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Kwame Brown's personal debt is ammo in primary for D.C. Council chairmanship

Kwame R. Brown says he has curbed his spending.
Kwame R. Brown says he has curbed his spending. (Kwame R. Brown)
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Brown says the home equity was used for household expenses and to help family members through financial difficulties. "You step up and provide," he said.

Told of Brown's financial decisions, Riley said it was a familiar story. "It doesn't sound [like] anything out of whack -- not for the time frame," he said.

As Brown's debt grew, he continued to project an image of affluence. Until earlier this year, Brown drove a 2000 Mercedes-Benz E350 for which he paid $19,000 -- one of three cars in the household. "I like cars. There's no question that Kwame likes cars," he said, reciting a list of used Mercedes-Benzes he has driven in years past. "I try to get the best value I can for the dollar I spend on my car."

But Brown said he is cutting back. He sold the Benz earlier this year, he said, leaving him with a 2003 Lincoln Navigator SUV and a 1999 Ford F-250 pickup with custom wheels -- both vehicles owned free and clear. But he regularly drives a 2008 Escalade ESV leased for $1,380 a month -- including insurance for any driver -- by his campaign, which raised more than $200,000 in its first two months, according to a June campaign finance report.

The Escalade is covered in a "skin" -- a full-body sign touting Brown's candidacy. "You can buy billboards or you can find another way to really turn heads," he said.

Part of the club

In 2005, shortly after winning election to the council, Brown started thinking about getting a boat. "It was a great time to buy a boat," Brown said. "I assumed that I could buy it, enjoy it with my two kids, finally show them the water, show them something I didn't get exposed to as a kid."

He set his sights on the District Yacht Club, tucked into the Anacostia's "Boathouse Row" -- not exactly the province of the blazer-wearing Thurston-and-Lovey set. "Most of the people here are everyday people -- average salaries, middle income," said Marvin T. Storey, a 40-year club member and a former board member. The city's commercial marinas, mostly on the Washington Channel, can cost the owner of a boat of Bullet Proof's size several thousand dollars annually in membership and slip fees, but the nonprofit District Yacht Club charges $150 a month or less. The club requires members to contribute sweat equity, helping with repairs and maintenance, and Brown did his time before he docked his first boat, a 28-foot 2004 Bayliner. He later traded up to the Chris-Craft.

"I was persistent because I believed that D.C. residents should have an opportunity to have a boat and be a part of a club," Brown said.

But Storey said he has not seen much of Brown. "He's gotten so wrapped up in politics, he really hasn't had time for boating," he said.

Brown said he regrets his nautical foray. He would like to list the boat for sale at $50,000, but he has had trouble finding a broker open to that price. Anything less, he said, will exacerbate his financial troubles. "I can't afford to lose $30,000 on a purchase," he said.

Frank Gary, a broker with Walczak Yacht Brokerage Service in Annapolis and a past president of the Yacht Brokers Association of America, said Brown's boat is of a type that makes it tough to sell these days. "They think it's glamorous, and they think it's in their price range. But they don't understand the money it takes to keep it on the water," Gary said. "There's a lot of competition out there. We've gone through severe financial times."

Brown purchased the boat in 2007 from a struggling businessman in Woodbridge. He paid $50,000 -- well below the boat's $73,000-plus market price -- with the hope that he might sell it someday and make a tidy profit.

The boat came with a sign on the deck: "If you have to ask, you can't afford it."

Staff writers Ann E. Marimow and Nikita Stewart contributed to this report.

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