Kwame Brown has lead in D.C. Council chairman race, poll shows

By Ann E. Marimow and Jon Cohen
Tuesday, August 31, 2010

D.C. Council member Kwame Brown (D-At Large) holds a commanding double-digit lead over former council member Vincent Orange in the race to succeed Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray for the District's second-highest elected office, according to a new Washington Post poll.

Of all Democratic voters surveyed, 47 percent say they prefer Brown, compared with 25 percent for Orange, with 22 percent undecided. Among Democrats who say they are likely to vote in the Sept. 14 primary, Brown's advantage widens to 31 points, 54 percent to 23 percent.

In a surprising development, the results also show that in the at-large council race, longtime incumbent Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) is trailing the District's lesser-known shadow senator, Michael D. Brown. Many voters have confused him with At-Large Council member Michael A. Brown (I) in part because he is listed on the ballot simply as "Michael Brown."

Brown, a late entry into the race who had raised no money as of the Aug. 10 campaign finance filing deadline, leads Mendelson 38 percent to 21 percent among Democratic voters and is receiving strong support from African Americans. Seven percent of Democrats favor a third candidate, Clark Ray, the former D.C. Parks and Recreation director. Among likely voters, Brown is clearly ahead of Mendelson, 41 percent to 29 percent.

The numbers in the at-large contest also show a significant number of undecided voters -- nearly one-third of registered Democrats -- who could sway the outcome. Interviews with poll participants underscore how the at-large and council chairman primaries have been overshadowed by the mayoral matchup between incumbent Adrian M. Fenty and Gray, with some respondents saying they do not yet know enough about the council candidates to make a firm decision.

Chairman's race

In Kwame Brown's home base of Ward 7 east of the Anacostia River, the poll shows him with a clear lead over Orange. A prodigious door-to-door campaigner, Brown has also made gains in the Northeast Washington communities of Ward 5 that Orange had represented on the council for two terms. There, the two candidates are more evenly matched with 39 percent saying they support Brown, compared with 35 percent for Orange.

On the campaign trail, Brown has said he would lead by consensus as the council's "team captain." He has won the backing of all but one of his council colleagues and a long list of major environmental, labor and business groups. Orange, until recently a Pepco vice president, has campaigned on his credentials as an attorney and an accountant, and to "stir things up" on the council. He has also raised questions about Brown's fitness to oversee the city's nearly $6 billion budget because of his personal debt.

Brown has been sued by three credit-card companies since December for alleged non-payment and fees totaling $55,000. Brown, who has said he worked out a repayment plan, estimated that his debts exceed $700,000 -- a figure that includes the mortgage for his Hillcrest home. But Brown's personal troubles have not appeared to affect his fundraising. In the two-month period that ended Aug. 10, he raised more than four times as much money as Orange.

"I am not happy with Kwame Brown because of his financial misdoings," said Sonia Solmssen, 78, a retired bank executive who lives in Chevy Chase in Northwest. "It worries me."

Whether Brown's financial woes have an impact on the race depends on who is asked. But Lauren Pagel, 32, who lives in Southwest, said she does not think a candidate's personal finances would affect how they vote or lead the council, adding, "I don't judge people on their personal financial problems because that's their business." Pagel, who works for a nonprofit environmental group, said she favors Brown over Orange because of his endorsement from the Sierra Club and steady support for the legalization of same-sex marriages.

One of Orange's challenges in the campaign has been to explain his evolving position on the issue of gay marriage, something he opposed when he ran for mayor in 2006 but now says he supports.

Sam Tornabene, 53, who lives in Ward 5's Brookland neighborhood, called Orange's tenure on the council "not particularly strong" and said his constituent services operation, for instance, was "not very responsive."

At-large bid

The poll results in the at-large race present a significant hurdle for Mendelson, who was first elected in 1998 and won more votes in the at-large Democratic primary four years ago than Fenty in his mayoral bid. Mendelson, who leads the council's Public Safety and the Judiciary Committee, has until recently run a low-key campaign -- one paid campaign aide and $12,000 in expenses during the two-month period that ended Aug. 10, despite raising more than $200,000.

But in recent weeks Mendelson has shown he is taking seriously the threat from Michael D. Brown. The incumbent has tried to overcome the apparent confusion among voters by distributing fliers that include photos of the two Browns: Michael A., who is black, and Michael D., who is white. A Mendelson mailing sent last week includes a "voter alert" with a photo and message from Michael A., who is not on the ballot this year and has endorsed Mendelson.

According to the poll, Michael D. Brown scores highest among African Americans: 49 percent of black Democrats say they would vote for him, compared with 14 percent for Mendelson. Among white Democrats, Mendelson's lead comes from those who are age 50 and up, with younger whites splitting about evenly between the two, and more than one-third of all white Democrats saying they are undecided, according to the poll of 780 District residents conducted by telephone Aug. 19-26. The results among all registered Democrats have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus four percentage points; it is five points among likely voters.

The numbers also show Michael D. Brown, who lives in Ward 3's American University Park in Northwest, registering his strongest support from residents who live east of the Anacostia in Wards 7 and 8. More than half (51 percent) of polled voters there say they favor Brown; 11 percent say they back Mendelson. More broadly, support for Michael D. across the city tracks almost exactly with Michael A.'s showing in the 2008 election results.

Michael A., the council member and son of the late U.S. Commerce secretary Ronald H. Brown, has accused Michael D. of "political identity theft." Michael D., a former political consultant, was elected four years ago to the non-voting shadow senator position that lobbies for congressional representation. Michael D. said he would not be participating in candidate forums if he wanted voters to think he was the other Brown.

But this is not the first time Brown's identity has been an election issue. In the 2006 Democratic primary for shadow senator, candidate Philip E. Pannell, a well-known Ward 8 Democratic activist, blamed his defeat by Michael D. on confusion about the two Browns.

And there still appeared to be much confusion among voters heading to the polls next month. A 47-year-old resident in Ward 7 assumed that the Brown on the ballot was Michael A., the current council member. When told that the Brown campaigning for the at-large seat is the shadow senator, she was surprised. "Oh, I don't know anything about him," said the federal government worker who spoke on condition of anonymity because of her employer's restrictions on political activities. "That's not the Brown I'm thinking of."

Likewise, Darlene Bostick, 46, who lives in Ward 7, said she planned to vote for "Brown" until she was told in a follow-up interview that Michael D. is not Michael A.

"Now, I'm not sure," she said.

Assistant polling analyst Kyle Dropp contributed to this report.

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