A Metro article Sunday incorrectly reported the title of Max Brown, a top aide to D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams. Brown is deputy chief of staff. (Published 11/30/1999)
He is known as "the Enforcer" of D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams's administration, and Max Brown relishes the nickname.
It is Brown, Williams's 35-year-old deputy mayor, who often gets the call when the mayor needs to rally community support for an initiative or to take a hard line with the labor unions and with agency heads who aren't keeping pace with the service improvements Williams (D) wants.
Finesse isn't his game. Brown is aggressive and in-your-face, and he operates with the confidence--many would say cockiness--of someone who not only has Williams's ear but also is a gatekeeper to those who want it. Behind Williams's slight smile and understanding nod there is Brown, ready to tangle with anyone he sees as standing in the way of the mayor's plans to make D.C. government leaner and more efficient.
When told that some community leaders describe him as the Enforcer, Brown said, "I take it as a compliment." Brown, one of Williams's two closest advisers, along with Chief of Staff Abdusalam Omer, added: "Change does not come easy in the District. Some people are invested in the status quo."
Out with the old and in with the new, moving ahead with a sense of urgency: It is the constant theme in Williams's administration, and Brown--young, white and the product of Cleveland suburbs rather than the District--symbolizes the idea as much as any of the new leaders of this majority-black city.
But 11 months into Williams's term, Brown's tactics are wearing thin among some community activists across the city, who say that in his eagerness to promote the mayor's agenda, Brown often is disrespectful and dismissive of longtime neighborhood leaders.
As with most any issue in D.C. politics, some activists see Brown's efforts in racial terms: a young white guy being abrasive to older black residents. To Brown's chagrin, he has become the latest target for critics who say the Williams administration gives short shrift to blacks, criticism that revolves largely around the mayor's reliance on several white advisers and on his efforts to trim the city's work force.
"I've had people call me who are always upset at Max," said Phil Pannell, president of the Ward 8 Democrats, who said that he likes Brown but that he must work to ease perceptions he does not listen to black residents. "Some bristle when you mention his name."
In recent months, Brown has had a brief physical altercation with one community activist and shouting matches with several others. Columbia Heights residents who protested a city panel's choice of developers to renovate that area's business district focused much of their anger on Brown. They accused him of being rude to those who disagreed with him and believe he influenced the panel's decision, accusations Brown denies.
"He screamed at me and called me an enemy of the administration," said Dorothy Brizill, a longtime activist in Columbia Heights. "In this job you have to have the ability to stroke people, and Max cannot do this. These weaknesses are a terrible reflection on the entire Williams administration."
At a recent birthday party for Williams's chief of staff, Brown apparently said something that sources said angered Omar Abdul Malik, a Ward 3 businessman and former campaign aide to Williams. The sources said Malik and Brown tussled for a moment.
Malik would not comment. Brown, who was involved in a similar incident with another Williams supporter during last year's campaign, said that what happened was harmless horseplay.
"Frankly, [it was] two guys joking around," said Brown, who said he has been involved in several such "roughhouse" incidents. "I grabbed him, and we hugged. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Omar."
Brown acknowledged, however, that he hasn't always dealt with residents--particularly black residents--in a sensitive way. "Those are legitimate issues," Brown said, adding that any community buzz linking him with racial tension isn't good for Williams's administration.
He said he has been working harder "to listen to people more" as he tackles a range of tasks as deputy mayor for external affairs--working behind the scenes on legislation with the D.C. Council, negotiating with labor, business and religious leaders, fine-tuning the budget and dealing with crime and other quality-of-life issues in the community.
"I think I have good relations with a lot of people across the city," Brown said.
"In every administration, there is a person who plays the role of the bad cop," said one Williams administration insider. "Max is our bad cop. He is abrasive, and there is no getting around that, but he always gets the job done for the mayor."
Williams is quite aware of the criticism Brown is drawing, but those inside the administration say the mayor has made a political calculation: that Brown's value as a loyal and trusted aide outweighs any damage he is doing by angering people in the community.
The mayor acknowledges that Brown can be unnecessarily abrupt. But Williams has maintained that his aide is being criticized more harshly than he would be otherwise because he is white.
"Some of city government is about ballet, and some of it is about a football game," Williams said. "You can't have a football game without blocking and tackling. I think a lot of people disagree with what we're doing, and the focus of their disagreement becomes Max."
Several mayoral aides have suggested privately that Brown could become too much of a political liability if the bad perception persists.
Asked whether he was concerned about that perception enough to have spoken with Brown, Williams said he told Brown that "you can't walk around . . . with your head cocked up; you can't do that. You have to be accepting and sensitive to other people's point of view, and if you don't get your way, you can't go sulk in the corner.
"He's taken on mythic proportions in this administration, like he's sitting on some backlit throne. . . . He will never be a warm and fuzzy person, but he has gone out of his way to be more accommodating . . . and he is a key player in our administration."
It's clear the Williams administration has become sensitive to criticism of Brown. When administration officials learned that The Washington Post was preparing this story, they had several community leaders phone the paper to offer favorable comments. Omer, the mayor's chief of staff, called to say that the administration did not think Brown was a story.
Brown's supporters describe him as a bright, talented political operative who understands the complexities of negotiations and doesn't mind going toe-to-toe in policy discussions.
Gwendolyn Hemphill, assistant to the president of the Washington Teachers' Union--and one of those who called The Post at the request of the Williams administration--said that because Brown is a messenger of change in the Williams administration, he draws most of the fire from those who do not agree with the mayor's policies.
"I know Max very well; I work well with him," Hemphill said. "He seems responsive and effective."
Williams said that one of Brown's major projects will be to help oversee the mayor's controversial plan to introduce "managed competition," in which some D.C. agencies would compete with the private sector for city service contracts in areas from collecting trash to towing abandoned cars. The program is likely to lead to a reduction in city jobs and is viewed warily by labor leaders.
"People who have problems with us from a policy point of view will package their criticism not in terms of the policy, but in terms of Max," Williams said.
Paul Savage, a deputy director with the Department of Housing and Community Development and a member of the committee that drafted Williams for mayor, said: "Max is sitting in a powerful position, and he has to get out in the community more. And he's doing that to take the mystery out of who he is and what he does." Still, even some of those who support Brown say his tactics could cost the Williams administration support in the community.
"No one here questions Max's ability," an aide to Williams said. But, said the aide, "he shouldn't be dealing with people in the community. He doesn't have the personality to work with people on that level."
CAPTION: Max Brown, an aide who is charged with getting things done for Mayor Anthony A. Williams, says: "Change does not come easy in the District. Some people are invested in the status quo."
CAPTION: Max Brown, deputy mayor for external affairs, is a gatekeeper to the mayor.