Name recognition counts for a lot in politics. Even when the name is someone else’s.
Michael D. Brown, after serving 12 years as D.C.’s symbolic “shadow senator” to a Congress that denies the city voting representation, faces an energetic challenge in next week’s Democratic primary. His opponent, Capitol Hill resident Andria Thomas, has garnered the endorsements of several D.C. lawmakers. Her campaign has outspent Brown’s by a factor of 28 to 1.
But Brown, who is white, has at least one advantage that Thomas can’t match: He shares a first and last name with Michael A. Brown, a prominent black politician who remains popular in large swaths of the city despite a stint in federal prison for accepting bribes when he was a member of the D.C. Council.
Thomas says her campaign repeatedly encounters voters who are confused about which Michael Brown is up for election, and fears she could suffer at the polls from unwitting support for the Michael Brown who isn’t on the ballot.
During an informal survey of a half-dozen D.C. voters last week at a lunchtime thoroughfare in Ward 7, The Washington Post was unable to find a single person who could correctly identify which Brown is running for reelection as shadow senator.
Michael D. Brown, a North Jersey native whose blunt demeanor and boxy suits bring to mind a character actor in 1950s Hollywood, denied that he benefits from voter misapprehension of his true identity.
“I don’t think people think that I’m a convicted felon,” he said in an interview. “I don’t think people confuse us.”
The charges of political mistaken identity form one of the longer-running subplots in the colorful annals of local government in the nation’s capital. Some say the electoral success of “White Mike” — Brown’s nickname among city hall cognoscenti, derived from a minor character in the second season of HBO’s “The Wire” — is indicative of how racial divisions continue to define D.C. politics.
“It’s fascinating, obviously, for so many reasons, not the least of which is the duration of this — I don’t know what you call it. It’s not a misnomer. This identity crisis,” said political consultant Chuck Thies. “A certain percentage of Michael Brown’s support in the black community is based on the belief that he is a black candidate.”
In 2010, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) — then a popular At Large council member — was stunned by a poll that showed Brown, who had mounted a quixotic challenge to Mendelson in the Democratic primary, leading by 12 points among likely voters.
A panicked Mendelson enlisted the help of fellow council member Michael A. Brown, who offered the following testimony in a widely circulated campaign mailer that compared his photograph with that of the shadow senator: “It’s important for the voters of the District of Columbia to know that I am NOT up for re-election at this time. The Michael Brown that appears on your ballot is another person.”
The atypical public service announcements propelled Mendelson to a 34-point primary victory.
“There was no question, but that there was confusion. I think it was purposeful,” Mendelson said in an interview this week. “He knew that by running a low-key campaign the only thing that was out there about him was his name.”
Michael A. Brown, who in 2016 was released from prison and said he is now working as a lobbyist on Capitol Hill, said he still meets people who mistakenly believe he is D.C.’s shadow senator. He also thinks the real shadow senator trades on the confusion.
“He’s taken advantage of it, and that’s politics,” Brown said. “He’s never going to acknowledge that he’s doing something on purpose, clearly. But we both know.”
Michael D. Brown said that allegations of widespread name confusion were a racially divisive campaign strategy concocted by Mendelson.
“The whitest guy in Washington played the race card and it worked for him,” Brown said of Mendelson.
He added, “I’m not saying that there aren’t a couple people that are confused.”
One of them was present at a May event for Thomas in a Capitol Hill home at which D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) declared his support for her candidacy.
When Allen praised Thomas for her intelligence during remarks to the group, a person in the audience interrupted, saying it was offensive to imply that Thomas, who is white, was smarter than her opponent, said Stuart Anderson, Thomas’s campaign coordinator.
Anderson said he approached the man afterward about his objection. “He thought Mike Brown was black,” Anderson said. “He was like, ‘Ohhhh.’ A light went off.”
Allen confirmed Anderson’s account of the event and said the audience member later explained to him that he had been confused about which Brown was on the ballot.
Thomas, who is running on promises to revive the District’s moribund statehood movement through better organization and strategy, has made an impressive showing for a first-time candidate.
Her campaign has raised $44,000 to Brown’s $12,800, and spent $34,800 to his $1,200. Thomas has endorsements from Allen and council members Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1) and David Grosso (I-At Large), as well as D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) and several labor unions and political groups.
But she says that as a political novice, name recognition remains her “number-one challenge,” one compounded by the unusual circumstances surrounding Brown’s identity.
“The question becomes, which name will you recognize,” Thomas said. “My opponent has a great deal of name recognition — not just for himself but for other people in the world and in D.C. who have been named Michael Brown.”
Her challenge was evident on a recent weekday afternoon at the corner of Benning Road and Minnesota Avenue NE in Southeast Washington.
Savonn Jackson, a 20-year-old Ward 7 resident, said he was not paying much attention to the shadow senate race but had heard of Michael Brown and was considering voting for him.
At least until a reporter informed him that the Brown on the ballot is white.
“I was talking about the black guy,” Jackson said.
Julia Williams, a 47-year-old who lives in Ward 8, said she had a positive impression of Michael Brown. “He’s fighting for everyone,” she said. “He’s trying to help people.”
She furrowed her brow when asked which Michael Brown she had in mind, and wondered aloud whether it was in fact the black politician whose populist credentials she admired.
“Was he for all of us?” Williams asked.
“If he’s in jail, he can’t be for all of us,” said Ernest Braddy, 62, who was sitting nearby and had tracked Michael A. Brown’s career more closely.
Asked whether she would still vote for Michael D. Brown after learning he was white, however, Williams didn’t miss a beat.
“Yeah,” she said. “I’m not prejudiced.”