In a city where incumbents usually coast to victories in the general election, D.C. Council member Michael A. Brown appears to be the most endangered candidate in November.
The at-large independent is trying to fend off several aggressive challengers who have hammered at Brown for financial woes they say should disqualify him from office. But Brown, who barely survived a ballot challenge, is asking voters to look past his personal failings and consider his record instead.
“When I go out to [knock on] doors, people say, ‘Michael, thank you so much for fighting for affordable housing, thank you for fighting for jobs,’ ” Brown said at a recent debate in Georgetown. “And I am going to continue to do that.”
It’s a defense Brown has at the ready when opponents chide him for failing to pay his mortgage, taxes and rent on time or criticize him for the investigation into the $113,950 allegedly stolen from his campaign account. That series of controversies has made his reelection bid the District’s most watched contest this year.
A review of Brown’s council record shows that he has steadily focused on maintaining — and in some cases expanding — the city’s social safety net by strengthening housing and other welfare programs.
But those efforts have been partially overshadowed by his financial missteps and his controversial plan to legalize Internet gambling. The proposal was approved, but critics quickly lambasted Brown for how it was enacted. The ensuing uproar led the D.C. Council to repeal the measure, delivering a public setback to Brown.
Social service advocates and activists, however, have found an ally in Brown during the annual debate over how much the city should budget to help the disadvantaged. They say Brown’s willingness to fund programs for the poor — and raise taxes on the wealthy to pay for them — is rare in the John A. Wilson Building, despite the government’s liberal reputation.
For much of Brown’s term, many of his decisions have played out amid his not-so-subtle signals that he hoped to one day run for council chairman or mayor. But with his reelection bid now threatened by his personal follies, including five suspensions of his driver’s license over eight years, he hopes his record can be his bulwark.
“Everyone has their own political agenda, legislative agenda, but I think mine has been very, very clear relative to who I want to help, and I will continue to do that,” said Brown, son of the late commerce secretary Ronald H. Brown.
On the council, Brown has developed a reputation as an affable colleague. That collegiality has helped him get into the leadership ranks: In June, despite persistent questions about his personal affairs, members selected Brown to serve as president pro tempore, a mostly symbolic second-in-command to Chairman Phil Mendelson (D).
But some council members and former Brown staffers have said privately that Brown, who is also a lobbyist at a D.C. law firm, at times fails to put in the hours needed to craft smart legislation or build lasting alliances.
After being appointed to the Metro board in 2009, Brown missed two-thirds of the meetings in the following 18 months, the Washington Examiner reported in August 2010. Brown resigned from the board in 2011, citing his busy schedule.
By comparison, Brown has missed only three of the council’s 17 Finance and Revenue Committee meetings in the past two years.
One of Brown’s earliest legislative victories was persuading his colleagues to expand the criteria for who would qualify for the federally funded food stamps program. The change added about 4,500 District families to the rolls.
“It wasn’t a big, splashy thing, but it was an example of he and his staff learning about an issue, seeing an opportunity and then pursuing it,” said Ed Lazere, executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, which suggested the policy change.
Earlier this year, Brown successfully worked to delay implementation of time limits on welfare recipients by one year and to ease sanctions on those who show they are unable to find work due to illness or other factors.
Brown also has challenged some of the budget cuts of Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), including restoring funding for affordable housing and job training this year.
“He has consistently been a supporter of these programs,” said Robert Pohlman, director of the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development. “He has been one of the most effective champions.”
But some advocates say Brown has sometimes waffled while trying to balance competing constituencies, leading some to question this candor.
Lydell Mann Sr., 37, recalls that Brown personally promised him in 2010 that he would support extending a federally funded program that provides vouchers to disadvantaged city students for private schools. A year later, however, Mann said he learned that Brown had opposed the extension of the Opportunity Scholarship program.
“As the people’s representative, for you to tell me you support something helping me and my family and then turn you back and sign something saying you don’t support, that upsets me,” said Mann, a Deanwood Heights resident with two children who receive the scholarship.
Brown said in an interview he has always favored continuing the program for those already enrolled but is against expanding it to new students.
He has also walked a fine line among competing interests when it comes to taxes. Although he said he supports tax incentives to lure new businesses to the city, Brown last year was a leading proponent of raising taxes on incomes of $350,000 or more annually to avert cuts in social services.
Brown considers his support for “first source” — a law setting hiring preferences for city residents on District-subsidized projects — one of his crowning achievements. His role in enacting the revised program has left him on the outs with some business leaders but strengthened his ties with organized labor.
But Brown has seen his standing among some activists dim after quietly placing about 300 words into a budget bill taken up by the council in December 2010. The language, styled as the “Lottery Modernization Act,” legalized online gambling for the first time, and some of Brown’s colleagues said they had no idea it did so when they voted on it.
Over the 15 months, as the D.C. Lottery moved to implement the legislation, a small band of civic activists battled to undo it, questioning the shadowy process and Brown’s ties to gambling interests through his former law firm. They appeared at numerous community meetings, often alongside Brown, who argued that his foes had distorted the program and that the estimated $13 million in city proceeds could prop up city programs at the time threatened by budget cuts.
“It was all about money and had nothing to do with what was best for the city,” said Kalorama activist Marie Drissel, who led the effort.
In February, the council voted to repeal the Internet gaming legislation, with only Brown and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) opposed.
Asked whether he would pursue the proposal in a second term, Brown said he doesn’t plan to do so, partly because he expects Internet gambling to be federalized.
“I have absolutely no regrets,” Brown said. “It was the right thing to do.”