In politics, image is equally important as results. And in the District, having a humble attitude goes a long way when it comes to being a trustworthy public servant. Being a native of the city or having a family history of leadership doesn’t mean much anymore for politicians if they want the benefit of the doubt when they misbehave, ignore voters’ wishes or appear imperious. Just ask Adrian Fenty.
After watching his debate performance on “NewsTalk” on Thursday, it’s obvious Brown is more concerned with getting elected than he is with solidifying his reputation. At the debate he attacked one of his opponents, David Grosso over a May 1993 misdemeanor marijuana charge in Okaloosa County, Fla., claiming he was hiding it from the public. Brown was effectively asserting this was a worse offense that his own problems. Then he blamed the media for focusing on an alleged federal investigation into his finances. He said last week he is not a target of a federal probe, but the U.S. Attorney’s office will not confirm his statement.
So instead of using the moment to discuss how he could be a good lawmaker and gain the public’s trust, he turned questions around and attacked his opponents. Which seems like a contradiction in strategy.
In the past he’s indicated that he doesn’t appreciate politicians playing dirty politics. But apparently he doesn’t think he should be a bigger target of scrutiny than anyone else because of stories about his finances and his campaign missng more than $100,000. Alas, heavy is the head that wears the crown.
What I’d like to hear from Brown is what he plans to change personally to prove he’s still up to the job publicly. It seems he’s decided that because some of his past problems are behind him, they should be behind voters, too. When asked by Bruce DePuyt on Thursday about what his appeal to residents may be, Brown said, “I think our voters are extremely sophisticated people.” He went on to say he was being unfairly targeted over his personal life, then claimed, “I’m a big boy. I can take it.”
Yes, voters are sophisticated all right. They know that no matter how the news came out, a 20-year-old charge for weed, to a reasonable person, in no way equates to a long-standing history of financial woes in one’s personal life. Not even close.
As a native Washingtonian, I don’t want to give up hope that we can grow stellar public servants. I’d like to think that Brown still sees himself as a representative of this city in more ways than just a guy on the dais. But he’s leaving a lot to de desired: There’s the campaign finance misdemeanor, the unpaid luxury box fees, the failure to pay income and property taxes on time, the unpaid rent and other bills, the driver’s license suspensions. Meanwhile, Brown’s attitude has been so recalcitrant throughout this entire campaign that I’m not sure he sees the overall picture.
It appears Brown has higher aspirations than his current seat. The first time he ever ran for public office, he tried to unseat the mayor. But Brown has to be better than this. The days of “my record speaks for itself” not only insults the intelligence of D.C. voters, it seems like a flimsy campaign strategy.
It just reeks of the old D.C. boys club mentality that also led to the demise of Kwame Brown and Harry Thomas Jr., and which this city needs to grow out of before we can progress. We’re tired of seeing people treating public office like it’s a birthright.
It’s not that he hasn’t done anything while in office. He was integral in the charge to revamp the First Source law, which strengthens requirements for city contractors to hire D.C. residents. Brown also helped clarify the tax code regarding hotel taxes due to the city from online travel companies like Expedia.com, which should net the city millions.
But here’s what’s at stake. We have a politically wounded mayor. Washington has no shot at budget autonomy, never mind statehood . We just don’t have that kind of leeway or trust nationally — some would argue for good reason.
And for us to begin to regain the necessary political stature so one day we can achieve true autonomy, we need candidates like Brown — with his political pedigree, national fundraising reach and telegenic qualities to step up in a way everyone can be proud of.
But there is one story I won’t ever forget when I think about Michael Brown. As reported by my colleague Mike DeBonis back when he was at Washington City Paper, Brown hasn’t always been as much about helping those most in need as much as he may claim.
In his Oct 24, 2008, story, “Bad Judgment: Michael Brown picked on the little guy, jury says,” we get an interesting look at how Brown once did business. Brown was part of a group that lured a small business owner into a partnership deal to get a contract with the then-newly built Washington Convention Center that it wasn’t qualified for on its own.
When the partner balked at his share of profits, he was effectively moved out of the deal. Brown’s group got the contract. The original business owner, a man named Bernard Miller, sued. And a jury — as in, a group of our peers — awarded Miller $1.24 million in compensation and another $144,000 in punitive damages
DeBonis wrote in 2008, “The jury’s decision last month to award punitive damages is particularly damning. Jurors had to find that Brown & Co. acted ‘with evil motive, actual malice, deliberate violence or oppression, or with intent to injure, or in willful disregard for the rights of the plaintiff’ or that his conduct was ‘outrageous or grossly fraudulent.’ While the other parties were each found liable for $25,000 or less in such damages, the jury doinked Brown personally for more than $50,000.”
Brown eventually won the damages case on appeal in D.C. Superior Court. Overall, it just wasn’t a good look.
Brown is in a unique situation He still has a chance to stake a claim as a native son that did well for the city. But he has to realize that it’s not just about being better than the next candidate. It’s about being good enough for the city that made you.
“My public trust has never been called into question,” Brown said in the debate. Yes, it has. The record states as much.
Yates is a columnist for TheRootDC.
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