No More 'Mr. Nice Guy' Brazil
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 16, 1998; Page B01
The moderator at a D.C. mayoral debate nods to the next candidate: "Mr. Brazil, your opening statement?"
If you're a mayoral rival, it's time to duck. Harold Brazil is fed up.
He's been running for mayor for months, and his campaign is sputtering. His message is garbled. He hasn't raised much money. And everyone talks about his bow-tied rival, Anthony A. Williams. He glances sideways at Williams, who sits next to him in the Channel 16 television studio. Brazil's nostrils flare. His shoulders rise. His ice-blue eyes narrow. This mild-mannered, 49-year-old Midwesterner who flavors his speech with "poppycocks" and "gee whizzes" is going into his swing-from-the-lip, woe-unto-my-enemies transformation.
"Tony, when I look at a list of your campaign supporters, I get the feeling this is an old script for 'America's Most Wanted,' " Brazil starts off, referring to two high-profile allies of Mayor Marion Barry (neither of them criminals) who have endorsed Williams. "You have gleefully embraced a number of people who represent everything that is wrong with our city."
Williams appears a bit startled. Moments later, Brazil goes after candidate Jack Evans.
"Mr. Evans is the big judiciary guy, and he figuratively hugged and kissed a big-time, flop-top cop," Brazil said, in reference to former police chief Larry D. Soulsby, who left in disgrace despite steadfast support from Evans.
Then he whacks candidate Kevin P. Chavous.
"My man Mr. Chavous is the man for neighborhoods, but he hasn't done anything for neighborhoods."
Then Brazil pokes at businessman and long-shot candidate Jeffrey Gildenhorn -- because some of his businesses failed.
"To my good friend, Mr. Gildenhorn" -- Brazil points at the businessman -- "you pillory the [D.C.] Council, but you used to have a whole lot of businesses up there on Connecticut Avenue. Well, they're all closed now."
After a couple of months of what he sees as muddled reasonableness, Brazil has become the Democratic primary campaign's last angry man, hurling charges -- proven and wild. It's a calculated change, leavened with a dollop of pure emotion. Brazil fears Williams's campaign momentum, and he serves up a quadruple mixed metaphor as illustration.
"As long as the tidal wave keeps coming, we're curtains," Brazil said. "Whereas if I burst the bubble, I could catch the acorns."
Brazil says he's used up far too much time on the campaign trail talking about his work as a D.C. Council member, his lonely votes against the bloated city budgets of the early 1990s and his success in pushing procurement and regulatory reform. An imposing man with a folksy, coughing laugh -- "A-haw-A-haw-A-haw" -- he speaks rather wistfully of the days when he was The Washington Post editorial board's favorite reformer, the last brave guy bucking the status quo.
But that doesn't do much for him now.
"I was going to be Mr. Nice Guy, but nice guys finish last," Brazil said. "We were sputtering. My issues weren't sexy. It was like marriage without sex."
So he began throwing those rhetorical haymakers. And, sure enough, the media came. (He also fired his campaign manager, Anita Bonds, last week). Bill Lightfoot, a former council member and chairman of Brazil's campaign, explains it rather clinically.
"The plan is to attack and get some attention and get the campaign going," Lightfoot said. "You have to go through Tony Williams, not around him."
But Brazil's most incendiary charges are factually challenged. He acknowledges, for instance, that he can't find evidence that former Barry confidant and convicted felon Ivanhoe Donaldson is pulling strings for Williams. Williams strongly denies this.
"I feel strongly about it, but I can't prove it, uh-uh," Brazil said. "I fought that crew; I know how they operate. It's backwards thinking to say otherwise."
And he has zeroed in on a volunteer with the Williams campaign: former Reagan administration national security adviser Robert C. "Bud" McFarlane. Brazil notes accurately that McFarlane was convicted of withholding information from Congress during the Iran-contra scandal. But he doesn't stop at that.
"Look," Brazil said at the recent debate, "at Bud McFarlane, who is an arms dealer and sells and peddles weapons to the drug dealers of Southeast [Washington], I guess."
Brazil guessed wrong. McFarlane doesn't deal guns in Southeast Washington or anywhere else; he works for an energy exploration firm. Nor is McFarlane a convicted felon, as Brazil has said. Withholding information from Congress is a misdemeanor.
Asked whether possible inaccuracies trouble him, Lightfoot replied: "It's a campaign, not a court of law."
Such attacks elicit a howl or two of outrage from the Williams camp, where the staff has taken to referring privately to their antagonist as "Harold Bizarre."
"I'm going to try and avoid this headlong plunge," Williams said. "This is guilt by association of the worst kind, and slander, frankly."
If repeated enough, however, Brazil's attacks could take a toll on Williams, who only two months ago was the city's respected but relatively little-known chief financial officer.
Interviews with two dozen voters, black and white, point to a growing interest in Williams's candidacy. Most seem drawn by his reformer's persona, the bow-tied outsider who went inside and took on Barry. But, perhaps for the same reason, some of those voters speak of their unease with the number of former Barry hands who are embracing Williams. These include the Rev. Willie Wilson and boxing promoter Rock Newman. Also noted was Williams's recent political flirtation with Cora Masters Barry, the mayor's wife.
"I like what Williams says, especially about education and day care," said Robbie Goodman, a longtime resident of Lincoln Park in Ward 6. "But I'm a little skeptical of the people who are embracing him. . . . I don't want more of the same crowd who hurt our city."
Brazil has another problem: Williams's potential loss is not necessarily his gain. Attack politics can lend itself to a "Thelma and Louise" effect: Brazil just might drive Williams's campaign off a cliff -- but he could go with it.
There's some evidence to suggest that's already happening.
One evening last week, Brazil is ushered into a living room in a handsome home in the Brookland neighborhood in Northeast Washington. There are 18 people waiting for him, older residents who never miss an election. He drapes his jacket over a chair near the piano and begins talking.
This is the folksy Brazil, the man whose speech is inflected with the hard A's of his native Ohio and whose sentence structure twists and turns like that of George Bush. "Gonna help the kids, gonna do it, gosh we have to talk about this," Brazil said.
There are no frontal attacks this evening. Brazil talks quietly of his reformer's past and his proposals to privatize the building of public schools, monitor charter schools and hire more reading teachers.
Brazil ambles out the door an hour later, and the neighbors set to chatting. They're perplexed. Who's the real Brazil? This folksy charmer or that guy they saw sweating and gesticulating in that televised debate?
Retta Sanders leans back in a high-backed living room chair and frames the dichotomy: "So nice here and so wild there."
On the couch, retired teacher Elizabeth Simms says she doesn't know who will get her vote, but she doesn't imagine it will go to Brazil. "I was not impressed with the way he attacked," she said. "There's a way to do that."
Told of this reaction a day later, Brazil acknowledges that his box-their-ears attack strategy could prove a complete wild card.
"Kevin Chavous could benefit from this more than me," Brazil said. "Especially if there is confusion given the concoction we've got brewing here."
Now he starts to stress that he isn't really that nasty. "You know, I'm not trying to be Mr. Bad Guy, Mr. Nasty."
That said, Brazil pulls out an old investigator general's report about misplaced bank accounts and urges a reporter to investigate the connection to Williams. "Gosh, this Williams could be a dangerous guy. I'm not holier than thou or some such and so forth, but this is a question of integrity, integrity."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company