The D.C. Council's Family Business Home rule is now old enough to have spawned a generation of legacy pols. What do they tell us about the District?

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Photo by Darrow Montgomery

Earlier this year, At-Large Councilmember Michael A. Brown organized a youth summit that featured pep talks from minor celebrities like the winner of Survivor: Cook Islands, as well as cameos by a few of Brown’s fellow District politicians. The entertainment included a fashion show with models wearing clothes from the Gap that were supposed to show how you could be cool and office-appropriate at the same time. Council Chairman Kwame Brown did some modeling himself, vamping on the runway in sunglasses, a black shirt, a yellow tie, and blue jeans. The emcee remarked several times that Brown had “swag.” Afterward, both pols gave speeches about the importance of helping the next generation.

The episode was one of those goofy, feel-good events elected officials everywhere do every day. But for both Browns (no relation) there’s an obvious correlation between trying to help the next generation and their own stories. Michael and Kwame, as well as their colleague Harry Thomas Jr., represent the D.C. Council’s trio of legacy legislators, pols whose fathers played their own significant roles in politics. Michael’s father, Ron Brown, was commerce secretary under President Bill Clinton. Kwame’s dad, Marshall Brown, is a longtime campaign organizer and was a lieutenant to former Mayor Marion Barry. Thomas’ dad had the same Ward 5 seat his son now has. (Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser is also the daughter of an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner, a somewhat smaller position.)

In a city that won the right to govern itself only in the 1970s, the very fact of a second generation of politicians represents something of a milestone. But in a town where the local democracy stands as an achievement of the civil rights movement, the existence of political dynasties also represents something of a conundrum: How to reconcile the movement’s ideals of equality with the spectacle of candidates getting a leg up thanks to their family name.

Legacy, of course, knows no party or race: Chicago has its Daleys, Ohio has its Tafts, and the United States of America—alas—has its Bushes. Now Washington has its own dynasts, too. But before we declare that the advent of multigenerational politics means the capital has become just like the rest of the country, it’s worth pausing to examine the three specific men who carry their various family mantles. A close look at their political ascents and their current challenges can tell you a lot about the District.

The contradictions inherent in how we talk about our legacy legislators might be unique to Washington. On the one hand, there’s a fealty to history—in the District’s case, to the noble movement that enabled home rule. Political strategists say each of the legacy legislators’ strongest support comes from older African Americans who remember both the bad old days and the names of the folks who helped end them. “You can’t deny that this is the next group of people stepping in,” says former Ward 1 Councilmember Frank Smith Jr., who’s also a veteran of the civil rights movement and now runs the African American Civil War Memorial Freedom Foundation and Museum. “The public is counting on them, I’m counting on them, to get this right.” Smith adds: “They come from good stock, they’re going to have good futures ahead of them.”

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On the other hand, there’s the notion that running a municipal government is inherently nonidealistic. For all the talk about their history, the legacy legislators are the sons of officials whose careers involved the unromantic work of raising political funds, apportioning budgets, or lining up get-out-the-vote efforts—stuff that doesn’t lend itself to March on Washington rhetoric, no matter how noble the pol. Growing up, these sons were liable to have learned just as much about the short-term art of the deal as about the long-term arc of justice; politics, as the cliché goes, is the art of the possible. It’s a lesson their critics say they’ve overlearned. “The three of them have strayed from the path,” says former At-Large Councilmember Bill Lightfoot. “They believe there are certain perks that come with elected office and they are entitled to those perks.”

For all the differences among the three legacy legislators, 2011 has brought their similarities into focus. To varying degrees, all three have found themselves politically embattled during this year of municipal scandals. Also to varying degrees, they’ve benefited from public sympathy attached to their family histories. “Their fathers were political heroes when that war was being waged,” says Lawrence Guyot, a longtime civil rights and community activist.

At a time when the city’s demographics are changing fast, it’s not clear whether that goodwill is enough. The answer may reveal even more about the District’s evolving political culture. But it’ll also depend on the unique men who are Washington’s three political sons.

Our Readers Say

The problem with this second generation is that they're too young and stupid to know that they're young and stupid.

My bet: at least 1 out of these three "legacies" will be indicted by the Feds.

DC will never become a top-tier city until it rids itself of this generation of tailcoat riders who've done nothing on their own, other than try to live outside their daddies' shadows.
The DC City Council has become a Jurassic Park for mediocre and morally bankrupt elected officials. With some very limited exceptions of course. The City needs an infusion of dedicated and authentic public servants. Term limits, no outside employment, establish a revolving door policy, and real oversight over constituent service funds would help. Also, residents need to get over their party loyalties and elect folks that are committed to really serving the public with integrity and honesty. Harry Thomas should resign. Kwame Brown is a real joke. The man has no substance. Michael Brown has no record. Marion Barry should have retired sometime ago. Jim Graham needs to allow others to lead, time to move on. And so on...trust me; time for new, diverse, and dynamic leadership is upon us.
Our great city will never achieve statehood, budget autonomy, and full voting rights as long as we continue to elect the equivalent of corrupt Middle Eastern and African dictators to represent us in the City Council. This city is really a case to be studied, what type of population elects an ex con, supports someone who steals from the public, and admires someone who on their first weeks of becoming the leader of an elected body is more worried about having a fully loaded nav as opposed to creating jobs and reforming our education system first. Kwame Brown give it up, you are finished.
To hell with legacies! WTF is this, a monarchy??? Fukk you HTJ. You are heading to the slammer!
I agree with you-Francis Walsingham,The DC City Council has become a Jurassic Park for mediocre and morally bankrupt elected officials. But just last Tuesday, the District's production Data Center located in Reston Virginia was knock down by human error. This outage affected all of the agencies's ability to conduct city business. Not one report has gone out to the users explaining what happen and the mediocre management at OCTO is still smiling. Why? because District taxpayers are working at construction jobs-if they can get one. I am moving to Virginia or Maryland the likehood of getting a high paying job in the District is more likely than living in the District-we just want to work constuction!
Kwame Brown may well have a chance come January to find out how well his family name will protect him . I'm certainly going to sign a recall petition and will ask others to do it. Harry Thomas Jr should resign and spare his family and friends the pain of seeing him indicted for criminal malfeasance. It's sad to think how hard it is to see the son of a hero behave so badly.
danmac, HTJ should not only resign immediately, he also should go directly to the slammer. No deals
The ones who are "young and stupid" are all the dog-walking, bike-loving "urbanist" twits who think they know it all and wanna' remake this place place just like Portland or New York or whereever they came from. They don't understand the history, culture, the vibe of DC. As Marion says, "to the victors belong the spoils." For me, he will always be The Mayor! Stop trashin' DC!
Yea, real smart Al, it should remain a "ghetto" as your pal marion calls it. I was here before Marion Barry and I am all for bike lanes, parks etc. WTF is wrong with improving the city idiot?
When I think of legacy, I think of young men and women who honor the sacrifices and struggles of their families by elevating their stature in the community. Most often achieved through education, entrepreneurship or great service to the public, the Browns and HTJ are just lucky, dim-witted, morally bankrupt thugs elected to public office to satisfy the greed and business interests of their handlers. They represent entitlement at its worst. This behavior preceded their foray into the public arena. HTJ profited from his father's position. He just barely managed to graduate from college and is given a $150+ annual salary? Michael Brown was screwing his law school mates while his wife was at home taking care of two crying babies! Kwame spends so much time pumping funny looking white girls, I'm surprised he even absorbed the lessons of the likes of Ivanhoe Donaldson! Make no mistake, these fools are no legacy. They represent the tragic consequences of an electorate willing to sell their votes for Thanksgiving dinner giveaways and chicken sandwiches from Popeye's. God help us all...
Al,

You post has to be a joke right? You wrote it in jest...

Because there is no way anyone other than a semi conscious crack head could possibly defend the lying, stealing and pure graft of these guys by calling it "the vibe" of the city.

These young bike loving urbanists also happen to be highly educated and highly paid; and responsible for the enormous influx of property tax and income tax funds into the DC treasury that goes to pay for all you so called "culture".

You can thank them for you your monthly food stamps and subsidized taxpayer rent. Thankfully your ilk is now the minority in the District.
I have no confidence in the DC Council, DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes-Norton, and Mayor Vincent Gray. All mentioned are not serving the DC voters. Many are corrupt and are serving themselves. Let me say this, it's not only black DC Councilmembers alleged to be corrupt. There are several white DC Councilmembers with allegations of corruption against them. Stop making this about race. Politicians come in all races and ethnic groups. I am not a Marion Barry fan, but I am sick of white folks constantly throwing Marion Barry's name up in the face of Washingtonians. Most of you racist whites don't live in the District and some do. All black DC residents didn't vote or support Marion Barry. What will you do, once the man is dead? Who will you talk about them? Will you talk about George Bush or Bill Clinton having oral sex performed on him in the Oval office? I have no faith in any politicians regardless of race because most don't seem to serve their constituents and voters.
If all y'all here bitching about the quality of the representation on the council are serious, there's a solution every 4 years. It's called an election. If these admittedly sub-par politician's keep getting elected, well, then that's the will of the voters. Term limits, which Francis Walsingham suggested above, are just a cop out. They deprive the people of the oppurtunity to vote for who they want (if, indeed, the majority of voters do want to keep the incumbent in). If folks are so apathetic that they can't get enough people out to vote new blood in, well, then they get the government they deserve. Tough shit.
@KappaNupe, the person who brought up Barry was Al, above. But maybe it actually was a joke. This article is about HTJ and the Browns, whom I presume are all black. Circumstance. However, HTJ is most likely guilty of criminal acts, punishable by time in the slammer, and that is where he should be.
DC politics are the worst. Pathetic. Sad. What we have here a re a bunch of egos with no real drive other than their own deluded self-interest. Many right on comments here, especially Francis'.
Whenever I read the latest news about DC's corruption-ridden leadership, I think, "This is why we can't have nice things." There's a simple solution, one already enacted in the 1830s for what's now Northern Virginia: retrocession. Let's give the District back to Maryland. Everything east of the Anacostia can go the PG County, and the rest to Montgomery County. Then we could have two cities, with some state money to help. Whatever buildings and parks owned by the Federal government could remain under Federal control. I used to love this city; now it's just a joke.
I've only been in the District a few months, and may be returning to China soon, but I feel the taxi medallion bill may result in higher costs for us consumers. Compare prices of DC taxis with Montgomery County, New York, Baltimore, and other places where there is a semi-monopoly on taxi licenses. Our prices in DC are much lower because there is competition and freedom for anyone to be a driver. Taxi fares in Montgomery County are almost twice as much as in DC. I know because I use taxis in both jurisdictions...
I hope that we can keep the current free enterprise system in our city....
Gary
I've only been in the District a few months, and may be returning to China soon, but I feel the taxi medallion bill may result in higher costs for us consumers. Compare prices of DC taxis with Montgomery County, New York, Baltimore, and other places where there is a semi-monopoly on taxi licenses. Our prices in DC are much lower because there is competition and freedom for anyone to be a driver. Taxi fares in Montgomery County are almost twice as much as in DC. I know because I use taxis in both jurisdictions...
I hope that we can keep the current free enterprise system in our city....
Gary
I question the premise that Harry Thomas Sr. did a great job at providing constituent service as Ward 5 councilmember. His office continually failed to respond to my requests for service. I finally had to ask an unpaid ANC commissioner for help (getting a new SuperCan when ours was stolen -- and remember, Harry headed the DPW oversight committee), because Harry's office wouldn't respond. And I didn't even have an ANC commissioner at the time, so I needed to ask someone who didn't even represent me. So much for Harry Thomas Sr. and his constituent service!
Greetings -

Does anyone have any suggestions about viable candidates who are above reproach, and in good moral and financial standing who can occupy council seats in D.C. government?

It is very sad that some people think they own their public office, rather than being true public servants...being a public servant means sacrificing and giving much of one's self to the people you serve, not enriching yourself.

But human nature being what it is, so many of us forget our roots, and our original goal of helping others who are truly in need, and making our community a better place...

In fairness, it is very easy to be distracted by all the fawning news media attention, the butt-kissing, gift-giving, slick salespersons (lobbyists and government contractors), those who want jobs, favors, and special attention, not to mention the psychos, sickos, and weirdos who gravitate toward those in "government" and politics...it takes someone of unusually strong character and high ideals to "stay the course" and keep some degree of integrity and devotion to the public interest...

That is the danger of "one party" rule, of big city (or state or even national one-party regimes), like Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall, NYC, the Daley dynasty of Chicago (go Bulls! go Bears! Go Blackhawks! go White Sox and Cubs!), the Byrd Machine of Virginia, Huey Long and his brothers of Louisiana, and various dictatorships and single-party regimes around the world: without competition and a free press, it is easy to get too comfortable as rulers and give in to the omnipresent temptations of the lobbyists, contractors, job-seeking friends and family members, and favor-seeking political donors and campaign workers.

Washington, D.C. has been a one-party town for such a long time, maybe it would be good to have more diversity and competition in our local politics!

Gary J. Minter
garyjminter@alumni.duke.edu


Puppet governments by dynasty or affiliation has never worked that well in governments, and doesn't even work that well in families.

Americans should think twice about term limits to prevent gravitating toward remote rule by puppet kings controlled by king makers; just look at British ancient history and what they went through, including America's own Revolution.

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