When D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown was growing up, his father made sure he and his siblings learned one lesson before they even knew how to walk.
“If you ever fall, you get back up,” said Marshall Brown, the veteran District political organizer who has invested part of his life positioning his son to ascend through the ranks of city politics. “I put that into all my kids. They are going to fall if they live long enough, but you get right back up.”
Over the past eight months, Brown (D) has depended on that fatherly advice to try to regain his footing amid a backlash over his taxpayer-funded SUV, slumping poll numbers, and a federal investigation into his 2008 reelection campaign.
In his most extensive interview since the controversies began chipping away at his popularity and renewed doubts about his ability to lead, Brown tried to convey a sense of comfort in his council office as he dismissed suggestions that the troubles have taken a toll. He and the council, he asserted, are “moving the District forward” by closing a $320 million budget gap without a tax increase, continuing to improve city schools, ensuring a vibrant local economy and keeping streets clean.
The sit-down also offered insight into an impenetrable politician seeking acceptance, even as he struggles to move past sports metaphors to demonstrate he’s in control and can be trusted.
“I understand what game this is,” said Brown, referring to what he calls life in the “fishbowl” at the John A. Wilson Building. “But you can’t complain about something you signed up for.”
Instead, just as his father taught him, Brown is out to prove he’s not one to get beaten down easily — that he has staying power.
As a young boy, Brown became obsessed with Muhammad Ali, known to almost always get up after a knockdown. A large portrait of the legendary boxer hangs in Brown’s office, serving as a symbol of perseverance.
“People always underestimated him,” said Brown, 40, as he surveyed the portrait. “When he used to spar, his opponents used to be like, ‘We are going to tear him up ’. . . . But when he got into the ring, he used to knock them out.”
Resisting opportunities to stray from talking points, Brown spoke of his role in tackling the city’s challenges, but he is seemingly unable to grasp what many have argued: That a string of ethical woes emanating from the Wilson building have stained his reputation as well as the council’s and Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s (D).
“I don’t know how it can be a bad place when we are the hottest city we have been in 20 years,” said Brown, referring to development underway Downtown. “I don’t mind talking about the distractions, because they are what they are, but at the same time, . . . back to the days of the ‘80s? I don’t see that.”
Brown repeatedly said he and the council completed the “toughest budget cycle the city has ever seen,” apparently forgetting the financial challenges of the early 1990s that led Congress to appoint a financial control board.
He again played down his role in requesting a taxpayer-financed SUV shortly after being elected chairman last fall, saying he “didn’t order the SUV.” E-mails published by the Post and Washington City Paper show Brown’s staff said they were acting on his behalf when they procured the luxury vehicle from the Department of Public Works.
“I just didn’t spend all the time that I should’ve on that particular matter because I was focused on building a team to get things done and deliver for the residents,” Brown said.
Brown’s popularity has plummeted — partly due to the SUV controversy — since he won 55 percent of the vote in the September 2010 Democratic primary. In a June Post poll, only 29 percent of District residents held a favorable view of Brown, while 36 percent had an unfavorable impression.
When asked about the poll, Brown grew combative. Initially, he blamed the media for extensive coverage of the SUV request. Later, he suggested his poll numbers were not that bad because nearly half of all residents had no opinion of him.
“I mean, the president’s approval rating is only 44 percent,” Brown said.
Brown was also on the defensive as the conversation turned to alleged ethical lapses and an Office of Campaign Finance investigation that found his 2008 reelection campaign failed to disclose more than $270,000 in donations as well as expenditures. It is a campaign that is close to home — one that relied heavily on the help of his father and brother, Che.
OCF concluded a contractor working for Brown in 2008 forwarded about $239,000 in campaign money to a company owned and operated by Che Brown. Partners in Learning, which Brown said provided services to the campaign, was unable to provide records for how the money was spent, according to OCF.
Brown declined to comment on the findings or the ongoing U.S. Attorney’s investigation. But when asked about the payments to his brother’s company, Brown equated his decision to that of former President John F. Kennedy, who hired his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, as U.S. attorney general in 1961.
“President Kennedy nominated his brother . . . and he had never (tried a case) in a courtroom in his life,” said Brown. He quickly added, “And I have a tremendous amount of respect for President Kennedy and thought he was a good president.”
Marshall Brown, who helped oversee his son’s 2008 campaign repeated the Kennedy comparison, noting that politics is often a family business. The elder Brown said he takes responsibility for “some mistakes” stemming from that race, but stresses that he is confident neither he nor his son broke the law.
Marshall Brown, who got his start in District politics in the early 1980s as an aide to Mayor Marion Barry, said his son’s troubles are no different than the ethical problems that have sidetracked other city politicians. The key to surviving, Marshall Brown said, is just hold steady and ride out the bad news.
An avid basketball player whose council office is awash in sports memorabilia, Kwame Brown turned to a sports analogy to make the same the point.
“You know, politics is a contact sport,” Brown said. “It’s the NFL. The question is, when you get hit, do you stay down or do you get up and move that ball and pull your team together and go score a touchdown?”
As he aims to pivot toward what he hopes is a more favorable fall news cycle, Brown vows to push for ethics reform after the council reconvenes next month. He is also banking on being able to play up an image of a young, charming politician who can connect with worshippers in a black church in Northeast as easily as he can with patrons in a Northwest neighborhood bar.
Brown insisted he be interviewed while his senior staff — most of whom are in their 30s — sat next to him, because he said they embodied his fast-paced leadership style.
Even though Brown is often credited with being focused, his council colleagues and close observers of city politics describe him as nervous and unsteady as he tries to maintain his grip on the council.
“Talking to him can be real superficial at times,” said one council member who asked not to be identified to speak freely about the matter. “Not that he doesn’t get it, or understand it, but you get the sense he’s not revealing everything to you.”
Though Brown stressed he recently removed council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) as the chairman of the Committee on Public Works and Transportation to boost the intersection of transportation and environmental issues, many of his colleagues believe Wells was penalized for leading the council investigation into Brown’s SUV request.
In the short term, Brown’s efforts to exert his authority appear to have paid off, but a boxer’s win-loss record is only as good as his next fight.
“He will be eaten alive if his situation turns bad,” said another council member, who asked not to be identified to speak freely about the matter. “I think he knows that.”
Brown said he’s confident the coalition that elected him in 2010 — when he carried seven of the city’s eight wards — will continue to stand behind him.
“You can’t derail the will of the people,” said Brown.