Name confusion is the talk in the at-large Democratic primary race

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 2, 2010; B01

This can only be good for the "Michael Brown" brand, which took such a beating five years ago, when Michael D. "Brownie" Brown didn't do such a heckuva job dealing with Hurricane Katrina.

Now the District's entire political establishment quakes in awe at the mesmerizing power of the run-of-the-mill moniker. To hear city pols tell it, all you have to do is put "Michael Brown" on the ballot, and voters will stampede to elect that candidate.

"It's a little flattering," said Michael A. Brown, an at-large member of the D.C. Council, who is not up for reelection this year.

"I've always run under the name of Michael Brown. I just don't know any other way to do it," said Michael D. Brown, who is being accused of misusing the might of his own name.

He is not the same Michael D. as the former Federal Emergency Management Agency chief. He is one of the District's two shadow senators, an unpaid elected office dedicated to lobbying for D.C. statehood. Now he is running to become the council's second at-large Michael Brown.

"Michael Brown is not Michael Brown," said Phil Mendelson, an at-large member running for reelection.

Mendelson and his supporters, including his council colleague Michael A. Brown, have watched with growing alarm as Michael D. Brown did better than they thought he deserved in recent ward straw polls. Michael D. even won the Ward 5 straw poll. A Washington Post poll this week showed Michael D. leading Mendelson 38 to 21 percent among Democratic voters and 41 to 29 percent among likely voters. A third candidate, Clark Ray, a former D.C. Parks and Recreation director, trails with 7 percent of Democratic voters.

The Mendelson camp has a simple explanation for how his 12 years on the council and 20 years of community service before that could be threatened by an affable self-made businessman and political consultant who entered the race about 10 weeks ago with no money and no endorsements: the Michael Brown effect.

"We're taking it very seriously," Mendelson said at a sidewalk news conference this week with Michael A. and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, a candidate for mayor.

The conference had been scheduled to boost Gray's candidacy, but it was quickly transformed into a bid to help save Mendelson's job. The sun was hot and all three men were sweating.

"It's very clear there's confusion," Mendelson said. "It's very clear that voters think the Michael Brown who is standing next to me and who is supporting my reelection is on the ballot against me. And that is not the case."

He mentioned the possibility that the D.C. Council at-large race could become the recent U.S. Senate primary in South Carolina all over again, when the relative unknown Alvin Greene won the Democratic nomination.

"I have called it political identity theft," Michael A. said. "I think he likes the confusion."

Could so many voters think Michael D. is Michael A.? Michael A., son of the late Ron Brown, is a relative newcomer to elected office. He dropped out of the mayor's race in 2006 and was elected to the council in 2008.

At the news conference, Gray helpfully held up for the television cameras a flier being circulated by the Mendelson campaign. It showed pictures of the two Michael Browns, under the headline "Important Voter Alert! Don't Be Confused!"

A Michael Brown primer: Michael A. is 45 and black. Michael D. is 57 and white. At some forums, voters have informally referred to Michael D. as "white Mike." Mendelson prefers the term "shadow Mike." His campaign has also pointed out that Michael A. is "thin" and Michael D. is "portly."

'I had it first'

Another day on the campaign trail with the Michael Brown insurgency. He parks his 1997 Acura sedan at a meter and uses his shadow senator credentials to bypass the metal detector on his way up to the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics -- where he runs into Andy Litsky, Mendelson's campaign manager.

"You pulled this campaign into the gutter when you called me 'portly,' " Brown says, laughing. "I'm going to start using the B-word," meaning bald, since Mendelson and Michael A. appear more follicle-challenged than he does.

Litsky chuckles and departs.

Next, Brown greets Sandra Seegars, a political activist in Ward 8 who watched Brown in action at the Ward 8 Democrats' endorsement vote and a Congress Heights political forum.

"I'm changing my name to Diana Ross so I can win," says Seegars, a Mendelson supporter. "People are voting for you because they think you're Michael Brown."

Brown points out that he is Michael Brown.

"Change your name," Seegars says.

"I had it first," Brown says.

As Brown requests some elections paperwork, Seegars says of Brown: "I like him. He's friendly. He looks like the cartoon 'Family Guy.' " At one forum, "he had a solution for jobs and education. I said, 'Damn, he's saying some good things.' "

Nevertheless, "I think it's wrong for Michael to win because of his name," she says.

"You like me and you like what I say, but you ask me to change my name," Brown says. "What am I supposed to do about my name?"

This encounter comes close to depressing the habitually irrepressible Brown. Everywhere he goes, people want to talk about his name.

"I want to talk about issues," he complains, especially jobs, education, the city budget and statehood. He says the current political leadership is not doing enough to capture new jobs for the city and not staking a claim to taxes on billions of dollars earned in the city by suburban workers.

Born in Newark, Brown spent his teenage years in Wheaton. He graduated from the University of Maryland and became a staffer at the Democratic National Committee, working on in-house direct-mail programs. He founded his own direct-mail and political marketing firm, Horizon Communications, which grew to $1 million in annual sales, according to Brown and public business records. After more than 20 years, he said, he closed the business in December because political mailing was flagging in the Internet age.

He was an advisory neighborhood commissioner in the mid-1990s and is president of the Western Avenue Citizens Association. He was elected shadow senator in 2006 with 90,336 votes. His wife, Pat Brown, is manager of library media services for the D.C. Public Schools. They have three children, two attending Wilson High School and one at Deal Middle School.

Brown estimates that he has raised $6,000, compared with $200,000 raised by Mendelson. He just got about 2,000 lawn signs. As of Wednesday, his campaign Web site was under construction. He says he has attended about a dozen forums and personally collected about 3,000 of the 4,000-plus signatures he gathered to qualify for the ballot.

Mendelson and Michael A. Brown point to the lack of the traditional indices of a campaign -- fundraising, door-knocking, volunteers, endorsements -- as evidence that Michael D.'s chief asset is confusion over his name. They point out that he ran as Michael D. Brown in 2006, but is running only as Michael Brown this year. Michael A. Brown ran as Michael A. Brown in 2006 and 2008.

"No matter who people think they're voting for, they know they're not voting for Phil," Michael D. Brown says.

Voter confusion

In a crowded church fellowship hall near Barry Farms on Aug. 21, Christopher Hawthorne filled out his paper ballot for the Ward 8 Democratic endorsement. In the at-large race, he checked the box for Michael Brown.

Then he sat back to watch the candidates introduce themselves and make their statements.

"There's only one Michael Brown I know -- until he came up and spoke," says Hawthorne, an ANC commissioner. "I was like, 'Wait a minute!' "

Hawthorne ended up being impressed with Michael D.'s pitch. "After I heard him speak, I said, Well, he can keep my vote."

But only his vote for the Ward 8 Dems endorsement -- which no candidate earned, in the end, none having received enough votes. Hawthorne says he will vote for Mendelson in the election. Something similar happened to Saymendy Lloyd and some of her friends in the Ward 5 straw poll, which Brown won. "We felt very upset," she said.

A Washington Post analysis of the recent poll numbers showed that Michael D. Brown's support in the eight wards looks similar to the proportion of votes that Michael A. won in 2008.

Some observers say Mendelson may be overstating the effect of name confusion.

"You can't put all the blame on Michael Brown," says Paul Strauss, the other shadow senator, who says he has not officially endorsed either candidate. "If Phil is not reelected it won't be because voters are stupid and don't know what they're doing. It's because he hasn't defined his message and agenda clearly enough."

Another night, another forum at a church, this time before the Kalorama Citizens Association. The candidates make their statements. First up is Ray.

"There has been a little bit of name confusion," he says. "My first name is Clark. My last name is Ray. It's not 'Ray Clark.' I just want to clear that up."

After a respectful, issue-based discussion, with questions from an audience of nearly 200, the candidates sum up.

"We need to move ahead on these issues now," Brown says. "We need a change in leadership to do that."

"It's easy to make statements, it's easy to make promises," Mendelson says. "I do think a record is important."

The incumbent pauses, then adds: "I'm Phil Mendelson."

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