By Yolanda Woodlee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 5, 2006
Michael A. Brown's sister, Tracey Brown James, says she remembers it clearly: She and her brother were putting up stickers for a D.C. mayoral candidate one day 32 years ago when Michael turned to her and said, "I want to be mayor someday." He was 9 years old.
"It's one of those weird things where you remember exactly what you were doing," James said. "I can even remember we were at the bottom of the block of Orchid Street. I think we were both too young to contemplate what that meant."
The anecdote serves Brown and his family to show his passion to become mayor of Washington, an ambition so strong that he doesn't worry that he is considered a long shot in the Sept. 12 Democratic primary.
Brown, a lobbyist at Alcalde & Fay, a national government relations and public affairs firm, was almost born into politics. He is the son of Ronald H. Brown, a civil rights activist who was U.S. commerce secretary in the Clinton administration when he died in a plane crash in April 1996.
"We've lived our lives in politics with the good, bad and ugly . . . and the tragic," his sister said. "But just like my dad, with Michael, when you have a commitment, you have to do what you have to do."
Brown, 41, is among five major Democratic candidates for mayor, but campaign polls show him trailing far behind the front-runners, D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty (Ward 4) and Chairman Linda W. Cropp. Brown, like council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (Ward 5) and former Verizon Washington president Marie C. Johns, shows single-digit poll numbers.
Brown dismisses the polls and says he measures his popularity on the positive vibes he receives at candidate forums. "The support of the so-called two front-runners is as soft as Jell-O," Brown said. "I don't buy it."
Forging ahead, he focuses on affordable housing and education as key priorities if he wins. Perhaps Brown's most unusual position was a proposal last month to halt the construction of a $611 million baseball stadium along the Anacostia River waterfront. He proposes refurbishing RFK Stadium instead.
He describes the baseball issue as part of a problem in priorities. He said city leaders seem to "think you only have to have a bunch of rich people in the city."
Brown cuts a striking figure, a 6-foot-4 man with a shaved head who captures attention with his ability to walk into a room and shake every hand he sees.
He has been leading what he calls a "taking it to the streets" campaign. Last week, he was at 14th and U streets NW, handing out free hot dogs to passersby. "You know you got my vote," Doretha Lindsey of Southeast Washington told Brown as he embraced her.
"I saw you on TV, and you impressed me the most," said Katherine Johnson, a Capitol Hill resident.
At forums, he draws enthusiastic applause with his talk of "old school values" and says when he was a child, any adult could scold a mischievous youngster. He tells the story of how a neighbor caught him throwing snowballs at a passing bus, grabbed him by the collar and escorted him home.
Brown said his parents sent him to an all-boys Catholic high school to reinforce their disciplinary values. He was a star basketball player in high school and met his future wife, Tamera "Tami" Barnes, at that time. He graduated from Clark University in Massachusetts and has a law degree from Widener University School of Law in Delaware.
A few months after he completed law school in 1991, he and Tami were married. They live in the affluent Chevy Chase neighborhood with their 13-year-old twin sons, Morgan and Ryan. Like his father, Brown said, he brings his sons with him when he is campaigning so they can see how children across the city live.
Brown said the twins are one reason he is committed to reforming the school system. They attend a private school because they have special education needs, he said. Although the family was pleased with the public school system, Brown said the neighborhood school, Lafayette Elementary, did not offer the books or the teacher-student ratio that his sons needed to advance.
"We fought it," Brown said. "We didn't want to leave Lafayette. We thought they could do it in-house, but they couldn't. That's when I knew the school system was all messed up."
Since he announced his candidacy a year ago, he has visited senior citizen centers, giving a polite peck on the cheek to the women and a firm handshake or hug to the men. He has hosted a number of "Go-Go Youth Summits" at high schools, where he uses music and mentoring to give students a sense of responsibility. He does this even though many of the youngsters cannot yet vote.
"It's not always about the vote for me," Brown said. "It's my passion. You want to sacrifice. A lot of people say, 'Why do you want to leave your lifestyle?' Well, I watched my father walk away from the law firm and take a pay cut. Some people are not driven by money."
Brown talks a lot about his father, a native Washingtonian, and their common interests. In fact, during the late 1970s, Ron Brown dabbled with the idea of running for mayor before being lured into national politics. Michael Brown, on the other hand, said he's more comfortable fighting for "the soul of a city," working-class and low-income residents who are being priced out of the District because of escalating housing costs.
Rick Greenfield, one of Brown's best friends, said he understands Brown's passion for city politics and the influence of his father. He met Brown, who was born in Germany while his father was in the Army, when they were in elementary school. "I don't think he's trying to continue something his father was trying to do," said Greenfield, who lives in Atlanta. "I truly believe it's something that Michael wants to do for himself. It is his goal."
But Brown has turned to friends of his father for support and received endorsements from former mayors, David N. Dinkins of New York and Andrew Young of Atlanta. Despite the political connections, he has raised less than $300,000, compared with more than $2 million each for Cropp and Fenty.
Unrelated to the campaign, Brown is involved in two pending civil lawsuits. One is a dispute about a $635,000 leased luxury suite that he shared with five partners at MCI Center, now called Verizon Center. In the other, a printing company owner in Shaw is suing Brown for repayment of a $10,000 investment in a business deal that soured.
In 1997, Brown pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of making an illegal contribution to the 1994 reelection campaign of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). He took "personal responsibility" and was placed on three years' probation with a $5,000 fine.
In his career as a lobbyist, Brown regularly meets with members of Congress and testifies on Capitol Hill. He said he has lobbied on behalf of Atlantic City, winning federal dollars for new buses, public housing and Boardwalk improvements.
In the final weeks of the mayoral campaign, Brown has picked up the endorsement of a union representing youth correctional officers, a move he considers a significant blow to Fenty, who chairs the council committee that oversees that sector.
Brown drew some media attention with his proposal to halt construction on the new baseball stadium and instead refurbish RFK Stadium, a plan that he said would save nearly $400 million. That money could be used to repair streets and build recreation centers and a medical facility, he said.
"We cannot simply continue on the current path," Brown said. "That will bring us the most expensive, most publicly funded stadium ever built."
As mayor, Brown said, he would try to persuade the Nationals team owners to reconsider the RFK option. The grounds of RFK are "like virgin snow. There are a lot of things we can do over here."
Council member and former mayor Marion Barry, who has not endorsed a mayoral candidate, credits Brown for using the baseball stadium to distinguish himself.
"The issue's a good issue," said Barry (D-Ward 8). "You've got to figure out how voters begin to differentiate one [candidate] from another. They can't all be two peas in a pod. . . . I admire his tenacity and his guts running against the odds. He knew when he got in it was going to be a tough uphill battle."