Black voters heard Brown as an authentic voice for a Washington that seemed to be slipping away as African Americans become a minority where they were once two-thirds of the population. Last week, at the memorial service for go-go singer Chuck Brown, Kwame Brown zinged the city’s mostly white newcomers, reviving Barry’s 1994 slap at whites appalled by his return to the mayoralty after his prison term on drug charges: “For all of the people who just moved to Washington, D.C., and have a problem with go-go music,” the chairman said, “get over it.”
Brown’s cocky side reminded observers of his father, Marshall Brown, a political consultant who has worked on campaigns in the District for four decades. Although Kwame Brown grew up primarily with his mother in Prince William County, he was sent to live with his father while he attended Wilson High School during what he has called a troubled period.
More than a decade ago, the father predicted that his son would one day be mayor. Marshall Brown said the path to victory would combine a grass-roots campaign with a persona that let black voters know Kwame was “one of us, at the same time as he showed whites there was nothing scary about Kwame Brown.”
In 2004, in his first campaign, a scrappy Brown defeated well-funded incumbent Harold Brazil with the kind of door-to-door effort that brought former mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) success. Brown won despite Brazil’s efforts to paint his challenger as someone who had failed to vote regularly and lied about his college credentials. (Brown ended up editing a flier that stated he had graduated from Dartmouth College’s business school when he had actually attended only a short program for minority executives.)
In that campaign, Brazil depicted Brown as a throwback, through his father, to the Barry era, a time of dysfunction, cronyism and profligate spending. But Kwame Brown called himself a reformer, aligning with Fenty, then a council member.
But the two had a falling-out, and by decade’s end, Brown had joined with Gray to portray Fenty as an out-of-touch mayor who cared only about the affluent, appealing to black voters to see Fenty as a mayor too devoted to the pet projects of affluent whites — dog parks, bike lanes, the smoking ban. But that shift in Brown’s message, along with his demands for a fancy SUV, caused some supporters to wonder: Was Brown simply out for himself?
Some council members barely bothered to consult with the chairman on initiatives. “Kwame does his own thing, which is all about Kwame,” one council member said. “He’s really not very interested in most of what we do.”
On his boat, Brown kept a copy of a book by Nicky Barnes, a New York drug dealer. The title: “Mr. Untouchable.”