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Kwame Brown navigates his future

By Mike DeBonis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 3, 2011; 6:55 PM

D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown has had to put up with a lot of snickers in the past couple of weeks.

You know, "fully loaded" this and "black-on-black" that.

Since The Washington Post published revelations that Brown (D) was ordered not one but two city-paid Lincoln Navigator SUVs in recent months, he's been forced to deal with renewed doubts over whether he has the right priorities to lead the city forward. For a politico who's long operated with a chip on his shoulder, it has to hurt to be a punch line.

Brown's SUV antics have raised some questions: Who are you in public service for? Kwame Brown, or the public?

It should be said that he is not alone in city government of late in answering for questionable governing or spending practices.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) stands accused of installing political allies in high-paying jobs at the Department of Health Care Finance, which deals with nearly a quarter of the city budget. Allen Sessoms, the charismatic president of the University of the District of Columbia, is seeking to justify steep travel expenses and a Navigator of his own.

But for Brown especially, his scandalette has resonated in part because it confirmed what some have already believed. The rap on Brown is that he's insecure, that being elected three times to citywide office by large margins isn't enough for him to validate the power he's earned and, moreover, that he's sloppy with money.

Shortly after he was first sworn in as a council member in 2005, he placed police lights on the dashboard of his Mercedes station wagon. That, activist Dorothy Brizill said at the time, was "an effort to ensure that he could park illegally in the District without being ticketed."

In July, The Post reported that Brown and his wife had accumulated more than $800,000 in personal debt on his home, a boat, credit cards and more - leading to concerns that Brown had become accustomed to living the high life on someone else's dime. Brown, running for chairman at the time, then did all the right things, taking "full responsibility" and comparing himself to the legions nationwide that had overextended themselves in economic boom times. But after the campaign, questions arose about accounting in Brown's campaigns dating back to 2004. The Office of Campaign Finance is still investigating.

Now the Navigator revelations have people thinking: That's our Kwame.

If Brown had a reputation for brown-bagging his lunch and driving a decade-old Corolla to work every day, it might be a little easier for the public to swallow his claims that he had merely requested a "black-on-black SUV" and was shocked, shocked to see that it cost nearly $2,000 a month.

But there is no evidence to suggest that Brown ever mustered any curiosity about his vehicle's price until it was published - never mind his deputy's e-mailed insistence that the city find him a "black Navigator, black-on-black interior, GPS, power moon [roof], rear entertainment system and aluminum wheels."

The stakes are high for Brown: An ambitious 40-year-old, there's little doubt that he has his eye on the mayoralty, or more - the culmination of a political life that began at the knee of his activist father, was nurtured in Marion Barry's Youth Leadership Institute, came of age in Clinton's Commerce Department, then blossomed after winning a hard-fought challenge to incumbent council member Harold Brazil in 2004.

No sense counting him out now. He's a proven citywide vote-getter, one of the finest natural politicians the city has seen since Barry - always ready with a smile, a reassuring tone and a badly underestimated ability to promote issues important to voters.

As Brown knows better than most, voters tend to have short memories. And if he keeps himself out of city-owned luxury vehicles, those memories will fade. But what he cannot afford is to again feed the narrative that Kwame Brown is profligate and sloppy with taxpayer money, campaign money and his own money.

This week, Brown pledged to reporters that he would "win back the trust" of residents who had voted for him and might still again. He has immediate opportunities to do so. Brown leads a D.C. Council that gets the final say on closing a $322 million budget gap, and he has an opportunity to, as did Gray, navigate his 12 colleagues through the politically bruising process of saying no to myriad interest groups. It will help if he can do it without raising taxes.

There are signs that Brown gets the message.

He was asked Wednesday morning by WTTG-TV anchors whether he'd chosen a new city vehicle to replace the Navigators, which he returned after days of harsh criticism. Nope, he said, "I'm going to be in my 1983 mail truck."

Okay, then. Now it's time to deliver.

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