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Last Thursday night, At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil unveiled his 2004 re-election campaign theme: “Keep the momentum going.”
“It doesn’t say a lotbut it may say a heck of a lot,” he expounded.
LL couldn’t have summed up a Brazil candidacy any better.
And right at that moment, more than one Brazil booster, assembled in the Gold Coast back yard of local telecom bigwig Pedro Alfonso, turned and looked at LL. Each one expressed the same reaction: amusement. The Brazil backers did not snicker out of embarrassment for their favored at-large Democrat, whose muddle-headed wisdom has risen to local-legend status yet still falls short of the elegant splendor of a great orator like, say, Yogi Berra.
Rather, his willing contributors smiled, knowing that that’s exactly the trenchant Brazilian analysis each had shelled out a minimum of $200 to hear.
They didn’t leave disappointed. Over the years, the councilmember has established himself as one of the city’s most bumbling extemporaneous speakers, a metaphor-mixing machine whose last original thought may well date back to the Sharon Pratt Kelly administration. On the evening of Sept. 11, in front of his most committed supporters, Brazil shared his insights into fighting terrorism, the war in Iraq, and the state of the economy.
On troops in Iraq: “They are there fighting the war for us….And you know it ain’t easy.”
On the economy: “As a people, we have to be careful not to kill the golden goose.”
On D.C.: “Don’t monkey around with the progress and the momentum we have going.”
The audience for Brazil’s platitudes could be spotted at any D.C. Chamber of Commerce breakfast. They include such business-lobby regulars as David Wilmot, Lynn Breaux, and Albert “Butch” Hopkins.
The event generated enough buzz to draw a couple of wild cards, too. Long after Brazil finished his remarks, developer Douglas Jemal strode onto the premises, along with Douglas Development Corp. cohorts Blake Esherick and son Norman Jemal. In investigative hearings this spring, the senior Jemal has come under fire from Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, who has accused the developer of “fraud” in various real-estate dealings with the District government .
Although the collection of local big shots may well propel Brazil to another four-year term on the council, they couldn’t stop the cops from ticketing scores of Jags, Lexuses, and Mercedeses parked illegally across the street from Alfonso’s house for the event.
Might it be time for the Fundraiser Parking Exemption Act of 2003?
Well, no: Any such enterprise would require Brazil to do what he hasn’t done in yearsnamely, assemble a coalition and drive public policy. Instead of bothering himself with such yeoman’s work, Brazil has specialized in collecting an annual salary of $92,500 at D.C. taxpayer expense while building his law practice. In 2002, he earned $86,000 from his solo-practitioner legal firm, according to financial-disclosure forms filed this spring.
Brazil almost concedes that his short attention span for council business makes him a worthwhile target for political upstarts. “I’m running scared as I always have,” Brazil told his supporters that night. “I’ve always done well with that approach.”
Well enough, in fact, to be elected four times to the D.C. Council.
Brazil’s backers expect to be laughing all the way to victory in next year’s primary and general elections. As of July 31, the Brazil 2004 committee had raised an impressive $157,000 for his at-large re-election, much of it from the city’s trial lawyers, real-estate sector, and hospitality industry. Paul J. Cohn, a prominent local restaurateur and chair of the Sept. 11 fundraiser, told Brazil in his opening remarks, “I hope we raised a lot of money for you tonight, because this is what it’s all about.”
LL’s in full agreement with Cohn. In the absence of leadership, ideas, or any sort of agenda to push, cash is all that matters in the Brazil campaign. The veteran councilmember’s six-figure war chest appears to be shrinking his field of challengers. Only one potential candidate has stepped forward so far: Kwame Brown, son of D.C. pol Marshall Brown.
In his last campaign, Brazil waltzed to victory. Sure, former Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. gave him a little scare, threatening to enter the race right up to the petition-filing deadline. Yet once Barry satisfied his need for public adulation and bowed out to work on an ambiguous youth-violence project, Brazil had no major competition on the ballot.
By the time Brazil and Brown hit the community-forum circuit next summer, the incumbent’s face should be plastered on every light post in town, as well as the occasional Metrobus. That’s because the money should keep pouring in. In addition to Cohn, Brazil’s green team includes überfundraiser Kerry S. Pearson, Holland & Knight attorney and former Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Douglas Patton, and the former chair of the council’s Committee on Economic Development, Charlene Drew Jarvis.
And just what do all these heavies get in return for their money? Well, a mediocre advocate with a really good seat on the council dais.
Brazil sits in the middle of the dais, next to Chair Linda W. Cropp, who began her council tenure along with Brazil in January 1991. Seating on the dais goes by seniority, with the newest members the farthest away from the center. First-termers such as Ward 4’s Adrian Fenty sit way out of view of the Channel 13 cameras, while Brazil gets plenty of screen time as he straightens his mustache.
When Brazil sat in the hinterlands, he was considered a vocal maverick. Then an energetic Pepco executive, he beat council old-timer Nadine Winter for the Ward 6 seat in 1990. The new Ward 6 councilmember stood out in those days for his ambitious tax-cutting and zero-tolerance public-safety agenda.
Yet he abandoned his core policies as he moved toward the center of the dais. When asked what Brazil brings to the table now, even his most committed supporters come up with a lot of sweet nothings. Alfonso, for one, says, “He can make a difference in economic development.” One fundraising committee co-host LL spoke to at the soiree said she didn’t want to speak on the record about Brazil’s record.
And for good reason. When the council took on tax reform with 1999’s Tax Parity Act, at-large colleague David A. Catania and Ward 2’s Jack Evans forced the issuenot Brazil.
He also once sold himself as a law-and-order guy who would watchdog the city’s public-safety agencies. After an unimpressive reign over the council’s Committee on the Judiciary, Brazil has let Ward 3’s Kathy Patterson take over that responsibility.
When it comes to voting yea or nay on tough issues, Brazil sometimes opts for a third way: present. When the council voted to change the qualifications for the Office of Inspector General, Brazil spoke against the measurea position advocated by his chief Wilson Building sponsor, Mayor Anthony A. Williams. Yet when it came to a vote, he voted present.
Perhaps he does that to reduce confusion. When the council had a special session this summer to override a mayoral veto on its suspension of the city’s employee credit-card program, Brazil spoke against the override. “We’re using a sledgehammer to kill a little fly,” Brazil said. Yet when it came time to vote, he voted for the sledgehammer.
Now in campaign mode, Brazil is trying to adopt an agenda of sorts. At the Alfonso fundraiser, the councilmember spoke with seeming passion about one of his legislative priorities for the coming monthskilling a nutrition bill authored by At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson. The proposal would require restaurants to inform eaters of the caloric content of each item on the menu. “It’s the dumbest bill I’ve ever seen in my life,” Brazil told the many restaurateurs, including Cohn, noshing on Old Glory barbecue. “It’s dumb.”
Here’s Brazil’s advice to the health-conscious: “If you’ve got a heart condition or are trying to lose weight: Eat salad.”
Basically, Brazil’s colleagues pay attention to him only when he has the potential to break a 6-to-6 tie in a vote. And even when Brazil gives his word on a vote, there’s always a chance he might change his mind.
Even Williams knows how unreliable Brazil can be. At the July 14 legislative session, Williams-administration officials entrusted Brazil with two important tasks before the legislative body recessed for summer: (1) transferring site authority over the old Washington Convention Center from the city to the Washington Convention Center Authority and (2) moving the National Capital Revitalization Corp. renomination of its chair, John Roderick Heller.
Brazil failed at both. In the end, the councilmember withdrew both pieces of legislation after his colleagues repeatedly objected to their late introduction. “This comes to us at a very late hour,” admonished Evans, who represents the Shaw neighborhood, which hosts the convention center. “It gives no chance for input.”
“There are so many unanswered questions here it makes my head spin,” commented At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz a few moments later.
With remarks like those, Brazil’s colleagues are sending some not-so-subtle signals that their longtime colleague isn’t pulling his weight. Over the past five years, councilmembers have reintroduced the District to vigorous government oversight, routinely grilling executive-branch officials on matters that were once dismissed with courteous letters and handshakes.
Brazil is perhaps the lone exception to this trend, a legislator who appears to lack both the courage and the preparation to effect genuine oversight. The most glaring shortcomings on this front have come in the nonexistent oversight of the city’s Sports and Entertainment Commission, a quasi-independent body under Brazil’s Economic Development Committee.
The commission hasn’t had a very good year: It championed another stalled bid with Major League Baseball, lost the Grand Prix race after one year, and faced questions about possible conflicts of interest. While Executive Director Bobby Goldwater collected $275,000 a year for these triumphs, the Sports Commission depleted its financial reserves.
What does Brazil have to say about any of these issues?
Bupkes. When the local pressmost notably the Washington Postprints stories about the commission’s failings, the accounts come with a reliable “no comment” from Brazil.
No wonder his supporters focus on the future, not the past. “I feel he has strong potential to win,” Alfonso tells LL.
The scene is the Washington Convention Center, January 1995. Advisory neighborhood commissioners and other D.C. politicos are being inaugurated for another term to nag at a notoriously dysfunctional government.
It was a happy occasion, but no one in the crowd looked happier than Noël Soderberg Evans, the recently married spouse of Ward 2’s Jack Evans. Soderberg Evans’ demeanor that dayand at countless other fundraisers, community meetings, and neighborhood picnics in the years sincewas reflected in the tributes that came from family and friends following her death last Friday from breast cancer.
In eulogizing her niece, Diane Rosacker recalled that Soderberg Evans loved being the wife of Jack Evans. But she wasn’t just a politician’s spouse. A lifelong Democratic Party activist, Soderberg Evans came to Washington to work for the Jimmy Carter/Walter Mondale campaign in 1976 and later moved on to staff jobs on Capitol Hill. She joined the Mondale presidential campaign in 1984 and met her husband while working as an assistant press secretary for Al Gore’s presidential campaign in 1988.
Those campaigns proved challenging for even the most devoted Democrat.
Yet Soderberg Evans showed the content of her character the most after her diagnosis. A wife and mother of young triplets with a demanding career of her own, Soderberg Evans researched and exhausted every possible treatment. She worked hard to make good memories for her children. She fought the disease with her positive spirit, right up until the very last day.
In a memorial service last Sunday, family members marveled at Soderberg Evans’ courage in her two-and-a-half year battle. LL offers sympathies to the Evans family and mourns a tremendous loss to our city. CP
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