Politics Mondays: Exclusive Q & A With Michael Brown, Michael Brown For D.C. Mayor Exploratory Committee (Part I)
He will always be his father's son, but Michael Brown will immediately bring more to mind than memories of his father, the late Ron Brown, if he is successful in becoming the next Mayor of Washington, D.C. Having launched his mayoral exploratory committee in 2004, Michael Brown has already established himself, in the mind of political observers in the nation's capitol, as a serious contender to win the District of Columbia's election for its top municipal office next year.
He is the Managing Partner of Alcalde & Fay's DC Office, the Vice-Chairman of the D.C. Boxing and Wrestling Commission, Finance Vice Chair of the Democratic National Committee, and the President & CEO of the Ronald H. Brown Foundation. Mr. Brown is also a Corporate Advisory Board member of Comcast Communications.
Prior to joining the lobbying and communications firm of Alcalde & Fay, he worked with several law firms, most recently with Patton Boggs LLP, where his practice focused on banking, education, energy, housing, telecommunications, health care, tax, transportation, and water issues. Mr. Brown also worked in those areas at Greenberg Traurig and, before that, on municipal finance issues with Mudge Rose Guthrie Alexander & Ferdon.
He has twice been appointed as a member of United States Presidential Delegations to Africa. Michael serves as a Board Member of the Constituency for Africa (CFA), is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and has represented various foreign governments.
He is co-founder of America’s Fund, a political action committee providing support to candidates of color and he also sits on the Boards of the Washington Boys and Girls Club and the Whitman Walker Clinic.
In January, Michael Brown met with BlackElectorate.com Publisher Cedic Muhammad for a wide-ranging conversation regarding his expected decision to run for Mayor; his view of public education; Hip-Hop; the controversy over bringing baseball to D.C.; gentrification; the evolution of urban economic development; generational Black politics; D.C. statehood; and reparations.
What follows is Part I of that exclusive interview.
Cedric Muhammad: Michael, what led to the decision to launch the exploratory committee to consider running for Mayor of Washington, D.C.?
Michael Brown: Actually the process started in 1998 when a group of folk came to me and asked me to consider running for mayor. I was flattered and the like, but I was really too young. I wasn’t ready. My mother wasn’t into it at all. It was very close to my father’s accident. We weren’t even two years out from that. It was just too much going on. This may have been late 1997. Again, I was flattered and there were a couple of news stories on me in both print and broadcast. The media coverage didn’t really change my mind but it did give me a little leverage with the man that I thought was going to win at the time, and that was Anthony Williams. Things went on, and I was in his ‘kitchen cabinet’ so to speak, and Marion Berry appointed me to the D.C. Boxing and Wrestling Commission and I was the youngest appointee, to that committee in the city’s history. And then Tony Williams reappointed me when he became mayor. So I had a nice mix in politics between the Marion Berry folks and the Tony Williams folks. But I began to get a little frustrated by Williams’ first term because I realized that it is important to be from somewhere that you are going to govern. And a lot of decisions he was making were those of someone who clearly did not have a historical perspective on the city. He is not from here. When you talk about moving UDC to Southeast, for example, that clearly shows that you do not understand the purpose of putting UDC in Van Ness in the first place. The purpose was to help integrate the District of Columbia and not segregate it. So then that started the process where people came to me again (to run for mayor). But by the time they came to me to challenge his reelection, it was too late. And he got re-elected. But I think he would have been very hard to beat anyway. So, literally right after the next inauguration of Mr. Williams, the same group came to me – this group, this time, was a little more expansive. I had been doing stuff East of the (Anacostia) River my whole life so it was important for me to go East of the River and ask the people did they see a distinction between me, who used to come over and give speeches and commencement addresses and do great charity work my whole life, as opposed to me being their candidate and potentially their mayor? Well, I was very flattered to see that there was no distinction. From their standpoint every time they had asked me to come and be supportive of them, I had come; and I have clearly shown that I had cared, in their opinion. They knew I cared, my father cared, and that my grandfather had cared. So there was a legacy of connection between me and East of The River. And I, of course, hoped I would do well West of the River. And so, as we started bringing together our coalition, it started as a draft committee, and then it evolved into an exploratory committee. And that is why we have such an aggressive exploratory committee now. We actually were the first to file exploratory committee papers. We think we are probably out in front in terms of getting support from around the city but we are still an underdog because we are not an incumbent anywhere. We are not city council members and we are not Mayor. So our exploratory committee has done the best we can and we keep moving forward.
Cedric Muhammad: What Michael, can you tell us about the group that has been the core of support and led the way in trying to persuade you to run for Mayor of Washington, D.C.?
Michael Brown: We have had the fortune of having people of all walks of life – from every Ward in Washington D.C. It doesn’t matter what your sexual orientation is; what the color of your skin is; it doesn’t matter your gender; it doesn’t matter your economic status, and where you live in the city. We just seem to have everything that you need to run a successful campaign and hopefully then again to govern. We want to have everyone at the table. We are running a very inclusive campaign. Our message is very inclusive. We have realized basically, that no matter where you live in the city everybody basically wants the same thing. They want to be able to educate their children. They want safe streets to walk, good drinking water, good healthcare opportunities. They want their transportation system to work.. Everyone basically cares about the same thing. So you have to figure out and make sure that when there are people sitting at the table who have different interests and different agendas that they are able to be heard and you try to mold your message into the people that support you. Because that is what politics is all about. Elected officials are supposed to be supporting and moving agendas forward, of people that help get them elected. So that is what we are doing now – trying to hear from people to see what they care about and what issues they care about and it is turning out that it is the same issues that I care about.
Cedric Muhammad: Now you have a list of core issues on your exploratory committee website and you have talked about them repeatedly. Could you, taking your time or as succinctly as you can, go through maybe a handful of those issues and prioritize them if you could?
Michael Brown: Well everything is under the umbrella of Rebuilding Our Community Values but from our standpoint, everything touches education. If education isn’t working then everything else is going to be problematic. And just on practical and pragmatic terms it has the largest budget, it is a billion dollar budget for 65,000 kids. And as you have heard me mention many times before, money is not the problem. And so you have got to figure out education, but it is larger than a global figuring out of education. There are some micro issues you can figure out, things like giving young people hope and our young people and parents are competing with the rap video culture that is defining success for them. We have to also figure out and do a better job and define what other forms of success can be like and what other opportunities and options are out there. Because if you are a young person, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen years old, and you are watching videos that is what you think success is. So, if we are not doing our job and saying, ‘Look, here are some other opportunities for you. Other ways we can be successful’ that is what you are going to see. As a young person you are going to say, ‘look I don’t need school, I don’t need to study. I don’t need to read that book, yeah I am going to run around with this different crowd.’ And that is where it comes back to that community value issue. Because we remember a time – I grew up in Shepherd Park here in Washington D.C. – and I remember riding my bike outside my house and if my mother came outside looking for me she could ask fifteen people where I was and all fifteen people would know. If I was doing something stupid like throwing rocks at a Metro bus, somebody else’s parent would come out and knock me upside the head. The book mobile used to come up and down our street twice a week. There were just some core community values that we used to have that were matched with education. Oh, clearly we lost some kids along the way but the majority saw that after a party on Saturday night, if there was a fight, you would throw up your fist and you could live the next day. Today, the culture is totally different. If somebody has a beef with someone they are going to shoot them. If somebody steps on somebody’s new Jordans they are going to shoot them. If somebody likes somebody’s North Face jacket they are going to take it and shoot them. We have to change the culture and the climate of how our young people deal. And that is why education and community values are so important.
Cedric Muhammad: Now, as a possible mayor, how do you in a political office go about this? Is it a bully pulpit situation where you use your stature to promote community values or is there a certain relationship that you build with specific grassroots leaders etc…?
Michael Brown: I think it is all of the above and more. I think that for a long time we have wasted so much time waiting for some big solution to come out of the sky. Clearly we need God’s help but I am talking about a mentality where we are just waiting for something to happen that is going to change the course of young people. It is not going to happen like that. You have got to roll up your sleeves and be willing to sit down with folks that haven’t been sat down with before. It is not to scold them and not to yell at them. It is just to help them understand that they can have a roadmap, and when they get to that fork in the road as we all do, you have to make a decision – am I going to go right or am I going to go left? We should try to give our young people enough information so that they make the right decision rather than going the other way. So from my perspective we have done it in Kenilworth Avenue in the last year or so. Whether it is handing out candy to kids on Halloween or feeding needy families on Thanksgiving Day. Whether it is passing out Christmas gifts, the young ‘entrepreneurial Brothers’ as I will call them, are hanging out in the open-air drug market doing their ‘entrepreneurial’ thing. School isn’t even an option. It is one o’clock in the afternoon, school isn’t even on their ‘to-do’ list. But you know what? When I approached them and just chatted with them, we bonded instantly because the first thing I told them is that I listen to go-go music just like they do (laughter). And that was an instant bond, because somebody who looks just like me has never tried to engage them. And then I said, ‘why don’t you all come help me pass out these Christmas gifts?’ And you know what? They did it. They did it because no one has ever engaged them to ask them to do something else. And when they do have other options, they do it.
Cedric Muhammad: We’ve talked about this before, you seem to place a high priority on making a personal connection where you speak their language. Now, I know you have done some work with Puffy (P. Diddy) and you mentioned earlier, some thoughts about the influence of Hip-Hop culture. Washington Post columnist, Courtland Milloy, as you know, recently wrote about a crisis where young people are being robbed of their North Face jackets. How do you bring together the good and the bad critique of what is happening in Hip-Hop culture; the need to speak people’s language; and then a school budget, where you have a billion dollars for 65,000 students and yet there is lack of education, and growing violence in the school system?
Michael Brown: We have to change the climate, the whole landscape has to change. I am not promoting at all that people should not watch rap videos. They are entertaining, they are fun and I happen to love Hip-Hop music. To me that is not the issue. We have to have our young people understand that, it is just a video. It is like going to a movie and you are watching a TV show. It is not real life. Only a handful of people live like that. That is not how the world lives. And it is OK to watch. And maybe some of the verbiage needs to be toned down, maybe. But that is for another debate. My issue is that when a young kid is watching that, they realize they are only watching entertainment, but they still have to get their homework done, they can’t talk back to their teachers, they can’t hit women, they shouldn’t carry a nine (millimeter gun) in their back pocket; they can’t run the package (of drugs) that their man gave them down the street. We should help our young kids understand that there is a separation between those two things and there is nothing wrong with that. And that is where we have failed in not making that connection with them. They don’t have to do this. The one question I asked these young Brothers who are doing their ‘entrepreneurial activities’ is: “If you had other options would you be doing this?” And they all said no. See, I spoke at Ballou High School, for their PTA meting about a month ago. And remember I went to DCPS, public schools here in the District, and I remember for PTA meeting night all we did during the day was clean the school to make sure it was spotless for the parents to come into. So I was at the PTA meeting at Ballou and went to the restroom and there were no paper towels in the rest room, and so I used some ingenuity. I go in the stall and get some toilet tissue, and that wasn’t an option. And so if you are a young person trying to see who cares about you and you can’t even use the restroom properly at school, clearly other things are going to get your attention to make you think, ‘hey, this crowd cares about me and these are the things I can do because they don’t care about me at school’. You should be able to close your eyes anywhere in the District of Columbia, open them up and not know where you are when it comes to transportation, healthcare, or education. It should be a level playing field and it isn’t, right now. Those are some of the things. Parents don’t get involved enough. We have to figure a way to get parents more involved in the school system. And I think you do that with that community value piece. Church used to be a big part of lives, for a lot of young people. You knew that no matter what you had to go to Sunday School. It didn’t matter what you had on your agenda, but today, that disconnect is there. The community disconnect is there, the school disconnect is there. I grew up in District of Columbia and I had friends all over the city, because it was very easy to do that. Today I would have to go out of my way to get my kids to have friends in other parts of the city, because it is so different today. It is not even about color today it is about haves and have nots. And that river is getting wider and wider.
Cedric Muhammad: So, you speak of the lack of paper towels, toilet tissue, and we know of numerous public schools that don’t have textbooks. There are problems with construction and heating of schools. In light of these problems let me get your view of the Political Left’s critique and the Political Right’s critique of what is wrong with the education in this country, and D.C. Generally speaking, the Left says there is not enough money (in school budgets), teachers are underpaid and that’s the problem. How do you respond to that in the context of D.C.?
Michael Brown: Well first of all, I was on the search committee for the new superintendent so I was able to understand how the budget works and that’s why I am always talking about 65,000 kids and a billion dollar budget. My mother was a teacher, my grandmother was a teacher and I remember, probably like you, and every kid thinking that 'my teacher doesn’t like me’. Everybody does that. But I was fortunate enough that my mother and grandmother told me, ‘Look, I guarantee you that your teacher did not wake up today and try to figure out how to make your life more difficult.’ Teachers are with kids as much as parents are. They (teachers) are the first line of defense. We have to change their motivation and inspiration. A lot of teachers are clearly motivated and inspired by their work every day. But a lot are not. A lot of principals are not. We have to give them some creative flexibility to do the kinds of things that they want to do outside of a blanket approach. See, the essence of the problem is if the Board of Education says, ‘You know what - all D.C. Public Schools will do this’ as a policy, the problem with that is that kids in different parts of the city have different challenges every day. Kids in some parts of the city hear gunshots at night. Some may not get proper hygiene and proper nourishment. Some may not have done their homework. Some kids may not have even seen a parent. So then, school is like a daycare center and not an educational environment. Some kids, in other parts of the city get great dinner the night before, they had breakfast, they took a shower. They did their homework, they didn’t play Playstation all night. They saw a parent. There are just different challenges for different places in the city. And that is not what is being taken into account. So I would like to give principals from around the city some flexibility - economic flexibility to do the things that they need to do for their communities and their neighborhoods.
Cedric Muhammad: Now, the Political Right’s critique, and this was big in D.C. with the whole vouchers debate is: there is misuse with the school budget money, the public school system is not set up institutionally to educate children properly, so you need more private sector involvement – vouchers and charter schools and what not.
Michael Brown: As long as charter schools and vouchers are looked at as stop-gap measures until the school system is fixed. Because frankly, if the school system was doing what it was supposed to do there would be no need for vouchers and charter schools. So as long as it is a stop-gap, I am OK with that. I think the issue tends to be why that was the effort - to make sure that there was a charter school act, to make sure that there were school vouchers on the federal level - instead of saying, ‘why don’t we fix the D.C. Public School System?’ It was almost like the attitude was to take care of a few students rather than the masses. This is what I was talking about regarding a level paying field. You have some students who are going to get vouchers and are going to be able to do great things at different schools. Some students may be at charter schools and will have great experiences there. But the masses are going to have a disconnect. I hate to say that I am not for either of those two things (vouchers and charter schools), because I don’t think that is the issue considering that they are both law now and they are happening. But I think it is an issue of how you work with them. But I think the first priority is to fix the D.C. public school system.
Cedric Muhammad: Let’s move over into more of a celebrity issue in some respects but really one that encompasses all of the problems D.C. has to face. Bringing baseball to Washington and stadium construction. I have here your December 22nd statement on the return of baseball to the District of Columbia it reads:
Washington, DC – In response to the last minute deal struck by city leaders and Major League Baseball, Michael A. Brown, a potential candidate for the 2006 Mayoral race, released today the following statement.
“We have the strongest business community in the nation right here in Washington, DC. Yet, our city leadership has failed the citizens of the District of Columbia by allowing Major League Baseball to force them into a baseball stadium deal without the involvement of our local business community. This flawed deal is the result of city leaders’ single-minded focus on getting a baseball team regardless of the cost to District residents. This agreement disenfranchises the thousands of women and minority-owned contractors that do business in this city. Our elected representatives were out-negotiated when it came to obtaining the best agreement for the city.”
Where were you at the genesis of the idea to bring baseball to D.C. when you were you on the Sports Commission? And have you evolved on the issue?
Michael Brown: Actually, my position has never changed. First of all I am a sports fan so anything that deals with D.C. sports I am with it. I did not mind that baseball should come here. I do buy into the argument that the Capitol city should have a baseball team. I am totally for that. But I was of the RFK stadium mode. When you have a part of the city that really needs the economic development and you have a stadium that is basically bought and paid for, and which was originally used for baseball in the first place, then I like the Chicago Soldier Field model. The Chicago Bears went to Mayor Daley and said, ‘we want a new stadium or we are going to Gary, Indiana’. Mayor Daley said, ‘See ya. We can’t afford a new stadium at this time. It is not an option. But what we will do is we will refurbish Soldier Field for you.’ If you walk into Soldier Field today, and I have been there, you will see a brand new state-of-the-art stadium. The flat-screen TVs are there, the leather chairs, the club seating, the suites, all of that kind of stuff. And Soldier’s Field was in worse condition than RFK is now. Now take that stadium piece of it out for now. Then you have Eastern High School, which is maybe one block from RFK stadium, and you can do a nice entrepreneurial program for the kids that links with the stadium. We have now an overflow of families and people that live off of Capitol Hill that are moving further out on East Capitol Street on both sides – Northeast and Southeast, and there are no options for them to eat or to shop. They only have two options. They either have to go right and go out East Capitol to Central Avenue to Prince George’s County to eat and shop or they have to go through the District to I-395 to go to Virginia. They don’t have anything there. There is no better place frankly to put the baseball stadium. And let’s not forget that Metro is there already, and parking, and everything you need. That right there to me is what was so frustrating. The Southwest Waterfront site is of course a gorgeous site, but economic development is going to happen there anyway. Fannie Mae is going there. The Department of Transportation is going there. I have always been an RFK proponent and of course was obviously disappointed to see that it is not going to be there except for those first three or four years. Now, moreover if it is going to be at the Southwest site and everybody always talks about the Anacostia Stadium or whatever, but the stadium is not going to be in Anacostia, the stadium would be on the other side. So I want to find a way to link Anacostia to the site through a water taxi system, where you have fans and residents alike going over where you don’t have to get into a car, you don’t have to go over a bridge and you can experience different parts of the city through a water-taxi system. And you can really spur some economic development on the Anacostia side for several reasons. One, you would have to put parking facilities somewhere, why not have them in Anacostia. So, someone would have to own and operate and work in those facilities. You are going to have to have restaurants, someone is going to have to own, operate and work in those facilities. You may even want to have a hotel, so you would have to own, operate and have workers there. So you are really doing hard core economic development with a plan where you don’t displace people. Because every time that this particular administration wants to do something, that has to do with economic development – I shouldn’t even say this particular administration because there are City Council members too as part of this group of leaders - it is always about displacing seniors, long-term District residents and small business. And to me you can create a plan where everyone is able to sit at the table and have good quality of life and make a little money.
Cedric Muhammad: Now, one particular line in your statement stood out to me. It was the final line which reads, “Our elected representatives were out-negotiated when it came to obtaining the best agreement for the city”. There is a recent article in The Washington Post, “Head Of Stadium Project Has His Eye On The Clock”. It is about Allen Lew, head of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, who is guiding the renovation of RFK Stadium and the creation of the new ballpark. An important part of the article reads:
"Hired in November as chief executive of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, Lew, 54, took over an operation still in its first phase. An architect has yet to be hired. Stadium designs have not been developed. And land has not been acquired from property owners. Even the project's ultimate cost -- estimated at $440 million by mayoral aides but raised to $530 million by the city's chief financial officer -- is difficult to determine at this stage, Lew acknowledged."
When people talk about negotiations regarding the construction projects, are key unresolved details referred to in this article an example of what you mean by D.C.’s political establishment being out negotiated or was it more of the uncritical acceptance by leadership of a ‘cookie-cutter’ approach to having a sports team come to D.C. just as they have come to other cities in America?
Michael Brown: Well it was all of the above but I think there were some things that have a little greater value than others. You have a situation where in this District you have one of the strongest business communities in this nation, and if I were mayor I would have gone to them first, I would have gone to the Women’s business community; the African-American business community; the Latino business community; I would have gone to the Federal government, City Council, Board Of Trade, the Chamber of Commerce – people that think, eat and breathe business everyday. Because politicians can’t sit at a table with people that think, eat and breathe business everyday like these baseball owners do. Hence, that is why I talked about how we got out negotiated. We didn’t use the resources we had here. Because I would have said, ‘Look I want to do a deal that looks like this. Help me get there.’
Cedric Muhammad: Was the problem that Mayor Williams was taking a reactionary approach to the opportunity?
Michael Brown: No, it was a desperation approach. Because Major League Baseball were being business folks, saying, ‘If you don’t do what we want we are going to take our deal to Portland, Oregon, or Las Vegas, or San Juan.’ They weren’t going to any of those places. We also did not understand the business of sports. If we had understood the business of sports from the jump we would have known that NFL and NBA owners split the TV revenues whether you are in North Carolina, New York City, Los Angeles or D.C. It doesn’t matter, everybody gets the same amount of money, so you can keep your lights on and pay the salary. Any extra money is all on how you market your arena and stadium, in terms of merchandising and all o those kinds of things. Baseball is different, baseball owners have to cut their own deal in their own region with their own cable franchise, period. That is why the New York Yankees have the highest payroll…
Cedric Muhammad:...the New York Mets just cut a new cable deal and are desperate to field a competitive team to make money and draw subscribers and advertisers...
Michael Brown:...yes, the New York Mets and Boston Red Sox, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Anaheim Angels, the Chicago White Sox and Cubs, and the Florida Marlins. These are the big market teams that win. They have the revenue, they have the largest payrolls so they can have the best players and win. We didn’t understand that there was no where else for baseball to go but here.
Cedric Muhammad: So you don’t think that the Las Vegas option was as serious as some people say it was?
Michael Brown: I don’t think so. Again, sure this is business and they are going to look for the best deal. But I think that understanding the Pete Rose gambling controversy, understanding the business of sports, they weren’t going to take a team and put it in a gambling or gaming city. That just wasn’t going to happen, because it looks kind of hypocritical for Major League Baseball to say, ‘Pete Rose can’t enter into the baseball hall of fame because he bet on baseball but we are going to put a team into a city that centers around gambling’. You understand the correlation. But we didn’t understand that. We really should have been in a position of strength rather than a position of weakness at the negotiating table. And because we didn’t have our best people at that table, just like when business people need a political deal done, they hire a lobbyist (laughter). They come and make sure that they come to the negotiating table with people who have that expertise. We didn’t do that, and that is why we got out negotiated. And see when you are in negotiations, everything is on the table – the percentage of minority and women contracts that will be divied up; where it will be, how long it will be there. Everything. All we cared about was what will it take for us to get a baseball team here? Baseball basically did they deal and we basically just said, ‘Ok, we will try to sell it.’
Cedric Muhammad: What do you think about these numbers on construction, do you feel that D.C. has presented legitimate, feasible numbers or that they are optimistic estimates?
Michael Brown: Clearly not, only two weeks out you had the CFO saying that those numbers are not accurate. But from standpoint it really is not about those numbers. I mean, we could argue about whether it is $450 million or $700 million. It is not about that unless the framework is right. If the framework is right, residents are happy, the people will be happy, contractors will be happy, the owners will be happy. If the framework is not right, every time this thing goes up a dime, in cost, there is going to be a problem. What sense does it make that the RFK renovation project went to a New York contractor? Again, those are some of the things that are obviously wrong.
End Of Part I
Monday, February 14, 2005