A Sept. 9 Metro article incorrectly stated that Harold Brazil (D-At Large) is the only D.C. Council member seeking reelection who has been endorsed by Mayor Anthony A. Williams. Williams (D) also has endorsed Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who is running unopposed. (Published 9/13/04)
Maelene Johnson was ticked off. Ticked off about the lousy condition of her crumbling apartment in the Garfield Terrace Senior Dwellings. Ticked off about the high prices on the new condominiums in her rapidly gentrifying neighborhood north of downtown. And ticked off with D.C. Council member Harold Brazil, who came around asking for her vote but didn't offer her much hope.
"He told me to call somebody," Johnson fumed. "People need decent places. He didn't give me what I wanted."
Kwame Brown listened and nodded and jotted Johnson's name and number on a three-by-five-inch card. Brown, a former Clinton administration official with deep roots in the District, is running hard to oust Brazil in Tuesday's Democratic primary, and the outpouring of frustration had the ring of political opportunity.
Young, energetic and blessed with a genuine enthusiasm for retail politics, Brown, 33, is the most formidable challenger Brazil has faced in nearly 14 years on the D.C. Council. Since he moved back to the District two years ago from suburban Virginia, Brown has knocked on thousands of doors, planted signs in hundreds of yards and spent countless afternoons buttonholing voters with the question: What two issues are most important to you?
On a recent afternoon on U Street NW, people didn't have to think long before giving their answers.
"I'm a little tired of what's going on in this city," said April Payne, a pension fund employee in her late twenties who was digging into a chili dog at Ben's Chili Bowl. "There's more development, but it's not helping us. Education is worse. Health care is worse. And since September 11, there's no new jobs."
Payne blames "the at-large council" members, who are "kind of outdated" and "seem very money hungry. I think all of them need to go." She's voting for Brown, she said, because "I like his ideas. I like where he's trying to go."
That sentiment, echoed by several key unions, local Democratic groups and others who have endorsed Brown, has Brazil playing defense. In the past few weeks, Brazil, 55, has put out a steady stream of news releases attacking Brown as an unreliable upstart who has lied about his college credentials, his ties to the District and his failure to vote regularly in local and national elections.
Yesterday, Brazil added a new charge to the litany. Brazil's campaign manager, Darden Copeland, accused Brown of having close ties to former mayor Marion Barry and the "failed policies of the past." A vote for Brown, Copeland said, is a vote "for fiscal irresponsibility and out-of-control spending."
In a recent interview, Brazil, who is seeking reelection to a third four-year term in his citywide post, acknowledged that he is taking Brown seriously. But Brazil said his tactics are not a sign of weakness.
"Are we panicky? Do we think we're going to lose? No," Brazil said. "I just think the voters deserve accurate information. And he's not being honest with the voters."
Brown scoffs at the charges, saying they prove only that Brazil is getting desperate.
"After 131/2 years on the council, he's unable to communicate a track record of what he's done that makes him deserving of being reelected," Brown said in an interview.
Brazil argues that he deserves partial credit for every major development project of the past few years. He points out that the District has prospered enormously since he was first elected to the council from Ward 6 in 1990, moving from near bankruptcy to a balanced budget and $250 million in cash reserves.
Still, Brazil has been widely criticized for a certain lack of engagement. A lawyer who views his $92,000-a-year council post as a part-time job, Brazil is often late to his own meetings. And although he chairs the important Economic Development Committee, he is better known for rubber-stamping the agenda of Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) than pushing his own initiatives. Of six council members seeking reelection, only Brazil received the mayor's endorsement.
During the spring, The Washington Post reported that Brazil had used council staff members to assist his law practice and that a woman with whom he had a personal relationship received a big raise and a new city job.
Brazil has said that he did nothing to help the woman win a promotion and that his staffers showed up on their own to help him in court. As for working two jobs, Brazil says he has spent his entire life working hard.
Brazil argues that he faces two challengers with no experience: Sam Brooks, 24, is a recent college graduate who has turned in impressive performances at candidate forums. But Brooks has little money and virtually no campaign organization and lives with his parents.
And then there is Brown.
He is the son of a longtime D.C. Democratic strategist and worked as an assistant manager at Wal-Mart and as a banker before President Bill Clinton tapped him to serve in the U.S. Commerce Department. After the Democrats lost the White House, Brown became president of the Maryland-D.C. Minority Supplier Development Council, a private nonprofit organization that matches minority-owned businesses with major corporations.
As a candidate, Brown has had chronic problems with consistency, tending to bend his answers to please his audience.
Brazil has hammered at Brown's shifting positions, and Brown has had trouble responding. He fixed a flier that erroneously stated he had graduated from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College to make clear that he had, in fact, attended only a short program for minority executives.
And he has offered an array of explanations for his failure to vote regularly. The latest is a flat-out mea culpa.
"Did I vote in every single election? No, and that's wrong," he said. "I didn't vote every time I had an opportunity, and that wasn't right."
Despite those problems, Brown has run a tireless campaign, effectively positioning himself as a plausible alternative for voters in search of a fresh face and new ideas.
For some voters, that seems to be enough.