A decade ago, Harold Brazil brought a new look to the D.C. Council.
Now he seems more like an empty suit.
Photographs by Darrow Montgomery
As campaign posters go, the ones Harold Brazil has plastered all over the District are certainly, um, unique. Usually when a political candidate selects a photo that will be in every voter’s face, he or she chooses a shot that appears statesmanlike, or thoughtful, or warm and approachable.
Brazil’s poster, for some inexplicable reason, makes him look like Alfred E. Neuman.
Unless, of course, the choice was not inadvertent. Because Brazil certainly evinces a “What? Me worry?” mood these days in his campaign for re-election to the D.C. Council. On a Monday night in July, in fact, the at-large councilmember seems positively carefree as he works a room full of Gertrude Stein Democratic Club members. He wades into the crowd, offering his hand and a folksy aphorism to nearly everyone in the room. “We’ve had some good times, haven’t we?” he confides to one member.
Tonight, Gertrude Stein—the city’s largest and most influential gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered political organization—will decide its endorsements for September’s Democratic primary. It’s an important stamp of approval for District politicians, from an active constituency whose members tend to turn out in force in local elections.
Brazil winds a circuitous route to the front of the room, where the candidates who have come before him have all introduced themselves, their accomplishments, and their agendas in tidy five-minute speeches. Brazil doesn’t get bogged down in that formality. Instead, he chooses to take a pre-emptive victory lap, of sorts. “I think I’m going to have a short speech, so I’m doing this on purpose,” he tells the crowd as he works the meeting room table, gladhanding and stopping to kiss Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose along the way.
The gimmick brings some levity to the room, where moments before, Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis and her robotic challenger Adrian Fenty jousted over economic development for Georgia Avenue. “That’s Harold,” someone to my left whispers to a friend. “Always the showman.”
The showman wasn’t feeling quite so playful during Capital Pride Day a few weeks earlier. In fact, he was having trouble attracting any attention at all amid competition from drag queens, leather kings, and other creatively attired participants in the gay community’s annual parade and festival. This despite the fact that Brazil presented quite a spectacle, given that he was suffering a severe allergy attack complete with watery red eyes, swollen nose, and fever.
The hapless council candidate did have one attention-grabbing line, however: “Marion Barry’s going to run against me,” Brazil announced to several passers-by. That tended to stop people in their tracks, all right.
For several months, D.C.’s inimitable former mayor had been threatening to ruin Brazil’s summer by challenging him in the at-large race. Conventional wisdom among the District’s political cognoscenti had it that Brazil was weak and vulnerable. But a week before the July 5 deadline to file petitions with the Board of Elections and Ethics to get on the ballot, Barry abruptly announced that he would not run after all. Instead, he said, he planned to work on some kind of initiative to halt youth violence. Not that he wouldn’t have won the election had he chosen to compete, Barry added.
The Barry scare having blown over like a fast-moving summer storm, Brazil is now coasting toward re-election, facing only token opposition from perennial D.C. candidate Don Folden Sr. in the Democratic primary.
All of which leaves only one question: Why is Harold Brazil, a well-regarded attorney, contented family man, and genuinely nice guy, running at all? The answer is far from obvious. After all, Brazil always looks so uncomfortable, so forced, speaking on the council dais and at many public events even after a decade in District politics.
Then there’s the issue of his diffuse record and hazy agenda: If Brazil has particular dreams or goals he hopes to accomplish during another council term, he certainly has a hard time articulating them.
And there’s that other problem, the one that people whisper and snicker about every time Brazil tells a joke that isn’t funny or offers a comment that makes no sense. Call it the buffoon factor: Brazil is regarded by many council observers as a lightweight.
If Brazil, 51, does have some fire burning in his belly, he declines to share it this evening with the Gertrude Stein Club. “I’m not going to change from what I’ve done in the past,” Brazil tells the audience, failing to elaborate on exactly what that is. Instead, he talks vaguely about good times, friendship, and momentum—”You’re a part of that; I’m a part of that,” he says. Less than a minute later, he concludes his brief speech with “I’m with you; I’m with the friends that are with you.”
No hands rise for audience questions. The silence says a lot about Brazil, given that other candidates faced multiple queries from the floor. “Your speech was so full,” quips Kurt Vorndran, Gertrude Stein president and the evening’s moderator.
There was a time when Harold Brazil did have a distinct reason for being on the D.C. Council. Almost 10 years ago, Brazil seemed like a dynamic, no-nonsense presence in contrast to the council’s aging civil rights veterans whose battles had become increasingly internal and oblivious to the city’s plight. The go-go ’80s real estate market had nose-dived. Middle-class residents, both black and white, were fleeing to the suburbs in search of better schools and services. And on Jan.18, 1990, the FBI had caught Barry smoking crack cocaine on a videotape that aired all over the globe. The city and its mayor had become a national punch line, and the council seemed to provide even more mischief.
Enter two Potomac Electric Power Co. (PEPCO) executives, Brazil and Sharon Pratt Dixon. Handicapped as underdogs who had seemingly come out of nowhere, Brazil beat incumbent Nadine Winter in Ward 6 and Dixon ambushed Councilmembers John Ray, Dave Clarke, and Jarvis, and D.C. Congressional Delegate the Rev. Walter Fauntroy, in the mayor’s race.
In Brazil’s case, at least, the newcomer tag was something of a misnomer. The year before Brazil first ran for council, then-Mayor Barry had appointed him to the D.C. General Hospital Commission, where he eventually served as chair of its Budget, Finance, and Procurement Committee. And as a PEPCO lobbyist, Brazil had gotten to know other D.C. officials. “When he was at PEPCO, Harold never said no to giving money for different community efforts,” recalls former Ward 7 Councilmember H.R. Crawford.
At D.C. Chamber of Commerce breakfasts and other events sponsored by the local business community, Brazil networked with other young, primarily African-American movers and shakers who wanted to make their mark in Chocolate City. The social and business spheres often overlapped, as commonly happens in federal as well as municipal Washington. (One of Brazil’s first social functions with his wife, Crystal Palmer, who heads the city’s Office of Motion Picture and Television Development, was at a Barry prayer breakfast.)
On Fridays, Brazil and contemporaries such as Tony Cooper, then serving as senior legislative counsel to the Greater Washington Board of Trade, would hang out at the Childe Harold restaurant in Dupont Circle. They knew all the bartenders. That’s when they were bachelors, Cooper’s quick to add. Even during happy hour, he says, Brazil would occasionally divert the conversation to matters of public policy.
And once a month or so, Brazil would have lunch at Duke Ziebert’s with Cooper and Carl Rowan Jr., who has since made his reputation as a fierce Metropolitan Police Department watchdog. They’d talk about their careers, their ambitions, and city politics, expressing frustration at the “go-along-to-get-along mentality” of the D.C. Council, says Rowan. They nicknamed themselves the Three Musketeers. “If we were golfers, we’d have been playing golf,” explains Cooper, who now works as executive director of the D.C. Lottery Board. “Young black males didn’t have access to those places….[Duke Ziebert’s] was our quote-unquote country club.”
Cooper says that it was almost a given that at least one of the musketeers would run for public office in the District. Brazil ended up fulfilling the prophecy in 1990, reciting a back-to-business mantra of efficient government, lower taxes, and more police on the street. He knew that his Ward 6 neighbors had grown dissatisfied and weary of Winter, who seemed to ignore their concerns about public safety. His message caught on with many Capitol Hill residents and business leaders, as well as the Washington Post. “Those who want to encourage new, concerned professionals of all races to tackle the rigors of local government will find a willing example in Mr. Brazil,” read the Post editorial page on Sept. 9 of that year.
There was plenty for everyone to like in the pleasant, light-skinned African-American with a master’s degree in law from Georgetown, and he became the first of the “young Turks” to sit on the council, followed soon after by Jack Evans in Ward 2 and Kevin Chavous in Ward 7. All three said they represented a new generation of leadership that would deliver efficient, responsible government and lower taxes.
Council colleagues remember Brazil as a vocal freshman legislator, often out front on issues regarding public safety, parking, and taxes. But Brazil’s initial pleas for fiscal restraint and tax relief fell largely on deaf ears in the council chambers.
To stay alert during council sessions, Brazil and Chavous invented a game. They called it Faux Pas. The object? Record each time a colleague goofed a definition, invented a word, broke a law of grammar, or said something that just didn’t add up. At the end of a session, they’d compare notes to see who had found more gaffes.
With eccentric personalities and constant bickering, the early-’90s council provided plenty of point-scoring opportunities. “What was surprising was how much we’d catch each other,” Chavous now says with a chuckle. “In the heat of battle, it’s easy for the tongue to slip.”
Brazil and Chavous don’t keep score anymore, he says, though Chavous believes that he won a point from Brazil in a recent conversation. “I said it isn’t a word, and he said it was,” says Chavous, though he can’t recall the word in question. “We need a dictionary—like in Scrabble.”
It’s probably a good thing for Brazil that the Faux Pas game has run its course, because he has aged from the canny young whippersnapper into the council’s go-to guy for flubs, malapropisms, and general nonsense. Like when Brazil recently spoke on health care: “Health and health insurance go together….The two of them spell trouble,” he said. Or when he compared himself to then-mayoral candidate Anthony A. Williams in 1998: “As long as the tidal wave keeps coming, we’re curtains…. Whereas if I burst the bubble, I could catch the acorns,” he noted.
“I think Harold is very used to shooting from the hip,” says one of his council colleagues, who does not want to be named. “I think he doesn’t prepare. I can see that when he’s doing hearings, for instance. He goes in there, and he starts rambling. His comments are not sharp and crisp.”
That remark applies to Brazil’s public appearances off the council dais as well. At Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen’s May 13 re-election kickoff rally, Chavous could have earned a triple-word score. After receiving an introduction from Allen’s campaign chair, Joyce Scott, Brazil grabbed the microphone. “I kind of wish I wasn’t a married man, ’cause I’d grab Joyce and get on outta here,” Brazil told the crowd. “Man, is she looking good!”
The audience seemed unsure whether to laugh heartily, nervously, or not at all. Most chose the third option. “Our jaws all kind of dropped,” recalls one councilmember in attendance. “You just don’t do that.”
Brazil’s staffers say this kind of remark proves Brazil is just a normal guy who’s not afraid to speak his mind and who doesn’t rely upon prerehearsed scripts. “He’s an outgoing guy—he likes to compliment people,” adds Brazil campaign spokesperson Scott Gastel. “He likes to make people feel good.”
Perhaps Gastel’s right: Brazil is certainly exuberant. Last September, at the Elderfest senior citizens event at Freedom Plaza, Brazil plunged into the crowd and started dancing with a couple of young-at-heart women near the front of the stage. “It was a hot day, but it was certainly refreshing to dance with so many ladies,” he remarked.
Brazil’s colleagues and friends aver that he never holds a grudge. Even, says longtime friend Henry Osborne, when Osborne caused $8,000 worth of damage to Brazil’s Porsche 944 when he baby-sat the car during Brazil’s honeymoon. Brazil merely told Osborne he was happy that Osborne hadn’t interrupted his honeymoon to deliver the bad news.
“Harold is downright likable,” says Ambrose. “Of all the councilmembers, I would say that Harold is perhaps one of the most likable consistently, if not the most. And Harold never, ever, ever carries a grudge.”
He’s such a likable guy that on May 18, in a hot, stuffy auditorium in the Capital Children’s Museum filled with yellow, green, and black balloons and the sounds of smooth jazz, Ambrose and four council colleagues, as well as Mayor Williams, crowded on stage to support Brazil’s re-election kickoff.
Less than two years before, Brazil had battled Williams in the mayoral race. And in contrast to his usual demeanor, Brazil had slung some mud. At one point in the campaign, Brazil characterized Williams’ campaign team as a group of “sordid” individuals. “Tony, when I look at a list of your campaign supporters, I get the feeling this is an old script for America’s Most Wanted,” Brazil said at one television debate. Among other outlandish statements, Brazil accused former National Security Adviser Bud McFarlane—a Williams supporter—of selling “weapons to the drug dealers of Southeast, I guess.”
Brazil came in fourth place, just ahead of a guy whose qualifications for the job consisted of owning a diner on upper Connecticut Avenue. “It wasn’t one of my finer moments in life,” Brazil now admits.
But all that was water under the Sousa Bridge at Brazil’s kickoff rally. “It has been said this is the greatest council in the history of the District of Columbia,” Williams told Brazil’s amen chorus, which included quite a few members of the Williams administration. Brazil, ever exuberant, leapt to his feet with a smile. He looked around somewhat sheepishly, and then he quickly sat down. His colleagues had all remained seated.
“Harold’s not sitting on the council waving pompoms and cheering me on. He’s providing constructive oversight,” Williams told the crowd. A few of Brazil’s colleagues tried, but failed, to suppress knowing smiles. To them, it is patently clear that Brazil sold his support, if not his soul, in exchange for Williams’ help in dissuading Barry from entering the at-large race via a massive show of political muscle. On almost every bill that has come before the council this past year, colleagues say, Brazil has done the mayor’s bidding.
“This very often happens. He’ll come in with the script from the mayor’s office, and he’s very faithful about [reading] it,” says one councilmember. “He’s very, very loyal. Some would say slavishly loyal. But it’s paid off.”
Take, for example, the budget markup for the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. The mayor’s office wanted 10 amendments to the bill. And after getting the floor, Brazil worked straight down the mayor’s list in the hearing. “It has been very transparent,” remarks another council colleague. “There are times I want to say, ‘Oh, Harold! Think for yourself!’”
Brazil defends his votes by explaining that he and the mayor are simply in agreement on all the issues. “I think [Williams’] philosophy about government and about trying to make the city work—increase the efficiency of services—is a very similar philosophy to mine,” Brazil explains. “There’s just a natural…We’re on the same page even without discussing the issue.”
On March 21, 11 D.C. councilmembers wrote a letter to Williams informing him that the body would reject his $4.8 billion municipal budget if he didn’t outline how he would pay for certain budget increases. They thought that the mayor was playing fast and loose with the numbers, relying too heavily on the city’s reserve fund and projected savings from management reforms. The two councilmembers who didn’t sign? Ambrose, who was out of town. And Brazil.
But even his most critical colleagues didn’t hold that against him at the Children’s Museum. They all delivered brief—and somewhat ambiguous—testimonials. And Brazil clearly appreciated their short memories. When he introduced council Chairman Linda Cropp to the crowd, Brazil said that he would normally call her a “beautiful” chairman, but he feared repercussions given negative press coverage of his Scott remark.
By the time Evans rose to speak, though, Brazil had decided to throw caution to the wind once again. “I don’t care what they say,” Brazil beamed to the audience. “He’s got a beautiful family, a beautiful wife, and beautiful kids. He’s a beautiful guy.”
“His style is almost like a country lawyer….You just feel so at ease with him, which makes some think maybe this guy’s too rural, like a country bumpkin,” says Brazil’s old friend Cooper. “But there’s a lot of deep water there.”
“In the end,” Cooper adds, “the country lawyer wins the case.”
Even if he doesn’t quite know why he’s in court.
In his first few years representing Ward 6, Brazil rebelled against the accepted underpinnings of black Democratic politics in D.C. He attacked almost any kind of tax increase, fought raising the District’s minimum wage, and introduced some particularly harsh anti-crime bills in the council. When you come right down to it, Brazil didn’t even sound like a Democrat—black or white.
“He was the David Catania of his day,” says Rowan, referring to Brazil’s young white Republican colleague who has gained a reputation as the current council’s fiscal hawk. “I always laugh when I see stories of him and Catania not getting along. They are like peas in a pod….Harold used to drive [then-D.C. Council Chairman] John Wilson crazy over spending matters and taxes.”
And Brazil had plans to be more than just a foil. By 1996, it had become obvious that D.C.’s procurement process was a morass. The city lost millions as mayoral cronies and other friends of department heads cashed in on city contracts, sometimes without ever delivering the goods. Meanwhile, then-Mayor Barry’s cronies and other friends of department heads received thousands of dollars in city contracts, often without ever delivering the goods. As chair of the council’s Committee on Government Operations, Brazil pushed for legislation to consolidate the District’s purchasing system—which until then had been dispersed across the various city agencies—into one single office. The bill also designated a chief procurement officer to oversee contracting and gave the council the last word on all city contracts exceeding $1 million.
The undertaking gave Brazil a chance to move from grandstanding to actually delivering on his agenda. Soon after the legislation was enacted, though, Brazil left the chair and the bulk of procurement reform to the committee’s new head, Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson.
In that fall’s election, Brazil deserted Ward 6 for an at-large seat on the council, in a move that was widely interpreted as a preface to his run for mayor in 1998. Brazil’s upward trajectory also explained his shift from chair of the Government Operations Committee to the more visible Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, where he spearheaded an effort to streamline the city’s regulatory bureaucracy. “Regulatory reform was typical of Brazil—he likes to tackle huge projects,” says former Brazil Chief of Staff Mary Rudolph. “I didn’t know when I came on board how much of a big chunk he likes to bite off.”
But Brazil recruited others to do most of the chewing, swallowing, and digesting. Many of his friends in the business and real estate communities—who also made up a good portion of his campaign contributors—worked on the council’s Business Regulatory Reform Commission. After a year of meetings, the commission presented the councilmember with its recommendations, which he turned into a 120-page bill.
Brazil rushed the bill through the council in order to beat a competing regulatory reform proposal making its way through the control board. Many of the recommendations ended up being similar to the control board’s—and sound—although the bill did receive some criticism from tenant and environmental activists, who successfully fought the repeal of certain rent-control and environmental laws. But at the end of the day, Brazil’s regulatory reform legacy is somewhat underwhelming: The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs remains a confounded operation where things that ought to be simple, like obtaining a business license, can sometimes take weeks and several return trips.
“People like myself have pushed a reform agenda for a decade,” Brazil reminded his supporters at his re-election kickoff rally. “I have a legislative record of reform on the council that is unequaled. I led the efforts to say no to unbalanced budgets, no to higher taxation, to demand an end to fiscal lunacy, and to demand accountability from government officials. I will continue to lead the council in the fight against crime.”
Indeed, Brazil dubiously credits his current chairmanship of the council’s Committee on the Judiciary for the recent decrease in crime rates. “The numbers speak for themselves,” reads a May 23 Brazil press release. “Since Brazil became Chair of the Judiciary Committee, the reduction in crime has been dramatic: Aggravated Assault down 21%, Sexual down 21%, Robbery down 26%, Burglary down 21%, Theft 21%.”
Brazil also touts his success implementing the Juvenile Curfew Act, which orders kids aged 16 and under off the streets at 11 p.m. on weekdays and midnight on weekends, and outlawing the drug MDMA, popularly known as Ecstacy, in the District.
Yet public safety watchdogs, as well as Brazil’s council colleagues, would like to see him pay attention to more things than just statistics and raving teenagers. Such as Ronnie Few’s appointment to head the fire department, for example: Only after Williams publicly announced his intention to hire Few did Brazil and others discover that Few is currently entangled in a Georgia grand jury investigation involving pay raises to administrators in the Augusta-Richmond County Fire Department, where he was chief. Brazil says he’s recently sent an investigator down to examine the charges.
“Judiciary is a committee that requires hands-on leadership,” says Evans. “It’s a tough committee…. There are folks who’d like to see him a more activist chair.”
It’s just after noon on a Tuesday, but it sounds like Sunday morning in the basement of Thomas House, a retirement community near Thomas Circle. The Rev. Michael Worsley claps his hands, looks toward the heavens, and asks for the refrain one more time. “And that’s why our hearts are filled with praise,” sings everyone in the small meeting room.
Except Brazil. He stands stiffly near the door, with his hands clasped and his back up against the wall. Unlike many of the District’s black politicians, with their roots in Southern Baptist or other evangelical denominations, Brazil doesn’t seem particularly at home in this gathering. Growing up in Columbus, Ohio, he went to Catholic schools. He now attends Holy Comforter St. Cyprian Catholic Church in Capitol Hill.
“It’s a blessed day, isn’t it?” Brazil tells the assembled members of Vision D.C., a consortium of local religious ministries meeting at Thomas House this afternoon. Brazil has come to their monthly meeting to speak about sentencing reform, one of the biggest projects he has tackled as chair of the council’s Judiciary Committee. “Blessed are the policemen, blessed are the correctional authorities… blessed are the peacekeepers, because they are the children of God,” Brazil intones, awkwardly playing to his audience.
After he graduated from Bishop Hartley High School in Columbus, Brazil studied political science at nearby Ohio State University. And late in his senior year, he experimented, at least briefly, with activist politics. Ohio State, like many other campuses around the country at that time, was filled with agitation for black empowerment and anti-Vietnam War protests. At 2:35 p.m. on March 9, 1970, as 13 of his fellow black student activists marched into the Ohio State administration building, Brazil read their list of 19 demands to a crowd of several hundred students gathered outside.
That was the extent of Brazil’s anti-establishment radicalism: Soon afterward, he enrolled in Ohio State’s law school. When asked now about his rabble-rousing days in college, Brazil doesn’t exactly embrace the question. After some prodding, he offers up only a few modest and evasive sentences about leadership and “moral compunction.”
So it’s not terribly surprising that when Brazil came to Washington after law school, in 1973, he came not as a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee lawyer like D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, nor as a public defender like Chavous, but as a law clerk for Judge Robert M. Duncan, who presided over the United States Court of Military Appeals.
Brazil then spent some time at the Energy Research and Development Administration, where he began to build a reputation as a bright, industrious young lawyer, says Henry Gill, a Florida attorney who worked with Brazil there. Gill says he ended up recommending Brazil for a position in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, where Brazil went on to work as a prosecutor in 1978.
Brazil’s assets in the courtroom seemed to augur well for a future career in politics. “He was enthusiastic,” recalls Earl Silbert, who supervised Brazil and now practices with the law firm Piper, Marbury, Rudnick & Wolfe. “He has a very nice presence…. He could relate to juries with sincerity and a direct, candid approach.”
Brazil was well-liked by his colleagues in the office as well, often catching a drink with them at places like Jaybirds, near the courthouse. It wasn’t all style over substance, though: As a prosecutor, Brazil compiled an admirable record in court. “He was a very impressive guy…a very good lawyer,” recalls current Superior Court Judge Henry Greene, who also worked in the U.S. Attorney’s Office at that time. Brazil left the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 1980 to work as legal counsel to Ohio Senator John Glenn. And in 1984, Brazil jumped to PEPCO’s government affairs office, where he lobbied D.C. officials on behalf of the utility company until running for public office himself.
Brazil’s years as a litigator in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, many say, are evident in his approach to criminal justice: He concentrates on punishment rather than prevention. At a Ward 5 town hall meeting in early June at Bethesda Baptist Church, Brazil argued that more police on the street would solve many problems. “Have you seen all these cops?” Brazil asked those in attendance. When the audience answered in the negative, Brazil replied that D.C.’s police “have gotta kick some butt….Let’s get some folks out there and rumble.”
Back in 1994, with momentum from federal legislation, Brazil ushered through the D.C. Council an omnibus anti-crime bill that, among other things, increased sentences for violent criminals and stiffened penalties for gun possession. Though praised by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the bill drew criticism from some activists in the District’s poorer black neighborhoods. In the District, race and the criminal justice system have long had a distressing correlation: Blacks in D.C. have an incarceration rate 36 times greater than that of whites, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
That’s why Brazil is speaking to Vision D.C. at Thomas House: to defend his current sentencing-reform bill from what he considers “a craftily planned campaign of misinformation.” And the conspirators against him? The D.C. Public Defender Service.
Unlike the crime package and his other stabs at retooling city government, sentencing reform was thrust upon Brazil. When Congress passed the National Capital Revitalization and Self-Government Improvement Act of 1997, it mandated, among other things, that the District abolish parole and adopt truth-in-sentencing guidelines for 37 felonies by August 2000, bringing local law into line with federal statutes. Whereas the old system was one of indeterminate sentencing—say, five to 15 years for a particular crime—the new system sets a specific number, like eight.
Brazil corralled another task force, the D.C. Advisory Commission on Sentencing, to help him draft the new bill. Critics of Brazil’s original sentencing-reform effort, such as Robert Wilkins, then of the Public Defender Service, who served on the commission, thought Brazil seemed too eager to embrace the most severe federal provisions. And in a Post op-ed piece, Wilkins argued that Brazil’s version of sentencing reform would put more black men behind bars.
The argument caught many of Brazil’s colleagues’ interest, and they questioned him about Wilkins’ reservations in private sessions. Brazil addressed Wilkins’ other concerns—such as restoring a rehabilitation program for young offenders—in the final bill, which passed the council July 11.
But Brazil expresses anger that Wilkins played the race card to get attention. “We’re trying to educate people and make them understand it—just objectively what’s going on, and to throw that big bugaboo up—well, everyone’s gonna say we shouldn’t keep locking up young black kids,” Brazil responds in an interview. “Well, we shouldn’t. I would never like to lock up another one.”
Brazil instead tells Vision D.C. participants to focus on the victims of crime: primarily other young black males. The argument catches fire with many in the room. And as an African-American and former federal prosecutor, Brazil doesn’t come across as patronizing or defensive saying it.
Brazil spends quite a chunk of his private life advocating for victims as well. As a partner with Koonz, McKenney, Johnson, DePaolis & Lightfoot, one of the city’s premier personal-injury law firms, Brazil represents clients who have been victims of automobile crashes, medical malpractice, and other acts of negligence.
Both plaintiff and defense attorneys have good things to say about Brazil the barrister. In court, Brazil’s advocacy is very effective. “He can relate to jurors,” says Joseph Koonz, senior partner with Koonz, McKenney. “He has a very basic understanding of human nature, and how they act and react.”
Friends say the law career is a necessary financial supplement to Brazil’s $92,000 part-time council salary, to help support his young family. Brazil has two children, Harold Jr., age 8, and Brittany, age 4.
Though he’s not in court much—a good personal-injury attorney doesn’t spend much time there, says Brazil’s friend Jack Olender, the undisputed king of D.C. malpractice law—Brazil can occasionally be spotted in D.C. Superior Court’s H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse pulling civil case jackets from the basement filings room. “People don’t know how hard Harold works,” says his former council colleague and present law partner, Bill Lightfoot. “He works his council job seven days a week, and he works his law practice seven days a week.”
Though some people disparage personal-injury law as mere ambulance chasing, Brazil takes a more philosophical view. “You’re helping people that are hurt and suffering,” he says. “It’s a public service, in a way.”
There was a period, however, when it looked as if Brazil’s professional public service was conflicting with his public public service. A review of voting records between January 1995 and July 1996 shows that Brazil missed a quarter of the 1,050 votes taken by the D.C. Council. Among the votes he missed: budget legislation, the creation of the Public Benefits Corp. to oversee the city’s health-care system, and reform of the city’s pension system.
Recently, Brazil has improved, missing less than 2 percent of votes taken last session and 9 percent this current session. But his attendance at committee hearings still lags, according to council colleagues, and he’s rarely seen roaming the halls of the council when it’s not in session. With the demands of his law practice, his young family, and the council, they say, something’s got to give. And some colleagues, supporters, and even close friends wonder whether it shouldn’t be his at-large council seat.
“When Harold’s focused, he’s at least as incisive as any current or past members of the council,” says one former supporter. “When he’s not focused on his public business—and he hasn’t been for years—Harold is not an artful dodger.”
Brazil disagrees that his commitments outside the council distract him from his legislative duties. “I think it makes me more attentive to the impact of our decisions—and of mine,” he says.
Always smiling and keeping things light, at least in public, Brazil seems overeager to please. But his deference for constituents, colleagues, and fellow councilmembers makes his decision-making erratic. Take the Children’s Island vote, for example. In December 1997, Brazil cast the deciding vote to approve a 99-year lease for developers who planned to build a $175 million amusement park on the city-owned land. (The control board ended up vetoing the contract.) In council debate, Catania pointed out to Brazil that Brazil had cast the lone vote against development of Children’s Island in 1993 when he represented Ward 6, where the property is located.
Brazil snapped that his colleague was a “little youngun” and then cast the swing vote in favor of the project anyway. “I am very disappointed in that vote—extremely disappointed,” says Ambrose, who voted against the project. “I’m still appalled by that vote….I’m still kind of at a loss to explain that one.”
Indeed, Brazil’s Ward 6 constituents seem especially frustrated by his waffling and belabored decision making. When Brazil talks to one group, on Eastern Market, for example, he says he agrees with it. Then he’ll talk to an opposing group and say the exact opposite. “I always say to Harold, ‘Talk to everyone else and then talk to me last,’” says Ellen Opper-Weiner, head of the Eastern Market Community Action Committee.
Other activists say they barely recognize the man they saw as a young firebrand almost a decade ago. “He has betrayed everything that he had promised,” argues Tony Mizzer, a former Ward 6 resident who helped orchestrate Brazil’s first campaign. Mizzer says now that Brazil’s charm has faded, the city’s left with little more than an empty suit. “If you look at a city that needs to get back on its feet, Harold’s the wrong person for the job.”
Then there’s the granddaddy of Brazil temporizing: the recent council vote on the creation of a new school board. After a compromise plan he proposed failed to muster support, Brazil decided to vote against a hybrid proposal pushed by Williams, which ultimately placed on the ballot a mixed elected/appointed board. Voters narrowly approved the plan in late June.
Brazil gave an impassioned argument against the hybrid proposal. The plan, he said, “simply rearranges the chairs on the Titanic. The action is condescending to the voting public and shortchanges home rule. It says that citizens do not have the ability to choose whether or not they want an elected or appointed board.”
Fair enough. But then only a few hours later, who should show up alongside the mayor for a victory announcement celebrating the hybrid proposal? Harold Brazil.
“I was a member of the minority team earlier today, and had I known I would be standing here like this I would have joined them earlier,” Brazil told a confused group of colleagues and reporters.
The devil’s in the details, after all. And Brazil’s just too nice a guy for that kind of hell. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.