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Brown makes his play to be D.C. Council's captain

By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 26, 2010; B03

In pickup basketball games at a gym on Capitol Hill, Kwame Rashaan Brown plays point guard, controlling the ball and making sure that it gets to the right players at the right time to score.

"The captain of the team might not be the best shooter," said Brown, an at-large D.C. Council member from the Hillcrest neighborhood who is running to become council chairman. "But when the ball is in his arms, his team knows he's going to make the best decision."

Brown has used some of that hardwood ability on the council. In 2004, he became the first member living east of the Anacostia River to be elected citywide. Council members praise him as likable and collegial, and all but one of his dozen colleagues have endorsed his candidacy.

Despite the endorsements, some council members privately question his ability to be the next chairman. Brown acknowledges that he is not the most expert legislator. His detractors express concern that he too often takes a pass instead of a stand, that he is more concerned with popularity than policy.

Brown said he is not running to be the city's chief financial officer or economic development czar but to lead his colleagues by consensus. He is used to being underestimated and to exceeding expectations, he said. Brown and his main opponent for the Democratic nomination, former council member Vincent B. Orange Sr., are running to replace mayoral candidate Vincent C. Gray.

Political observers, including some council members, say Brown and Orange lack the depth of experience and maturity that Gray and his predecessor, Linda W. Cropp, brought to the role.

"If you could put the two of them together -- a little of Orange's business acumen and experience, and Kwame's extreme likability and dedication to the city -- you'd have an ideal candidate," said former council member Sharon Ambrose, who served with both but has not endorsed anyone in the contest.

Dais power

The son of an ordained minister and a veteran Democratic grass-roots organizer, Brown, at 39, would be the youngest chairman. His bent for campaigning and fundraising is well known, having netted more than $200,000 in two months, according to a June campaign finance report. In 2008, he raised more than $575,000 for his unopposed primary bid just four years after defeating better-funded and better-known incumbent Harold Brazil.

Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) was the first to endorse Brown's campaign for chairman, pointing to his willingness to seek out colleagues and calling him "thoughtful, considerate and not too quick to make a decision."

"People have to feel like they weren't railroaded," Cheh said of the chairman's role. "He understands that innately."

From the dais, Brown has been an outspoken advocate for job creation and workforce training. He led the charge two years ago to reopen the District's only stand-alone vocational school, Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School.

And as chairman of the economic development committee, Brown has been a populist voice for hiring small businesses for taxpayer-funded projects. He successfully shepherded legislation, for instance, to strengthen oversight of public-private projects by directing the city auditor to monitor requirements for developers to provide affordable housing and local employment.

Most publicly, Brown butted heads with the administration of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) over the redevelopment of the Southwest waterfront. After months of negotiations in 2008, Brown held up legislation critical to the deal, saying he needed more information. City chief administrative officer Neil Albert, who was then Fenty's deputy mayor for economic development, thought he had Brown's support to transfer land to the project's developers. When Brown abruptly canceled a meeting on the project, Albert told Washington Business Journal that it was "the worst example of political leadership that I've ever seen in my years in District government."

Brown said he wanted assurances that developers would be held accountable for promises such as the creation of affordable housing. "I'll take that if it means that I don't blindly close my eyes and do whatever the administration wants," he said of Albert's criticism.

But council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who represents the area slated for development, said Brown appeared to let personal issues, not substantive perceptions of a developer's capabilities, cloud his judgment. Wells leaned on Brown and eventually turned to Gray, who intervened to break the impasse.

"He was asking for all this information, and no matter how much he got, it wasn't good enough," Wells said. "I didn't think Kwame was objective."

But Wells, who plays basketball with Brown, has endorsed him, calling him an "eager, quick study." He has "grown substantially since then," Wells said. "He was convinced the city had made the wrong decision, and he believed he was acting responsibly."

The developers with whom Brown clashed have also come to appreciate him, hosting a fundraiser for him last week at the home of lobbyist David Carmen. "He insisted on working out the details, and in the end, that's what you want for such a big investment by the city," said Carmen, who represented the development team led by PN Hoffman.

Political winds

Even as they have endorsed him, some council members point to what they call Brown's propensity to change positions with the political winds.

When it appeared this spring that the District's best hope of winning a voting seat in Congress would mean agreeing to a measure to weaken the city's gun laws, Brown initially issued a statement saying, "Now is the time for voting rights" and calling for "sacrifice."

Three days later, after Gray and others publicly opposed the measure's impact on firearm rules, Brown appeared to change course, saying in a statement, "Now is the time for voting rights, but if it means we have to erode our local governing authority, we must wait for a better opportunity to strike."

Brown said he never wavered in his support of gun control. The first message was a mistake, he said, sent out prematurely by an aide before Brown had thoroughly vetted it.

In the high-profile confirmation vote on Attorney General Peter Nickles in 2008, Brown cast the lone "present" vote. His position allowed him to say he was neither for nor against Fenty's divisive appointment.

Brown has said that he was prepared to vote no but that in a phone conversation with Nickles he was persuaded to reserve judgment. As a candidate for chairman, he says that he should have followed his initial instinct and voted against Nickles.

On the campaign trail, Brown appears equally at home in living rooms in Northwest, where his two young children attend public school, and at churches in Northeast. He favors natty suits, fine cars and making a splash, and often drives a campaign-leased Cadillac.

But Brown's tastes have also led to questions about his personal finances. He has acknowledged maxing out three credit cards and has repeatedly borrowed against his home, amassing debt that exceeds $700,000. Brown says his personal troubles have no bearing on his ability to shepherd billions of dollars a year in city spending.

Brown gets high marks from colleagues and political observers for his ability to connect with people, which could go a long way in the chairman's role. At a meet-and-greet at the home of two Cleveland Park supporters, the first questioner asked what it was like for Brown to campaign in a room where he is the only African American.

"It makes no difference. We all have the same goals," he said, listing safe neighborhoods, good schools and parks. "The city is divided, but this is how we bring people together. D.C. is way better than what people imagine."

The answer prompted the woman sitting to his left, who was not affiliated with the campaign, to hold out her hand to Brown. "I'm going to cry," she said.

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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