Photo (from Detroit) by Cave Canem on Flickr.
Now that Kwame Brown has resigned as DC Council Chairman in disgrace, he is being called “dim,” a “tyrant,” and all kinds of other unflattering things. Brown is a flawed man, but we cannot pin this all on him alone. DC voters bear responsibility for ignoring the red flags about Brown early on. At the same time, Brown did some things right that we should give him credit for and preserve for the future.
Perhaps Brown’s most significant achievement was his role in elevating the DC Council’s budget office from a bean-counting operation to a muscular, policy driven office that identifies priorities and takes a serious and comprehensive approach to budget oversight.
Brown made a good move in hiring Jennifer Budoff as the DC Council’s budget director. Budoff’s knowledge of DC’s budget is actually breathtaking. She not only knows the numbers, but she has a deeper understanding of the programs reflected in the numbers. As a result, she has a clear sense of where the programs work well and where they fall short, and she budgets accordingly.
Budoff and Chairman Brown assembled a very good budget office team. Whoever replaces Brown to run the council—the temporary, interim and/or permanent new chairman—would be wise to keep Brown’s budget office in place.
Brown also improved transparency and transported the council into the 21st century through smart use of technology. Under his watch, the council’s website became easier to navigate. He put resources into digitizing legislation, so even archival bills are online.
All hearings are now available to view online and you can also sign up online to testify. Brown accomplished all this by collaborating with members of the public, and these significant advances make active participation in our government much easier. Brown and his staff deserve much credit for this too.
As residents, as voters, and as taxpayers, we should make good use of these tools Brown put into place to make our government better and more accountable.
Brown is our responsibility
We should also hold ourselves accountable to do a better job of picking our leaders. There were red flags about Kwame Brown from the very beginning of his political career. He wasn’t truthful about his voting record, he embellished his resume, and he used politics as a way to employ close family and friends. This was years before his efforts to acquire a “fully loaded” SUV on the public’s dime and even before we knew about his “Bulletproof” boat and the debts that ensued.
We should have seen these red flags waving, but Brown got a pass from voters in all parts of the city. We must learn to take a much more active role in the selection of our political leaders and to hold them accountable once they get in office. We shouldn’t rely on the US Attorney to clean up the messes we helped make.
I first met Kwame Brown about this time of year in 2003, at a Jamaican restaurant on upper Georgia Avenue. I was then the Loose Lips columnist for Washington City Paper, and I came at the request of then Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty. Brown had largely adopted the Fenty technique, wearing out his shoe leather knocking on doors throughout the city in pursuit of an at-large seat on the Council. He was energetic and personable.
He was also lucky. The incumbent he was running against, Harold Brazil, had very severe ethics problems of his own that were made the front page of the Washington Post several times. Brown positioned himself as the reform candidate, even though it was a little unclear what he really stood for. Often, when questioned, Brown had a hard time figuring that out himself.
I had concerns he lacked a vision or an agenda. But there were other question marks as well. When questioned by reporters about his voting record—he had only voted once in DC before running for office—he tried to obfuscate. He had to clarify his academic credentials, after stating he graduated from Dartmouth’s business school when he really attended a weeks-long executive program. Yet, even to me at the time, those missteps seemed more like misdemeanors, not signs of future felonies.
Yet, the red flags kept popping up around Brown. Yet again, DC voters kept voting him into office. After the 2004 campaign, reporters revealed unconventional campaign finance reporting from Brown’s campaign. Then, in the midst of the 2008 campaign, the Post did a story about how his campaign funneled money to a political consultant, whose address was a shuttered pizza joint in Columbia Heights. Still, Brown ran unopposed.
During Brown’s campaign for the council chair, NBC4 reporter Tom Sherwood broke the story about his significant financial debt, but voters largely chose to ignore it.
We’re not being honest with ourselves when we say that we are “shocked” or “betrayed” or “disappointed” in Brown. His colleagues and interested voters knew his shortcomings.
We must get involved
Do we need better options on the ballot? Yes, of course. That only happens through the active participation of ourselves in our government.
There are many ways to accomplish this. Several months ago, a group of residents including myself formed DC Public Trust to put a campaign finance reform initiative on the November ballot. Money is a major barrier to getting good people to run for office in our city, and I believe Initiative 70 will help tear down that barrier and level the playing field. I urge my fellow residents to support this effort.
Even if you don’t, please take an more active role in local government. DC needs you.