D.C. Council chairman exerts control, sends leadership message to skeptics

Vincent Gray was inaugurated as the new Mayor of D.C., taking over from Adrian Fenty. Kwame Brown took Gray's former position as Council Chair.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 3, 2011; 9:36 PM

As a D.C. Council member for six years, Kwame R. Brown (D) had a fifth-floor suite at the John A. Wilson Building with six office slots for him and his staff. And as the new council chairman, he is moving next door to a spacious suite with 20-foot ceilings, a small kitchen and a private bathroom.

But Brown is not giving up his old office. He had city workers break through a wall to connect both spaces, creating a new chairman's office that runs nearly the length of the Pennsylvania Avenue building.

Brown said the $13,000 renovation was needed to group council budget and policy staff, who worked on other floors, into the same workspace.

But around the Wilson building, the move has come to symbolize Brown's efforts to stand out of Mayor Vincent C. Gray's shadow and exert his control by sending a message to skeptics who doubt his leadership abilities.

To further brand his imprint, Brown on Monday replaced council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) with Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) as the chamber's new chairman pro tempore and engineered the removal of council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) from the Metro board. He also went against previous council chairs and announced the creation of an ethics committee before placing his political reputation on the line by wading into the election for his replacement on the at-large council seat he vacated. Brown endorsed school board member Sekou Biddle.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Brown said his decisions set the stage for a new era on the council, one in which members will place a renewed focus on technology and ethics and dig in to close an estimated $440 million budget shortfall in fiscal 2012.

"Look at the decisions I have made, look at the choices I have made," Brown said. "If you look at what we have rolled out, I think it's clearly a signal that I care about moving this city forward and this legislative branch forward."

Although he defeated former council member Vincent C. Orange by 15 points in last year's election, Brown has endured a whispering campaign around city hall about whether he is up to the job of chairman.

Brown dismisses the leadership questions, saying those who criticize him are "cowardly" because they don't put their names behind their comments.

But observers say Brown, who at 40 is one of the youngest residents to be elected chairman, is under considerable pressure to quickly distinguish himself.

He is succeeding Gray (D), who was praised for being one of the most effective council chairmen since Home Rule in 1973.

Although Brown and Gray are expected to work closely together, Brown may be tested earlier in his term to prove he - not Gray or renegade factions of the council - is pulling the strings in the legislative branch.

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