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With the mayoral suite and key council seats up for grabs, veteran political consultant Marshall Brown is getting a lot of calls these days. The feelers are coming from aspiring politicians looking to compete in the wide-open 2006 D.C. election season.
Brown is talking strategy and tactics with some promising names. And that fact alone marks an amazing turnaround for the 60-year-old political handyman.
Just a few election cycles ago, Brown’s career looked to be in a shambles. After serving in the administration of Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr., Brown hooked up with newcomer Anthony A. Williams during the 1998 mayoral campaign. He was one of the foot soldiers who guided the bow-tie-wearing neophyte through the city’s African-American neighborhoods.
After Williams coasted to victory, Brown landed a job in his constituent-services office.
It didn’t take long for Brown to get into trouble. Only days after the new mayor took office proclaiming a new, post-Barry D.C., Brown generated a national controversy over race.
The backdrop was a meeting in the mayor’s Office of the Public Advocate. In attendance were office director David Howard, Brown, and another aide. At one point in the meeting, Howard was addressing budgetary matters; to characterize the office’s policy toward spending, Howard used the word “niggardly.”
The word means “miserly” and carries no racial connotation, but someone in the meeting didn’t bother to consult Webster’s. Over the next few days, D.C.-government gossipers were saying that Howard, who is white, had uttered a similar-sounding but far more objectionable word. Howard resigned to avoid causing contention for a mayor who rode into office largely on the backs of white voters.
The “niggardly” incident thrust the District to the forefront of a national debate about political correctness. It also provided fresh D.C. grist for the late-night comic mill.
Brown got the blame and ended up out of the Williams administration by 2000. He claims he was fired.
Around town, the N-word brouhaha dogged him. Brown was labeled an outcast, a relic of D.C.’s political past, when race played a central role in attracting voters from Palisades to Congress Heights. He was derisively called a Barry loyalist.
The shunned consultant went into exile, plying his trade in other parts of the country. Brown says he worked for the Al Gore presidential campaign in Cincinnati. Former New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey’s campaign hired him to work Atlantic City. He ran a Maryland State House race in Baltimore and went south for a Mississippi referendum on the state flag. His only D.C. race was Beverly Wilbourne’s failed 2002 bid to unseat At-Large D.C. Councilmember Phil Mendelson.
Longtime Brown friend Anwar Saleem, chairman of the H Street Main Street executive board, says Brown didn’t want to work as a traveling consultant. “He felt he had given his all [for the city],” Saleem says. “Here he was going out to other states to organize and stuff….The last thing you want is your hometown people to reject you.”
Anita Bonds, Brown’s campaign ally and boss during the Barry years, says her political partner was deeply hurt by the controversy. “He had a down period. Anytime your name is raked through the coals, sure, you’re going to be down.”
To make his comeback, Brown would need a client who trusted him, who believed in him. That would be his youngest son, Kwame Brown, who had his sights set on an at-large D.C. Council seat.
The elder Brown says his son “started out with maybe 2 percent name recognition, and half of them thought he was the [professional] basketball player.”
Marshall Brown advised Kwame to enter the 2004 race early—he was shaking hands at Metro stations 20 months before the election. He also spent lots of time knocking on doors and planting yard signs. He listened to voters in living rooms and waved signs at busy intersections during rush hour.
When incumbent Harold Brazil attacked the younger Brown for his father’s Barry-era work, Marshall Brown urged his candidate to stay positive. Brazil bumbled and stumbled through the campaign, and a third candidate, Sam Brooks, did better than expected in several Brazil strongholds.
Brazil never had a chance. Kwame Brown crushed the 14-year councilmember in the Democratic primary by 22 percentage points.
“That was probably the highest point right there,” Marshall Brown says.
Kwame Brown’s election convinced his father that he still has the winning formula for electoral success. “I have more faith in it now,” Brown says.
“Now that my son’s out there, people have a different perception of what I am all about,” Brown says. “I rehabilitated myself, and they give me a lot more respect than they used to.”
Election 2006 will be a mad scramble, with several councilmembers looking to take the mayoralty and a host of newcomers hoping to capitalize on the vacuum. Brown says would-be candidates looking for an edge are now coming to him.
“I’ve talked to every politician in this town,” Brown says. “One of the reasons they call is they see one of the best campaigns ever run in the city,” he says of his son’s 2004 effort.
Mayoral candidate and Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty isn’t one to cater to the old Barry crowd. He represents a new breed of politician, which rose to power without using race and fear as instruments for political gain. But with virtually no organization or reputation east of the Anacostia River, Fenty has Brown on his call list.
“Marshall is a great political strategist,” Fenty says. “I would love to have his support….I don’t think there’s an elected official in the town that wouldn’t want to have his expertise.”
Other political operatives say Brown gives himself far too much credit. Brazil, after all, was particularly vulnerable. And the Kwame Brown strategy was a virtual photocopy of Fenty’s successful 2000 council campaign. Besides, starting early and going door to door is an obvious tack for anyone who, like the younger Brown, doesn’t have much campaign cash.
Even so, Brown is booking clients on the strength of his reputation as a deliverer of D.C.’s African-American voters. Those voters could turn the tide in a citywide race. The council remains majority-white—a fact that rankles both black and white voters in this majority-black town.
In the upcoming at-large race, Brown will be making his political calculations on behalf of another long shot. He’s backing David Bowers, who on June 22 announced his candidacy for the seat now held by Mendelson.
Bowers, who runs two nonprofit groups in the city, is a virtual unknown. Yet Brown has personal reasons for getting behind him: David Bowers is the son of retired D.C. Superior Court Judge Shelley Bowers—a longtime friend of Brown’s.
Though Brown says his “niggardly” days are behind him, race will likely play a large role in the at-large contest. The conventional wisdom holds that a single strong African-American candidate, with money and an energetic campaign, can knock off Mendelson, who is white.
Election results from 2002 inform that calculus. In that race, Mendelson won overwhelming support in Ward 3—the city’s whitest ward—and had paltry support in predominantly African-American wards. However, his poor showing in those precincts didn’t hurt him, because four black challengers split the vote.
Brown has already become a key player in the pre-campaign deliberations on how to get a one-on-one race against Mendelson. The other likely candidate for the at-large seat, attorney A. Scott Bolden, says he has been talking with Brown about trying to keep the field down to one African-American challenger, namely Bolden.
Bolden recently cornered Brown in a John A. Wilson Building conference room. “I told him I would welcome his support and emphasized the need to get united behind one candidate,” Bolden says. “I look forward to having his support.”
But Brown’s newfound confidence won’t allow him to budge. “I am working for a two-man race: Phil Mendelson and David Bowers,” he says.
Brown says Bowers won’t be his only 2006 client. He’s already signed on with Keith Perry, who is running in Ward 6. And the man once shunned by political insiders expects he will be working for a mayoral candidate. “I’m sure I’ll probably land somewhere,” he says. “I could end up with Fenty.”
“I’m about a lot more than ‘niggardly,’” Brown says. “It was a bump in the road.”
ENFORCES THE LAW
Ever since the Washington Nationals’ Opening Day, at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, Eastern Senior High School students have had a little more cash to throw around.
The school’s parking lot sits across from the private lots that charge $10 a pop. The Eastern Parent– Teacher Association (PTA) figured asking for an $8 donation for each of their 60 spaces would be a creative way to raise money for a variety of school projects.
According to an e-mail from parent Mark Roy, the first parking payout covered the costs of an Eastern student’s funeral. The second disbursement went for a lunch for Teacher Appreciation Day. The latest payment went for a field trip.
The arrangement was never an amicable one. Employees of the neighboring lots told the parents to shut down their operation. But the complaints stopped when Councilmember Brown intervened. A police officer also tried to close the lot. Brown stepped in again, and the cops went away.
But some city departments are just too driven to back down.
The D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) has ordered the PTA to shut down the lot. In a June 15 letter to Eastern PTA President Vivian Whitaker, the DCRA’s Darrell Donnelly says operating the lot without a business license “constitutes unlawful activity.” Donnelly writes that the crime came to his attention after a “routine survey of the area” by an investigator from the Office of Weights and Measures.
Brown is livid. “We have these people building housing with no permits [and] we can’t get [the DCRA] out there,” he says, “and now they want to shut down the PTA.”
It gets worse. Brown has been told that the PTA can’t get a business license because zoning rules don’t allow a charity parking lot on the site.
But he won’t let the DCRA’s regulatory vigilance stand. At the July 6 council session, Brown plans to offer emergency legislation to keep the parking lot open.
•On June 15, soon-to-be-at-large-council-candidate Bolden said he was “90 percent certain” he would run against Mendelson.
Later that day, one of Bolden’s supporters got a little overeager. In a press release titled “Bolden Announces Intention,” the exploratory committee’s press contact, Michelle Phipps-Evans, sent an e-mail to several reporters stating that the “more than likely” at-large candidate was available for interviews.
The short Boldengram included this incendiary zinger: “[H]e looks forward to the upcoming race against [Mendelson] who he expects to beat quite easily.”
Just a few minutes later LL got another e-mail from the Bolden camp. “I believe I have attached the wrong press release to you,” Phipps-Evans wrote. “A. Scott Bolden does not believe that he can beat Councilmember Phil Mendelson easily in a race for the at-large seat on the Council. In fact, Bolden still has not made a final decision on what he is going to do in 2006.”
Says Bolden: “I never saw the statement before it went out. It was retracted, and I never meant to offend Mr. Mendelson.”
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Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photography by Darrow Montgomery.