Michael Brown
Michael Brown

It wasn’t that long ago that Councilmember Michael Brown’s name was mentioned as a possible mayoral candidate one day.

Brown, after all, has the pedigree (he’s the son of the late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown) and the charm to make a strong citywide push. Some of his supporters say it was understood a few months ago that Brown wanted not only to win his current at-large race, but to win with such big numbers that it sent a message to potential rivals.

But with less than two weeks left until the election, Brown’s message sounds more like a distress signal than a show of strength.

Brown is clinging to a five-point lead against a virtually unknown challenger, according to the Washington City Paper/Kojo Nnamdi Show poll.

The poll found 26 percent of likely voters plan to vote for Brown, while 21 percent say they are with David Grosso, a vice president at a health care company who used to be a council aide. A full 32 percent are still undecided. The poll purposely did not ask about Councilmember Vincent Orange, who has already won the Democratic primary and is considered a shoo-in to win one of the two open at-large seats in next month’s election. Both Brown and Grosso are registered as independents; one of the seats must go to a non-Democrat.

(The poll results for the other contenders in the race: Republican Mary Brooks Beatty, 9 percent; Statehood Green candidate Ann Wilcox, 5 percent; independent A.J. Cooper, 7 percent; independent Leon Swain, 1 percent.)

The margin of error for the poll, which was conducted by Public Policy Polling, is 2.8 percent. The survey was conducted Oct. 12 to 14 and surveyed 1,222 likely voters in the District. The poll shows a similar geographic and racial split to the ones that have appeared in other recent D.C. elections: Grosso’s winning white voters 39 to 10 (with 29 percent undecided), while Brown is winning black voters 43 to 7 (also with 29 percent undecided). Brown does better with women and older voters, the poll says, which is good news for the councilmember, given that those two groups tend to turn out to vote. And even though it won’t be close here, the presidential election could also help Brown.

Brown dismisses the City Paper/Kojo Nnamdi Show poll because it didn’t include Orange. “The poll is useless,” he says.

Useless or no, there are still plenty of political observers who think Brown is in serious trouble. Political strategist Tom Lindenfeld, who helped Tony Williams and Adrian Fenty win mayoral races, predicts Brown is going to lose to Grosso because the steady stream of bad news surrounding Brown has cost him the votes of educated, middle-class white and black residents. Grosso’s lack of name recognition is irrelevant, Lindenfeld says.

“It doesn’t matter. It’s all about Michael Brown,” he says.

For anyone who’s been reading the papers lately, it’s clear why Brown is in such a tight race. The negative news started in June, when Brown fired his campaign treasurer and longtime confident, Hakim Sutton, and went to the police about more than $110,000 in missing campaign funds. Police raided Sutton’s home shortly thereafter, but he’s not been charged with any crime. Sutton’s lawyer has alleged (without providing any evidence publicly) that Brown stole the money, which Brown strongly denies.

Brown says he’s the victim of a crime, but the missing money raises questions about whether he was paying close enough attention to his campaign’s finances. Those aren’t the first questions about Brown’s financial management. He’s been cited for not paying property and income taxes on time. The Post reported earlier that there have been several notice of foreclosure sales filed against his Chevy Chase home for late mortgage payments. And Brown went on a repayment plan with the IRS to make up owed federal income taxes.

By themselves, Brown’s money problems wouldn’t account for the close race he’s in. D.C. is forgiving to pols who’ve had financial problems, like former Chairman Kwame “Fully Loaded” Brown and Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry.

“Here in Ward 8, the fact that he’s had all those problems is not going to impact his support,” says longtime civic activist Phil Pannell. “I mean, after all, look who represents us.”

But Brown has made life harder, say some of his supporters, by running a slipshod, disorganized campaign.

“It’s frustrating,” says one labor official whose union has endorsed and backed Brown. Unions are eager to support Brown, who has been a strong advocate of labor-friendly initiatives like the city’s First Source law that mandates construction companies hire District residents. But the labor official says Brown’s campaign has ignored offers of union help with the campaign, including with gathering enough petitions to get on the ballot. (Brown barely got past challenges over whether he had enough signatures to qualify.)

“You want to help, but they don’t really give you anything to work with,” the official says of Brown’s campaign. “It’s disconcerting that it’s that close and he hasn’t just dug in to make sure this doesn’t get away from him.”

Brown disputes that his campaign has been mismanaged—“our stuff is extremely organized,” he says—but complaints about his work ethic aren’t new.

A recent Post story quoted three workers from Brown’s 2008 campaign complaining about his effort. “He wouldn’t show up to events, would come to events late, and didn’t want to do the work because he has the strongest sense of entitlement that I have ever seen,” said his former 2008 campaign manager.

Brown dismisses that criticism and says he has an unparalleled record during his first term on the council, pointing to his support for the First Source law and other social service programs. On the campaign trail, Brown has tried to fashion himself as a champion of the last, the lost, and the least.

“This city can be great for everyone, not just one kind of person,” Brown says.

But Brown hasn’t found a way to be a reliable ally for progressive causes without alienating the business community (which has a way of getting what it wants in local races).

The D.C. Chamber of Commerce withheld an endorsement for Brown; his fundraising has been lackluster, especially given that he’s head of the council committee on economic development, which usually leads to plenty of donations.

Brown says he’s right on target to meet his goal of raising $250,000, which seems awfully low for a citywide race. His colleagues (and potential mayoral candidates) Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans and Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser have managed to outraise Brown even with no serious opponents and maximum donation limits half the level Brown can accept. Brown blames the ethical “clouds” over city politics for a slowdown in giving.

“That clearly has had an impact,” he says.

Will that impact include voters tossing out an incumbent—something that’s not happened since ethical troubles began brewing more than a year and a half ago? For the answer to that one, you’ll have to wait for election day.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery