember in the chairman race. “[Brown] runs the risk in this low-information election of this being all people know about him,” said one political consultant who is not involved with either campaign.
Which means Brown has a whole two months with, basically, only one task: to get voters thinking about something besides debt when they hear his name.
Haven’t I Seen You on TV?
LL readers who own television sets may have seen the first set of political ads of the season, featuring Mayor Adrian Fenty’s supporters speaking directly to the camera. The ads feature lines like, “Some people say… Adrian Fenty doesn’t play well with others,” “doesn’t listen to the community,” “that Adrian has changed, that he’s arrogant,” or some other variation of the theme.
The supporters then go on to refute those claims, and point to specific projects that Fenty has backed as proof that Hizzoner is focused on getting results.
Why bring up the very things Vincent Gray is busy bashing Fenty for? Sean Madigan, a Fenty campaign spokesman, says the ads aim to correct “misimpressions” voters who don’t closely follow politics may have of the mayor.
With a $3 million war chest, expect to see plenty more ads before the Sept. 14 primary. Gray campaign spokeswoman Traci Hughes says they’re also planning ads, but there’s no set schedule for their debut. (For clues, check Gray’s fundraising schedule.)
The admaker behind the 15-second Fenty spots is Bill Hillsman, of North Woods Advertising in Minneapolis. Hillsman’s claim to fame are the quirky ads he made for the late Sen. Paul Wellstone and former wrestler and Minnesota governor, Jesse “The Body” Ventura. Hillman also made ads for Fenty’s 2006 campaign.
Asked what Ventura and Fenty have in common, Hillsman said: “They both know what they want to get done, they both have very little patience for government bureaucracy…and they are both bald.”
Beat Poisoner reax
LL got some pretty nice compliments from his fellow scribes on his first column, detailing how “spectacularly dysfunctional” Fenty’s press operation is. Not a fan: Fenty spokeswoman Mafara Hobson. LL asked her a pretty routine question (through email, as she prefers) this week, and got this response: “You’re not serious? This is a joke, right?”
We’ll take that as a no comment. Note to Hobson: LL never jokes—ever.
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