The year 2012 will go down in local political history as the year the progeny fell. Former D.C. council members Harry Thomas, Jr., Kwame Brown and Michael A. Brown all faced public judgement for their transgressions.
Two pled guilty in court for crimes they committed; the other, who had as yet not fully explained withdrawals of more than $100,000 in campaign funds, got routed in what should have been an easy reelection bid. These three men, whose rise to political power was owed to their familial links, have obvious commonalities: African-American men, sons of prominent politicos, who served on the council concurrently. It is also true that the relationships that help catapult them to the council created burdens and expectations that they clearly did not meet and, perhaps, could never have met.
Let me be clear: I am not defending them or their actions. They did what they did, and I am not interested in joining a pity party for them. Thomas’s arrogance in particular, built on a foundation of very limited professional accomplishment before joining the council, was especially galling. They failed to carry the heavy weight of expectations that come from being a second-generation politico in this city and the standard level of professionalism and integrity that we should expect from our elected officials.
However, I know it is not always easy to live up to the expectations that come with familial connections. While you inherit many of your father’s friends, you also inherit all of his enemies, some of whom you don’t know have it in for you. It is also more difficult to develop one’s own self when power is almost entirely derivative of political connections.
For that reason, it is important that we not paint them with the same brush. Proportion and context are required here. While media coverage and public reaction have been quick to see them all as the same stereotypical corrupt black politician, there are differences in their transgressions that must be acknowledged.
While the questions hovering around Brown may yet prove otherwise, Thomas’s theft of public money intended for youth enrichment is pretty low. His 38-month prison sentence coupled with three years of probation upon his release signifies the extent of his criminal behavior; prosecutors asked for 46 months imprisonment.
Conversely, Kwame Brown’s crime was really about keeping up with the Joneses. His sentence of one day in custody, 480 hours of community service, and six months home confinement raise a fair question: Was the sentence worth the prosecutorial effort? The prosecutors asked for six days in jail, the kind of sentence that suggests Brown’s misdeeds were not all that they were made out to be.
So as we come to the end of a difficult and embarrassing year for District politics, let us resist the urge to paint all corruption with the same broad strokes. Let us also remember that the people we elect deserve scrutiny beyond just the good feelings that are associated with someone’s relatives. It’s not good for the candidate, or the city.
Michael K. Fauntroy is associate professor of public policy at George Mason University. He is a fourth generation Washingtonian and a nephew of former Congressman Walter E. Fauntroy.
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