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.”
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.