Politics Mondays: Exclusive Q & A With Michael Brown, Michael Brown For D.C. Mayor Exploratory Committee (Part II)
This week we continue with the second part of our interview with Michael Brown who has established an exploratory committee to consider running for Mayor of Washington D.C. in 2006. In this concluding portion of the interview, Michael Brown speaks with BlackElectorate.com Publisher Cedric Muhammad about the evolution of urban economic development; how Ron Brown, his father influenced him; the generational issues facing the Black community; gentrification; D.C. statehood; and reparations.
[Part One of This Exclusive Interview Is Available At: http://www.blackelectorate.com/articles.asp?ID=1305]
Cedric Muhammad: From getting to know you and reading your website, I pick up a bit of a paradigm of not necessarily ‘urban development’ but a form of community-based economic development and values etc… I wanted to ask you, in a broad and nuanced way, where do you think we are in the context of there being an actual urban agenda. This idea that I have heard Mayor John O. Norquist of Milwaukee and others articulate about the recreation and redevelopment of our cities? Do you think that we have put that on a back burner so-to-speak? Or has that movement become dominated by a top-down approach to economic development? I ask this because it seems that every time I turn around, whether it is Philadelphia, Atlanta, Chicago, Newark, Charlotte, there is this model of these stadium deals, and bringing a sports team to your city; empowerment zones and enterprise communities that is prevailing. When I go to Harlem I see Starbuck’s, Sony Theatres and Blockbuster video. I don’t see expanding mom and pop businesses and small businesses thriving under these development models. I see a tremendous amount of outside businesses coming in, and of course gentrification is a big concern. Do you have a fundamental model of an urban agenda and how you foster growth and development in D.C. and other cities? And what is your critique of the Empowerment Zone and Enterprise Community?
Michael Brown: First you have to have a little historical perspective. Twenty years ago when cities became dirty and infrastructure was old, an streets weren’t safe; people wanted a little yard, some squirrels and trees; so everyone left the cities to go to suburbs. So you know what happened in suburbia? Malls, stadiums, etc...because remember there was a trend where stadiums were going outside of cities, because people wanted to live their lives outside of the city and work in the city, because that is where the jobs were. Now you have all of these communities outside of cities. But now people are understanding quality of life issues that impact that decision. Do I want to be stuck in traffic for two hours, coming into work and going home? You know what, maybe I am not as scared of crime as I used to be. How important is that yard? Maybe it is not that important. You know what, all of the good restaurants are in the city. Yeah, the schools aren’t great but maybe I have the economic ability to send them to Sidwell Friends or St. Albans School For Boys. So then the focus has started to change where now you have people coming back in to urban areas.
My issue is not to put walls up. I want people to come back in. I think economic development is great because it means more tax dollars into the coffers for the city. But it should not be done at the expense of seniors, long-term District residents and small businesses. You have got to remember that these people are the ones who hung around in these cities during the doldrums of urban life. Now that all o the prosperity is here all of these people are being forced or asked to leave. That’s not right and that is not fair. So we have to figure out a way and formula that does not hurt them and includes them. Because here is what you are competing against. If you are a woman or couple who has a house that has been in your family for forty years, you don’t have a mortgage anymore. You don’t have to worry about a big mortgage payment. You have to pay a cable bill, gas bill, electric bill, phone bill and your property tax. Clearly most people will be able to afford to live and pay those basic bills so how you get them and get them out is to raise their property tax. If you raise their property tax then there are some issues about being able to pay to make that tax payment. So what you do – is the grand scheme. There is nothing we can do about their cable bill, electric bill, gas and phone bills but what we can do is control their property value and taxes, and they have to figure out how to pay that. And a lot of people can’t. So you have developers going to people’s homes saying ‘here is $150,000 or $200,000 for your house’. And it is very difficult for somebody to look at that cash money which is basically going to go right into your pocket because you don’t have to pay off a mortgage, to say no to that. The problem is that once you do that deal – even if it is for $250,000 – you are not living in the District because you can’t afford to get anything new with that amount. You can forget that. You are definitely going to have to move out to Maryland or Virginia. So, there has to be that climate that says ‘Wait a minute, developer, if you are going to do what you are going to do, then fine. But you know what? The city is going to compete for our residents.
So we say, 'You know what Ms. Jones, we see your house is falling down but you have been in the city for how long? You know what, you are capped. Your property tax cannot go up.’ Now new people – their property tax would not be capped. Also, you can develop a plan and a formula to help refurbish that house. Because if you are going to refurbish Ms. Jones' house all of a sudden she is going to make sure that her lawn is mowed; she is going to sweep up outside, she is not going to want people littering on her porch; she is not going to like young people hanging around on her street corner. She is going to take pride in her neighborhood. What is happening now in the neighborhoods is that there is almost an adversarial relationship and situation set up, because you have people coming in with half million dollar home equity loans to refurbish their houses. Their house looks great. Ms. Jones’ house is falling apart and they come from two totally different backgrounds with nothing in common. All the person with the home equity loan is saying is that, ‘you are bringing our property value down’. And Ms. Jones is saying, ‘Wait a minute, I have been here for forty years, I want to stay in my community, please help me stay.’ So there has to be that climate and formula to be able to keep people here that want to stay, as well as letting people come in.
Cedric Muhammad: What do you think that formula is? I have heard Rev. Al Sharpton lay out protecting people from the devaluation of their homes and he called for federally guaranteed home value insurance for homes purchased in empowerment zones to ensure against drops in values and to encourage development in unstable neighborhoods.
Michael Brown: It literally starts with a climate change. You have to change the landscape first. Everything is landscape because you are not going to come in just overnight and say, ‘this is how it is’. You have to change the mindset of developers and residents because right now a lot of the residents – seniors, longtime District residents and small business owners – feel that there is nothing they can do because this particular leadership really doesn’t care if you have to leave. Their issue is bringing in as much tax revenue as possible. And the best way to do it, maybe, is off of the property values and getting people in, who are going to pay higher tax rates. So you first have to change the climate and say, ‘Look that is not what this is going to be about. We want development, we want you to be successful and make as much money as possible but we are going to put a plan in place that is going to enable that everybody in the community benefits from development. So there would be a tax abatement piece for people who have been around and some kind of formula that helps. When you refurbish this house it should not be mandated that people have to put in sub-zero refrigerators in and flat-screen TVs but you do enough so that people feel pride in their city so that they stay, and enough pride in their home so that they are going to make their lawn look like the person next door. They are not going to want a Big Mac container thrown across the street. That is how you build the pride factor. That is how you rebuild community values. Because I remember, going back to when I was growing up, a new neighbor would move into the neighborhood, a group of people would go get a cake and knock on the door and welcome them to the neighborhood. And those things are not happening anymore. And that is where you have the disconnect. There can be kids now that live on the same block, that don’t play together, don’t know each other, because that is not the same as it used to be. That’s why what we have to do is change the climate.
Cedric Muhammad: Now in terms of empowerment zones and enterprise communities what is your take on them as they were and are, and what you like to see in how economic development and growth affects small businesses that are indigenous to the community.
Michael Brown: Well, first of all I am extremely honored to know the original architect, Charlie Rangel from New York. My grandfather gave him his first job in the Hotel Theresa in Harlem. He was a desk clerk. Bill Clinton, clearly took the empowerment zones to another level under the authorship of Charlie Rangel and I think they are important and they are good. They can really make a difference if they are done right. We clearly have not taken advantage of them in the District of Columbia like they have in other cities around the country and again, because of the climate. This leadership (Mayor Anthony Williams’ administration) is not about that. It is not about making the playing field level for folk that need a little help. This leadership is about saying, ‘We need to get as many people that can afford to stay here, in here as possible, and get the poor people out’. And so there is a competition going on. The problem is political leadership decides what street you are going to go down. And until the political leadership is changed, the District of Columbia will continue to change in the way it has (economically in favor of some and not others).
Cedric Muhammad: Historically as you know there was a discussion among Black leaders when the empowerment zones first came out and I know that in the early 1990s Cynthia McKinney, in a sense, was on one side and Charlie Rangel on another; and there was even early talk about the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) being involved, and eventually a legislative compromise was made. My personal critique has been that some of the economic development issues and formulas in the Empowerment Zone and Enterprise Community (EZ/EC) model haven’t been sufficiently married with income tax isues, access to capital issues, etc…in terms of making sure that small businesses are going to be the ones that prosper, when people access opportunities and take advantage of incentives in developmet schemes. In terms of what you just said I would not necessarily say that the problem is just in terms of Mayor Williams, I would say that virtually every major city that I have seen with an empowerment zone and enterprise community ends up with a Blockbuster Video; Starbuck’s; McDonald’s; and Sony/Magic Johnson Theatre. How do you deal with that dynamic more fundamentally than just a focus on a administration that just doesn’t pay attention?
Michael Brown: First of all, most of the real large urban centers in America have African-American owned banks. And the city or municipality should be responsible for putting great levels of funding in those banks. So that those banks can do a lot of community outreach, because their hearts are going to be in the right place. You go to the big banks, it is going to be much more difficult to do it through them. But unless those banks have the revenues to offset the mortgage failures and all of those things we understand, it is going to be very difficult for that piece that you just mentioned to succeed. See, it is easy when you go for a loan and you are a franchisee for a Starbuck’s, to get that loan, because that name Starbuck’s is behind you. So a bank is more likely to take the risk. But the owners of that Mom and Pop store that has been operating at that African-American bank their whole lives, and business life - they are comfortable there, so if that bank had some resources to make sure that Mom and Pop coffee shop stayed open, that would be the climate change I am talking about. These type of things you almost have to force to make happen. But everyone has to make money so clearly everyone has to be responsible and apply the right business principles and run it like a business because if you have failure stories people will point and say ‘See, it didn’t work, you should have had a Starbuck’s!’ Those are the kind of initiatives where you have to have success stories and then the climate continues to change. But unless any leader in any city says, ‘You have to do this with the community banks’ or even put some funds into the bigger banks and say, ‘Start up a small business fund’. Whatever you have to do you can make it work if you want to. These are not ‘doability’ questions. These are political will questions.
Cedric Muhammad: I wanted to talk about your great father and what you have learned from him. Essentially, many of us know the public and political accomplishments and thinking of your father. But how has your relationship with him informed your political worldview and even more fundamentally, your interest in politics.
Michael Brown: Well first of all, people come up to me and tell me how my father had an impact on their life and that is great. And they remember different speeches and different things. All I remember is him yelling at me about cleaning up my room, taking out the trash, taking the dog out, because he was ‘Dad’ to me. Clearly as I have gotten older I appreciate the other things, but that is first. And I hated it like any other kid. I hated to hear the word ‘disappointment’ come out of my parents’ mouth. I would do something stupid and they have to use the phrase, ‘I am disappointed’. That is the worse. You would rather hear anything but that - the ‘d’-word. But what I have learned is a lot of people are underestimating us East of the River, in more challenged neighborhoods in the city. When I say, ‘East of the River’ I mean it more as a term of art rather than literally geographically. I mean it just in terms of more challenged areas in the city. Because there is a value system that my grandfather gave my daddy and my daddy gave me about giving back. We almost have a greater responsibility to give back. And that to me is what has really stuck with me. And some of the things that have really stuck with me, are, for example, how a lot of leadership likes to govern with the heads of particular agencies or departments or whatever. That is not how you are successful. You have to go in the bowels of these places especially in big large bureaucratic places like here, in D.C.. For example, in the first two weeks of my father being Commerce Secretary, as you may or may not remember, all of these old federal buildings used to be heated by coal. And the coal was in the basement. There were people down there who had jobs, but they didn’t have to do much because the places weren’t heated by coal anymore. And my father went down to the basement of the Commerce Department and they were just thrilled to see Secretary Brown come down to say hello. But the place was filthy and nasty. The workers didn’t really have a role, it was about just coming to work and doing what they had to do and going home at 5 o’clock. My dad came and went down there again two weeks later and you could eat your lunch off of the floor. Because these fellows thought, ‘Secretary Brown may be back because he cares about us enough, so we are going to care about him enough and this department enough to do what we need to do to make this place as clean and take as much pride in it as possible.’ So, whether it is the Metropolitan Police Department, because I grew up on the street where the police officer walked the beat and if I or some other kids did something stupid, he didn’t call 911 for backup he went and knocked on your house and talked to your parents. Those again are some of those climate changes where police officers, teachers and all your service providers in the bureaucracy should have a better feel and have more at stake in their job every day, in caring about what happens. And when you govern that way on the staff level, people are more apt to buy-in and move forward the right way rather than walking into somebody’s office and seeing that their 'in-box' is up to the ceiling because they don’t feel like moving the paper today.
And for me, with the boxing and wrestling commission, I took some of that. For example, the old boxing and wrestling commission used to have in the city maybe two or three shows a year. We now try to have two shows a month. And we have been very successful in the city because what we have done is go to the staff and bureaucrats that have to do the licensing and try to inspire them to get things done quicker. Because we want to make it easy for folks to do business not more difficult. So, those are some of the lessons. And one basic lesson that is really from my grandfather is that you talk to everybody. You re not above anybody and you are not beneath everybody and that piece to me is something very important. I was walking to lunch with some peers of ours and there were some Brothers hanging on a poll near a parking garage, and I don’t know if they recognize me because I am Ron Brown’s son or because I am on the Boxing and Wrestling Commission. And so I went over and said hello to them and kept on moving and I got back to my friends and they were like, ‘how do you know them?’ and I was like, ‘I don’t know them’. But that is the point. You go to speak because you are not better than them. And that to me is why we have been so successful connecting with people in different parts of the city. And that is a direct correlation to a value system that was put in me. I am just lucky enough to have a grandfather, father and grandmothers and everybody that instilled values in me and that is how we will keep proceeding. That is how we are going to run this campaign.
Cedric Muhammad: One of the things that I see about your father that I think is fundamentally important for our community to absorb is, to me, he represents a nexus between business and politics, that I still think the community needs to appreciate more. Do you see that same factor and maybe in your own person, do you think you represent a new generation that is able to govern according to an appreciation of both worlds.
Michael Brown: I certainly hope so. I think there seems to be a myth that the older generation doesn’t like the grooming process. They want to be the one that is doing it until they are dragged out of something, and so there is that competition between that young crowd and that older crowd. So with that, there is a real challenge, we could talk again just on whether or not that is a myth or whether that is a reality. But clearly it is something we have to deal with. And I think how we do that is first of all, you have to embrace that we are all standing on someone else’s shoulders. That is first. Because I think a lot of our peers tend to act as if they have accomplished what they have, on their own. But I guarantee you that somebody opened a door somewhere. We need to appreciate that. The second thing is to use the things that you have experienced from your age group to help you get to the next level. For example, a lot of our problem as a people is historical too. I guess we can be considered an immigrant group. But a lot of immigrant groups – take African Americans out for a second – their first responsible act is that they would go and put their money in the center of the dining room table and they would split it up and say, ‘you go and open up a grocery store, you go an open up a cleaners, you go and open up a pharmacy, you go to college’, whatever the division of labor and specialization was. And then when they were successful they would bring their money back to the pot. It was almost a self-supporting thing. In our culture it was different. Obviously slavery was one thing, and the share-cropping was next. And it was only like so many people could share-crop so it was very competitive and that is where that crab out of the barrel mentality started with us. And of course it started back in slave days with certain people being allowed in the house and others not being allowed in the house. But in Africa, as Kings and Queens we ran things. I go to Africa all of the time and it is still unbelievable to see presidents and bank owners they still have to report to other places in Europe. But basically people were still running things that look like us. But here, slavery was totally different, and whether it is dignity or crabs out of a barrel, we have been fighting that battle for a long time, so when you get people – whether in business or politics, when it is there turn to step up, it is difficult because the old generation is like , ‘Naw, not until I am ready to go’.
Cedric Muhammad: Last question, D.C., as you know is commonly referred to as ‘Chocolate City’, but some, like our mutual friend Matsimela Mapfumo (Mark Thompson) are saying it is increasingly becoming a 'Vanilla Village'. And people in the community talk a lot about D.C. statehood and their belief that because the District does not have representation it strips the masses of some of their rights. The license plates show ‘Taxation Without Representation’.
But D.C. statehood is also an important issue to Black Americans throughout the country because with this city having a Black majority, and special history, it is felt that some unique and unprecedented things could occur for our people as a whole, if the District became the 51st state in the Union. And then, the issue of reparations, in light of what you just said about the depth of Black slavery and its relevance to today. I know you are only considering running for Mayor, but I wanted to know for the record, how do you view the issue of D.C. statehood and reparations in the context of our history as a people?
Michael Brown: Well, first of all on statehood. I wish I had mentioned that earlier because that is one of the things that we care about a lot. It is a core issue. And I think frankly it should be on the to-do list of every elected official in the city. And I think how you do that again is a climate change. All kids that go to school in the District of Columbia, should have some form of civics class on what statehood is all about. Because as they grow, statehood should be part of the conversations they have with people in Nebraska, for example. Because to get a constitutional amendment passed you need 38 states and two-thirds of the House and Senate to approve it. So it does not matter what we think here inside of the beltway, it clearly matters what other folks out in Omaha, Nebraska and the Dakotas and California think of statehood. So if we are fortunate to run a successful campaign for office and win we are going to have a fully funded statehood office that is going to focus on nothing else except educating folks around the country on why statehood is so important. Reparations is obviously a trickier answer and question. Obviously there needs to be some formula – whether payment or leveling of the playing field – figured out by smarter academic professionals who would try to arrive at some definition of what reparations are. Clearly folks that - whether it is affirmative action, or set aside programs for minority businesses - claim that the playing field is level, are not living in a real world. Race still plays a role in everyday life in America. If you and I can walk around in suits and stuff and can still feel like we are invisible, according to Ralph Ellison, you better believe that we have Brothers who have no hope who clearly feel they are invisible. And they are trying to make themselves visible because of that life we talked about earlier. So, yeah, I think there should be some form of reparations, what it is I have absolutely no idea. How that would take shape I have absolutely no idea, and when that would happen I would have no idea. How you would determine who is eligible I have no idea. Because a lot of cultures are watered down with other ethnic groups, so it is difficult. But do I think there needs to continue be things like affirmative action and set aside programs for minority and set aside programs? Yes.
Cedric Muhammad: Do you think D.C. is a microcosm of sorts? Because there is a school of thought that if a lot of things are done right in Washington, D.C. it constitutes a form of repair for an entire people because of the make-up of the population and because of the District’s historical ties to slavery – in places like Georgetown etc…
Michael Brown: Well, it should. But again, there has to be a climate change and landscape change. And until that occurs I don’t think that D.C. really is any different than anywhere else except for when I was growing up D.C. was the ‘mecca’ for African-American owned business. There was no other place. If you lived anywhere in America and you had a cement company, you came to D.C. to live because you could get everything. You could probably get a contract. You could probably live in a neighborhood with squirrels running around and some trees. You could get your kids educated. It was a great place to live. Now people are going to every other city but D.C., if you are a person of color. Because the playing field is not level like it used to be here. There isn’t that caring of saying, ‘we are going to make sure it works here’. And until that leadership changes we are going to continue to walk down that road of what your friend called, ‘The Vanilla Village’.
Cedric Muhammad: Thank You very much Michael.
[Part One of This Exclusive Interview Is Available At: http://www.blackelectorate.com/articles.asp?ID=1305]
Monday, February 21, 2005