From Ward 6 Hero to Lone Wolf
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 24, 1998; Page C1 Harold Brazil chose the cramped, dingy lobby of the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs last fall as a backdrop to present a comprehensive bill overhauling business and land regulations in the District. He soon found himself surrounded by angry activists.
A tenant leader stood directly behind Brazil holding one of the council member's old campaign signs aloft with the word "traitor" etched across the front. Tenant activists incensed by Brazil's proposal to phase out rent control, and environmentalists, infuriated by his proposal to repeal the District's Environmental Policy Act, joined forces in a chorus of hecklers.
Brazil, now a Democratic candidate for mayor in the Sept. 15 primary, stood his ground, much as he has during his seven years on the D.C. Council in which he's fought tax increases, championed business and clashed repeatedly with his colleagues.
"We can be strong," Brazil said over the din, "or we can be feckless."
Less than two months later, the council passed Brazil's bill, the fourth in a series of reform measures that Brazil now describes as the centerpiece of his record in public office, an overall strategy for structural reform in the D.C. government.
"My take on all this and the pieces of legislation that followed was that we need to reform the systems of government," Brazil said in a recent interview. "Those reforms are going to make Washington work again."
Brazil's supporters and critics alike credit his legislative record and his solid credentials as a fiscal conservative. But they also say he's been more of a lone wolf than a leader on the council, and many fault him for failing to take strong stands on a bevy of critical neighborhood issues.
Brazil began his push for regulatory reform in characteristic fashion, prodding the council to chart its own course, knowing the D.C. financial control board had just been directed by Congress to address the critical issue, with or without the council's participation.
Along the way, he enraged six fellow council members by pushing too hard, outraged environmentalists and tenant activists and bolstered his already strong standing with the business community.
"I have to give Harold credit," said Douglas J. Patton, a lawyer who chaired the Business Regulatory Reform Commission. "He dogged this thing through, and we've been working on this stuff for 30 years."
"Long before it was fashionable, Harold was taking unpopular stands against business as usual in the District government," Pharr said. "If you look at Harold's record, it's very responsive to the citizenry, and it happens to be responsive to the business community as well."
David Conn, legal adviser to the Tenant Action Network, doesn't share Pharr's enthusiasm. "When I hear [Brazil], he wants to appeal to business interests no matter what," Conn said.
Conn, one of those who heckled Brazil at his news conference on the bill, said he later succeeded in persuading Brazil to back off a provision that would have enabled landlords to evict certain tenants in rent-controlled units without cause a provision Conn argued could have forced thousands of long-term tenants out of their homes.
"We forced a meeting with him and found out that he and his staff didn't even understand how the law worked," Conn said. "This guy, Brazil, you go in and make your argument and three minutes later, he's on your side."
The most controversial element of Brazil's regulatory reform bill, however, turned out to be his proposed repeal of a requirement that developers pursuing projects worth $1 million or more produce environmental impact statements. Known as the Environmental Policy Act, it is considered unduly burdensome and expensive by the D.C. Chamber of Commerce and the Building Industry Association.
Christopher C. Herman, an environmental activist who lives on Capitol Hill in Ward 6, which Brazil represented from 1991 to 1996 before winning an at-large council seat, accused his former representative of "fear mongering" and "misrepresenting" the true costs of performing environmental assessments under the Environmental Policy Act.
Herman also faulted Brazil for refusing to support Ward 6 residents who fought the proposed Barney Circle Freeway. "Every time we were faced with a big fight to preserve the quality of residential life on Capitol Hill," Herman said, "Brazil stabbed us in the back."
Thomas C. Wells, an advisory neighborhood commission chairman who is supporting Kevin P. Chavous for mayor, added that Ward 6 residents felt betrayed when Brazil changed his stance this year to support development of a theme park on Children's Island a proposal ultimately killed by the control board after the council approved it by a 7 to 6 vote.
"The Children's Island vote," Wells said, "was the last straw for a lot of people in the ward."
Brazil, a former federal prosecutor and trial lawyer with the firm of Koonz, McKenney, Johnson, Depaolis & Lightfoot, takes the criticism in stride. (During his years on the council, he has reported earning $25,000 from the firm in 1993, $55,000 in 1994, $60,000 in 1995, $69,793 in 1996 and $96,000 in 1997.)
He remains convinced, he said, that the Environmental Policy Act "is burdensome, costly and duplicative" and puts the District at a competitive disadvantage with Maryland and Virginia.
He stands by his vote on Children's Island, saying a lot changed from 1993, when he opposed the plan, to 1997, when he cast the deciding vote in favor of it.
And on rent control, he said, he's pleased that the control board ultimately decided the issue needed more study.
"It needed much more time than I could have given it," he said, "and I was pleased that I had the door open and listened to the tenants. Because if it wasn't, they would be mad at me now."
Harold Brazil entered the political fray in the tumultuous summer of 1990, with Mayor Marion Barry on trial for drug possession and Sharon Pratt Dixon running for mayor. He was considered a long shot to defeat incumbent Ward 6 council member Nadine Winter.
But his fresh face, his unbridled energy he quit his job as a lobbyist for the Potomac Electric Power Co. to campaign full time, door to door and his straight talk on taxes spelled victory in a tight primary race.
"The cause of the District's mounting deficit is the way it spends the taxpayers' money," Brazil said at the time. "I am opposed to raising taxes before we change the way we, as a government, do business."
Brazil's first order of business was the rising tide of crime and violence in his ward.
He organized the Ward 6 Crime Task Force, marching on the District Building to demand that more police be put on the streets. By the summer of 1994, Brazil had codified his concerns into an omnibus anti-crime bill that lengthened sentences for violent criminals and stiffened penalties for gun possession.
"We have in this one bill the answers to many of the problems facing the U.S. attorney's office in recent years," then-U.S. Attorney Eric H. Holder Jr. said as Brazil successfully pushed the bill through the council.
Brazil also did a study of the District's pension fund that recommended firing its pension consultant and making numerous changes to improve the fund's investment performance a study that led to major reforms and significant increases in investment earnings.
He was reelected in the fall of 1994 with 91 percent of the vote. Early the next year, as the District was descending into fiscal chaos, he sponsored a successful amendment to stop an automatic, $40 million property tax increase.
Brazil also maintained his interest in public safety issues, sponsoring legislation that imposed an 11 p.m. curfew on D.C. juveniles a law subsequently struck down as unconstitutional by the federal courts. But more and more, Brazil's focus shifted to addressing the city's mounting fiscal problems.
Brazil sponsored a resolution calling on Mayor Barry to appoint a task force to study city services that might be privatized, and he worked with the Greater Washington Board of Trade on a study of D.C. procurement practices that found in early 1996 that some city departments had no written procurement regulations.
Brazil ultimately turned that report into a soup-to-nuts rewrite of the District's procurement laws that now consolidates all authority under a chief procurement officer, Richard Fite, and insulates him from from political interference by the mayor.
"Procurement reform is actually happening," said council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3). I think he has a credible legislative record, and I think procurement reform was an important accomplishment for the council."
On the strength of that legislative record, Brazil cruised to victory when he ran for an at-large council seat in the fall of 1996.
Loree Murray, a Ward 6 civic activist who heads the Northeast Citizens Against Crime and Drugs, said Brazil's popularity stems from a big heart, an affable personality and a willingness to roll up his sleeves and get involved.
"If you were to call his office and say, 'I don't have food or clothes for my child,' he would say, 'Call [aide] Kay Mitchell and don't worry anything about it. We'll take care of it,' " said Murray, who is supporting Brazil for mayor. "If we had cleanups, he's there cleaning up. If a principal needs something in a school, he's there. He's a 'there' person when you need him."
Don Denton, who manages Pardoe Real Estate's office on Capitol Hill, credits Brazil with being an early voice in the ward and in the city for fiscal restraint and better police protection.
"Five, six, seven years ago, it was like whistling in the dark," Denton said. "Harold stood up and took some stands that weren't necessarily popular and weren't necessarily going anywhere."
But Peter L. Tierney, a Capitol Hill activist and property manager who agrees with Denton's assessment and supports Brazil for mayor, said there is nonetheless a lot of "negativity" now floating around Ward 6 about Brazil, which he finds unfortunate but understandable.
"Harold was so, so, so well-liked for the whole time he was the council member here in Ward 6," Tierney said. "As soon as Harold got elected to his at-large seat, you would have thought he didn't do anything right in Ward 6."
Why did some people sour on Brazil after he moved on to the at-large seat?
Tierney attributes it to Brazil's unwillingness to take strong stands on sensitive neighborhood issues such as how to rebuild the boarded-up Ellen Wilson housing project, how to rejuvenate Eastern Market, whether to construct the Barney Circle Freeway and whether to approve the Children's Island theme park.
Wells, chairman of ANC 6B on Capitol Hill, says he most remembers Brazil's refusal to take strong stands of Ellen Wilson and Eastern Market and his flip-flop on Children's Island.
"He wouldn't take a stand on almost anything," Wells said. "His support was wide, but shallow."
Richard Wolf, former president of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, said Brazil is amiable but ultimately not very substantive on issues like Ellen Wilson and broader problems like crime in the ward.
"He did very little about our crime problem," Wolf said. "Substantively, I think he did next to nothing. I consider him to be something of a lightweight on a lot of these issues."
Howard Croft, former chairman of the Urban Affairs Department at the University of the District of Columbia, balks at the term "lightweight," choosing instead to call Brazil "erratic."
"I don't find any coherence to his positions, and I can't figure out how well thought out they are," Croft said.
Brazil, for his part, says he has fully invested himself in neighborhood issues like those involving the Ellen Wilson housing project, the Eastern Market, the old Capitol Hill Hospital, which he says he helped save, and the former National Bank of Washington branch in Anacostia, which he says he kept from closing down.
On Eastern Market, he said, "I wasted a year [working] with people that didn't want Eastern Market to be solved in any sort of way ... and then they sabotaged it at the end."
Ditto on Ellen Wilson, he said.
"It was a very divisive issue," he said. "At some point, I jumped in and became supportive. It's not an easy issue. But I did spend a lot of time on Ellen Wilson issues."
In the final analysis, Brazil said, "I've spent many an hour, a year, a day, both legislatively, doing the more formal council-type things, and being in the street, just walking the beat with the orange hats or cleaning up alleys and streets. I think we've got a fine record of constituent service."
It also was one of the most troubled agencies failing in almost all its primary functions when Brazil assumed the chairmanship of the Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Committee in 1996.
He helped establish a Business Regulatory Reform Commission and jumped to help implement its recommendations a year ago. His alacrity, in part, was inspired by the fact that Congress had just directed the control board to take the commission's findings into account and reform the District's entire regulatory structure.
Brazil believed it was critical that the council not be excluded from the regulatory reform.
"How can we ever lead ourselves," Brazil said in a recent interview, "if we let other people lead for us?"
He held three days of hearings and introduced a 120-page regulatory reform bill last Thanksgiving. The bill the council ultimately passed, although lacking some of Brazil's grandest reform ideas, made a number of important changes: It simplified business licensing, transferred fire inspections from the fire department to DCRA, reduced the insurance premium tax, abolished 34 outdated boards and commissions and imposed order on the chaotic world of street vending.
"I will say, that is the most swift introduction, hearings and passage of any major bill of any sort in this council since I've been watching or been on it," Brazil said. "I'm really pleased with the way we could show that our process can be fast, efficient and, I think, fair."
But the exercise left more than a few activists wondering how much it all really meant, because the control board conducted its own regulatory review and issued a list of 224 recommended changes in law and regulation.
"I think it was absolutely poor judgment to push that legislation through without any public hearings on the bill itself and push it through solely for the purpose of beating the control board," said Phil Mendelson, an at-large council candidate and member of the Committee of 100, a citizens coalition active in planning and transportation issues.
Brazil doesn't deny that the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs remains a deeply troubled agency, but he's confident his regulatory reform bill sets the stage for progress.
"We can't say that DCRA is an A-1 agency," he said. "But within a year, it will be miles and miles better, and within two or so, we may have that first-class business agency that I think we deserve."
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