Kwame Brown's Debts Might Not Matter to D.C. Voters In the D.C. Council chairman's race, personal finances could be a minor issue

What’s In Your Wallet?: D.C. Council chairman candidate Kwame Brown hopes voters don’t care about his debts.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery

If a member of the D.C. Council ever asks to borrow money and promises to pay you back, look them squarely in the eye and give them a firm “no.” Then run away.

Because otherwise, there’s a good chance you’ll never get your money back.

But that’s pretty obvious. The bigger question is: Should you—or rather, will you—vote for a councilmembers who can’t pay their bills?

Take the case of big-spending Kwame Brown, the at-large councilmember who’s running to be the next council chairman. Brown is up to his eyeballs in debt after a prolonged spending spree—that records and recent published accounts show included boats, luxury cars, and a Harley Davidson motorcycle—and wound up being sued by three credit card companies for more than $50,000. Public records show Brown also had four outstanding speeding tickets from his college days in Maryland in the early ’90s he never bothered to pay, and three unpaid District parking tickets from 2005. (Brown has since sold many of the luxury rides, including the Harley, and his campaign spokesman says the parking tickets are “being taken care of.”)

Brown isn’t the only member of the council’s scofflaw club, but he is the only one running for chairman. The position gives him the biggest megaphone for setting the city’s financial priorities, and news of Brown’s personal financial mismanagement has some at the Wilson Building spooked at the prospect of his taking charge of the city’s $5.2 billion budget at a time when the city’s finances are on shaky ground.

“People are scared around here,” said one Wilson Building insider.

And the disclosure of Brown’s personal financial failings isn’t doing anything to help the perception shared by some of his colleagues on the council that the personable and politically astute Brown lacks what one councilmember called “gravitas.”

“Kwame is pretty much retail,” said the councilmember, who didn’t want to be quoted by name bashing a candidate who has won the endorsement of almost the entire council (including this member). “There’s no there there.”

Anonymous potshots aside, though, do any voters care? Conventional wisdom had Brown on the easy road to victory over former Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent Orange. Have Brown’s chances come down a peg or two after news of his personal financial problems surfaced?

History, guide us!

Probably the closest parallel to Brown’s situation is Eleanor Holmes Norton’s run for Congress in 1990, in which a late disclosure that her now ex-husband failed to pay the couple’s taxes for nearly a decade cost her the support of many voters west of Rock Creek Park.

Philip Pannell, president of the Congress Heights Community Association in Ward 8, was a campaign aide to Norton during that race and remembers white, affluent voters in Ward 3 being furious at Norton over her financial problems. “They raked her over the coals,” he said. But Pannell said black voters—especially women—were much more sympathetic, and voted for her by large margins to help her win the election.

“They remember Eleanor being a strong, black woman whose husband had fucked her up,” Pannell said. “A lot of them can relate to that.”

Pannell thinks there will be a similar divide in Brown’s situation, a viewed shared by several other political observers privately.

Sure enough, Brown got an almost rock-star like greeting from his supporters at a forum in Ward 8 Monday, the day after The Washington Post splashed his debt problems on the front page of the Metro section. And when he answered a question about his financial problems by talking about his accomplishments on the council and saying he probably spent “too much” time working to improve communities, Team Kwame gave him a 30-second long ovation.

Then again, Brown is in fairly good company in the wonderful world of District politics. Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. is being sued by the federal government for failing to pay $5,000 in student loan debt from the early 1980s. The feds are seeking more than $16,000, including interest and attorney fees. He also has five speeding tickets in Maryland of his own that he hasn’t paid, according to court records. (Thomas blamed “administrative errors” for both the student loan lawsuit and the outstanding tickets.)

Meanwhile, The Washington Times reported recently that At-Large Councilmember Michael A. Brown was slapped with a federal lien, too, for owing more than $50,000 in unpaid income taxes. Brown told the Times he’s close to paying off those debts and has done nothing wrong.

And, of course, there’s Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry, who has failed to pay both taxes and credit card debts. Barry has landed in hot water with the feds on numerous occasions for not filing tax returns, and lost a lawsuit last summer over $10,712.57 in unpaid credit card costs, records show. (Even with the courts siding in their favor, a lawyer for the credit card company tells LL he doubts his client will be repaid—because so many creditors sit ahead of them in the Barry wage-garnish line).

But Thomas’s student loan and ticket problems are kind of a yawner. Michael Brown’s tax lien looks kind of lame, and he’s not even up for re-election this year. And Loose Lips is willing to bet enough money to put himself into (more) debt that the mighty oak of Marion Barry’s political legacy won’t be felled by mere reports of unpaid credit card debts. (Meanwhile, voters don’t even seem to be giving Ward 1’s Jim Graham any hint of electoral trouble over allegations that his former chief of staff, Ted Loza, took bribes to promote taxicab legislation.)

So while Kwame Brown may have company in his need for a stern talking to from Suze Orman, he’s likely the only one whose problems may become a campaign issue. That’s because his opponent, Vincent Orange, plans on making it one.

“I’m going to keep talking about it because it is an issue. At the end of the day I’m talking about leadership, maturity and accountability and he has not demonstrated that in his past activity,” Orange, who has a law degree and is a certified public accountant, told LL. His angle: Brown isn’t the guy the city wants representing it before Congress and Wall Street bond rating agencies.

That message will surely resonate with some voters, but almost as surely won’t be enough to derail Brown’s campaign all by itself. Orange wasn’t taken particularly seriously when he ran for mayor in 2006, and won only 2.9 percent of the vote.

Perhaps working to Orange’s advantage is that the city and media will be focused so intently on an exciting mayoral race that the Brown’s debt will be the only thing people remember in the chairman race. “[Brown] runs the risk in this low-information election of this being all people know about him,” said one political consultant who is not involved with either campaign.

Which means Brown has a whole two months with, basically, only one task: to get voters thinking about something besides debt when they hear his name.

Haven’t I Seen You on TV?

LL readers who own television sets may have seen the first set of political ads of the season, featuring Mayor Adrian Fenty’s supporters speaking directly to the camera. The ads feature lines like, “Some people say… Adrian Fenty doesn’t play well with others,” “doesn’t listen to the community,” “that Adrian has changed, that he’s arrogant,” or some other variation of the theme.

The supporters then go on to refute those claims, and point to specific projects that Fenty has backed as proof that Hizzoner is focused on getting results.

Why bring up the very things Vincent Gray is busy bashing Fenty for? Sean Madigan, a Fenty campaign spokesman, says the ads aim to correct “misimpressions” voters who don’t closely follow politics may have of the mayor.

With a $3 million war chest, expect to see plenty more ads before the Sept. 14 primary. Gray campaign spokeswoman Traci Hughes says they’re also planning ads, but there’s no set schedule for their debut. (For clues, check Gray’s fundraising schedule.)

The admaker behind the 15-second Fenty spots is Bill Hillsman, of North Woods Advertising in Minneapolis. Hillsman’s claim to fame are the quirky ads he made for the late Sen. Paul Wellstone and former wrestler and Minnesota governor, Jesse “The Body” Ventura. Hillman also made ads for Fenty’s 2006 campaign.

Asked what Ventura and Fenty have in common, Hillsman said: “They both know what they want to get done, they both have very little patience for government bureaucracy...and they are both bald.”

Beat Poisoner reax

LL got some pretty nice compliments from his fellow scribes on his first column, detailing how “spectacularly dysfunctional” Fenty’s press operation is. Not a fan: Fenty spokeswoman Mafara Hobson. LL asked her a pretty routine question (through email, as she prefers) this week, and got this response: “You’re not serious? This is a joke, right?”

We’ll take that as a no comment. Note to Hobson: LL never jokes—ever.

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Our Readers Say

It doesn't matter to this voter because Brown repeatedly produces positive results for District residents. His record speaks for itself. I'd be interested to know the back story on Vince Orange's Pepco resignation. It seems odd to me that a perpetual campaigner (who is constantly on the losing end) would leave his executive gig to run for office yet again. I can only assume that he's a "friend" of the utility giant. Reviewing my bill assures me that I can't afford (literally) to have "friends" like him leading the council. That prospect is more problmatic for me than a chairman who is liberal with his personal credit card.
Kwame Brown has zero substance. The idea of Kwame Brown becoming Council Chair should frighten anyone who cares about DC. Kwame Brown has repeatedly lied on the campaign trail, dating back to his first run in 2004.
Kwame is all STYLE and no SUBSTANCE. think we can even dream of statehood with him a the healm? hardly! congress sees him as the typical dc politician, which he is.

now that there is blood in the water, we are just waiting for his mistress to come out in the press. might need to get a miami phone book for that one though.
In 1990, Eleanor (read black female) defeated Betty Ann (read white female) with the strong support of the old Barry machine. The whisper campaign engineered by the Barry machine was that black DC could not elect a white person to represent itself in Congress. Eleanor won by 7,000 votes in a high election turnout.

In 2010, self absorbed Kwame does not have the background or reputation that Eleanor had in 1990. Kwame's little boy approach to winning the Chair's race is that he is young, cute, loaded with a ton of false modesty and he is not Vincent Orange. That may be enough but I think DC voters are catching on to him!
If DC elects Kwame Brown after all of his financial woes, then we will get what we deserve.
Bad choices for Council Chair. I wanted to support Kwame, but it is impossible for me to do so now. This personal irresponsibility is pretty serious. If he can't take care of his own money, how can he take care of ours?
Since another council member is a convicted felon, Kwame's troubles probably won't phase a slim majority of DC voters. Many likely have massive personal debt themselves (relative to income) and likely view it as getting theirs from The Man (aka Mr. Charlie). Other DC voters who feel queasy at these problems need to consider VA and MD, DC may be changing but it ain't changed much.
I don't get it, the folks who are chastising a mayor who is delivering the things that have not been delivered in this city in years because he is not a people person or doesn't come and hang out with you are now upset because a candidate has personal debt but is supporting him. The fact of the matter is that Kwame will be chair because Vincent is so back and forth that it is crazy. This whole issue is because Gray has an ego and is trying to gain popularity. We have a mayor that has gotten things done and instead of trying to work with him, Gray decided to now break up a working city to make a bigger name for him self.
Putting Councilmember Kwame Brown (another kwame kilpatrick. former mayor of detroit, now in jail)is like putting the fox in charge of the hen house. Would you trust this person with your checking account? The DC budget is over 5 billion dollars, and he will not be able to analyze the data and interpret the meaning of this kind of money correctly. We will be headed back to the control board days sooner than later.
Councilmember Kwame Brown has an outstanding track record. He has been out in the community assisting the residents. He is a advocate for youth. I believe Kwame Brown will be a great Council chairman. He has more knowledge, skill and intergrity than Vincent Orange. Cheers for Kwame!!!!! Please leave his personal finances out of this race.
Kwame Brown's personal finances are just that personal. He is just like many of us who were not given a crystal ball in 2008 when the ENTIRE WORLD went into financial crisis. KB is not unlike countless friends and colleagues of mine who have had personal financial issues. If we can all look past this small speed bump and focus on KB record as a DC Councilmen I think it would greatly benefit the District. I am not changing my vote, because Kwame bought a bike. Get over yourselves and realize that Vincent Orange can scream CPA from the top of his lungs but can't govern anything.
When debt is a result from an unforeseen incident...then the sympathy vote would be likely. But when you are knowingly spending, buying and charging then a vote of "no" will be more likely. One thing I know in regards to the Orange household...the wife is quite frugal when it came to spending. Really, when you think about it when Orange was on the council...the most elaborate thing I ever seen him wear was that eye-catching "5" pen on his lapel.
This is one voter who wasn't going to vote for Kwame Brown before this outrageous and irresponsible behavior was exposed. Two years ago, I sponsored a girl softball team and needed money to buy my team shoes. I raised half the money and put up the rest. I reached out to my councilmembers, and Kwame pledged $100. I never saw this money, but he was given credit and a thank you note from the team members for his pledge. I hadn't forgotten that Kwame was one of three elected to stop the financing of the baseball stadium. Marion Barry and Vincent Gray were the other two. After the election, they forgot why they were put into office. And neither has done anything to further the interests of city residents. I will reluctantly vote for Vincent Orange because Kwame is not an option. The debt alone is not the worse thing; it is his failing to address the problem and resolving it before the credit card companies took him to Court. If a leader fails to address a problem before it becomes a crisis, where does that leave this city? Unprotected. Kwame is not ready for prime time. He should be recalled rather than elected as chair. Anyone interested?
@Southwest Resident Preach!
When I saw that Kwame was running for the Chair...and did not see not one other councilmember "seriously" consider the vacant position. I was wondering was Kwame the sacrificial lamb or sorts. I am telling you what you see on cable as in regards to the hearings is no way indicative when it comes to viewing the actual hearing in person. The body language from the other councilmembers in regards to Kwame is an eye-opener. My question is, do our councilmembers get random drug tests...I am just saying birds of a feather....?

Also I would love to see the fraternization return to the Council. With Orange being an Alpha and Fenty being a Kappa...what will the Sigma's and Q-dogs gonna do?

Get to steppin!!!!
It's really weird that no one in Ward One seems concerned about Teddy Llosa. I STILL don't understand how you can be under indictment for influence peddling, but your boss is not-- it begs the questions, exactly whose influence were you peddling? LL's predecessor (who also seemed to be interested in cultivating not the kudos of his peers over slapping the face of the people who provide news intel, but rather the, um, people who provide news intel)did a great job of keeping on top of Boss Graham's exploits. It seems like now would be a great time to remind voters about these exploits, especially since we're taking down other Council front runners with personal finance issues, rather than public ones. While I don't think it's okay to mismanage your finances, I certainly can sympathize (given our current economic outlook) with errant student loans and credit card debt. Not so much bribery, pomposity and cronyism. Can you try to dig a little deeper on Ward One, please? Maybe we'll get an actual council race, too.
Kwame is personable and I wish i could support him. But he's been an irresponsible deadbeat with respect to multiple creditors. His lavish personal spending (instead of paying back money he owed) make him too big of a risk to manage/oversee DC's budget during a fincial downturn.

And according to numerous recent published articles, he's been linked to Gray/Barry/Thomas and their shady lottery contract deal with Gray/Barry cronies. If the IG investigation establishes Brown did in fact aid and abett Gray's lottery steering scheme, that would be far worse, in my view, than Kwame's financial irresponsibility.
I'm going with performance on the job as well as the two options. Brown or Orange. I'm going with Brown. His personal finances is not an issue for me. That's an issue with his wife. She took the vow for richer or poorer, better or worse. I didn't co-sign a damn thing and really don't know the circumstances of how he got into such debt. It's too bad that it has happened, but my concern is whether or not he is following the law and protecting district taxpayer dollars.
What about the CFO at CSOSA? he has not been able to bring in a "clean" audit opinion. And where is CSOSA's and PDS' FY 2009 audited financial statement? Ask the City Council why the CFO at CSOSA remains with such a performance. Personal finances are one thing, but for District Agencies, it is important for them to fully disclose their finances. Too bad the media is letting this issue go unaswered. By the way, can anyone find any employee on CSOSA's website associated with their Finance Department?
Kwame Brown will take us back to the control board as he is unable to manage DC finances and by the time we figure out how much DC money he has spent, the city will be broke. Clearly this man is not mature enough for the Chairmanship position and any of its responsibilities. The fact he is in debt shows poor judgment on overspending on luxury items and the second fact that he let it go to the extreme of being sued before he sold some of the luxury items and got himself on a budget. Kwame is not dealing with issues but living in a fantasy land. Vote Orange.
@ Robert Porter

CSOSA is a Federal agency, as such the Council has absolutely no oversight role. Go ask the Feds...but get your facts straight first!
CSOSA is one of the agencies that the DC government has yet to get from out under federal receivership.

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