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

By Tim Craig
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.

"He's going to have to choose a line in the sand sometime, because otherwise they will attempt to roll him," said Douglas Patton, a lobbyist with deep roots in District politics.

But Brown has moved quickly to put his stamp on the council, elevating his closest allies to new positions while working behind the scenes to make sure no member feels left out.

Brown's decision to name Cheh, who campaigned extensively for him during the election, represents a stringing setback for Evans, the council's longest-serving member. Evans, who declined to comment on the change, held the role for 12 years.

The position has traditionally been largely ceremonial. But Cheh said Brown has asked her to redefine the position, substantially elevating her influence with the council.

"I like his idea of shaking things up a little bit," said Cheh, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University. "It's the same way of teaching a new course - you bring a certain level of energy and excitement, and you look at things in new ways."

Along with Cheh, council members Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) are expected to see their clout rise with Brown as chairman.

Brown named Thomas as chairman of the Economic Development Committee, where he will oversee land deals. Brown also decided Wells would replace Graham as the chairman of the Committee on Public Works and Transportation. As part of that change, Wells is also replacing Graham as the council designee on the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

Wells, one of the most progressive members of the council, said that in his new role, he will push for an expansion of mass-transit options in communities east of the Anacostia River and explore ways to limit pollution in the city's stormwater system.

In refashioning committee assignments, Wells said Brown has proved "he's nobody's fool, and no one is going to run over him."

"He's shown strength from the outside," Wells said.

But Brown has worked to limit the dissension within the council over his committee assignments.

Brown assigned Evans oversight of the Washington Convention and Sports Authority. Evans also retains chairmanship of the Finance and Revenue Committee and heads up efforts to redistrict the ward boundaries. And Graham, the new head of the Human Services Committee, will keep jurisdiction over alcohol licensing and regulations, a role that council member Yvette D. Alexander (D-Ward 7) had lobbied for.

"Kwame is smart; he's shrewd and tenacious," said Bernard Demczuk, who headed up intergovernmental relations for former mayors Marion Barry and Sharon Pratt.

But some of Brown's changes might leave him vulnerable, council members said.

Evans, Graham and David A. Catania (I-At Large), Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and Michael Brown (I-At Large) are all expected to quickly exert their authority.

During the past four years, Gray was able to rely on a solid council majority to support him when he disagreed with former mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D).

Instead of using committee assignments to shore up political standing for possible future disagreements with the new mayor, Brown appears to be building a firewall against other potential rivals on the council, members say.

Many of Brown's allies, including Cheh and Mendelson, are also close to Gray.

"It's not clear to me Kwame wins a conflict with Vince Gray," said one council member, who asked not to be identified to be able to speak freely. "I do not see if there is a clash between the legislative branch and mayor that there are seven votes held by the chair, but that may be unimportant to him."

Brown said he doubts that he and Gray would have many substantive disagreements. Unlike the tense relationship between Gray and Fenty over the past four years, Brown said he and the new mayor share common goals of tackling the budget shortfall, creating jobs and continuing school reform.

On those areas, several observers said, Brown is off to a strong start.

Gregory McCarthy, who oversaw Brown's transition, said the chairman made sure that committees with oversight of considerable chunks of city expenditures are led by "fiscal hawks." McCarthy pointed to Brown's decision to keep Catania as head of the Health Department and education under the Committee of the Whole, which Brown chairs.

But Brown, who plans to keep in contact with voters through Twitter and Facebook, said he will focus on his real audience: voters.

"I'm the guy who is going to bring clarity and candor," he said. "And I'm going to shoot straight. The most important thing for residents to know is that I care."

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