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Posted at 08:51 PM ET, 07/12/2011

Kwame Brown’s power move and the death of the ‘progressive caucus’

How to parse D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown’s messy committee shuffle today?

If you’re the credulous type, his decision to strip the transportation panel from Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) might well be an attempt to “effectively consolidate areas of similar interest,” to repeat Brown’s own rationale. That’s weak sauce, of course — whatever advantages consolidation might bring are more than offset by the considerable disruption caused by forcing members and staff to learn about city agencies from scratch.

That leaves the obvious explanation: that it was a fit of political pique, which Brown, as chairman, happens to be entitled to.

The explanation is pretty simple: By giving Wells the committee he so desired earlier this year, Brown (D) though he was securing a reliable ally. And Wells has not been a reliable ally.

Sure, Wells thoroughly investigated the infamous SUVs, but he also crossed swords with Brown on various budget matters — orchestrating, among other things, the end of the non-District municipal bond exemption, which has been a thorn in Brown’s side.

To get all Dan Rather-folksy on you: Wells didn’t dance with who brung 'em.

Brown might not have had the opportunity to deliver such swift payback, but Harry Thomas Jr.’s abdication of the Economic Development Committee opened a door and Brown stepped right through.

Lament it if you want, but in politics, loyalty is just about all — especially in legislatures. If Wells was looking for loyalty from his colleagues, he couldn’t command any, starting with his supposed progressive ally Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3).

Without Cheh’s assent, Brown couldn’t have pulled off his shuffle. Cheh appears to have seen the opportunity to control a larger chunk of the budget, shepherd city transportation projects and escape the drudgery of government operations work. She, understandably, took it.

Wells has spoken occasionally of leading a “progressive caucus” on the council, a bloc of votes to support good government and innovative policy to counteract the council’s old-school, back-slapping, glad-handing majority. Central to that alliance was Cheh and Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), both of whom improved their own statures at Wells’ expense.

Consider the alliance broken. Told this morning that Wells and his “livable, walkable” philosophy have a devoted following among young progressives, Cheh said, “That’s a slogan. ... Where’s the record?... I’ve passed major legislation. I’ll say ‘livable, walkable.’ If I say it enough, will that be OK?”

The most unsettled question is whether Brown’s power move actually improves his own political standing.

He takes a short-term publicity hit, no doubt, which will remind voters of the SUV issues and the criminal investigation into his 2008 campaign. Over the medium term, he’s upped his influence with Bowser and Vincent Orange (D-At Large), who gets a new Small and Local Business Development Committee, maybe helping him push through those close votes where he couldn’t count on Wells.

But in the long term, who knows? Brown’s likely made an outright enemy out of Wells, who has a smaller oversight portfolio to deal with and more time on his hands, now that he won’t be spending his Thursdays in Metro board meetings. So far he has not been too shy about playing the martyr: “I’m consistent on ethics and good government,” he told reporters this morning. “That may make some of my colleagues uncomfortable.”

The way things are going in this town, a one-man progressive caucus might be a dangerous thing.

By  |  08:51 PM ET, 07/12/2011

 
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