Several months after Thomas Sr. died in 1999, his son was hired as a vice president of public affairs at D.C. General Hospital. Thomas told the Post he was hired because of his public-affairs background, not because of his father.
It clearly still bothers Thomas that people believe he’s ridden his father’s coattails. (Like Kwame Brown, Thomas wouldn’t be interviewed for this story.) At a council hearing earlier this year into the hiring of a handful of children of senior officials in the Gray administration, Thomas repeatedly gave rambling, almost nonsensical defenses of the hires.
“People said I got here only because of my father,” said Thomas. “I’ve understood what it is standing in the shadow of someone who has consistently tried to say that nepotism existed in the things I’ve accomplished, and I’ve had to do what I’ve had to do to prove that wrong.”
But Thomas has given his critics a lifetime’s supply of ammunition with his recent legal troubles. Earlier this summer, he agreed to pay the city back $300,000 after the attorney general sued him for allegedly stealing city funds earmarked for youth-baseball programs and spending the money on a luxury SUV and golf outings, among other things. Like Brown, Thomas has also attached the attention of federal prosecutors.
Thomas maintains he’s not done anything wrong. He’s been relying on the goodwill his family has built up to see him through. How long that goodwill can last is an open question. There’s plenty of chatter about a recall in his ward; possible candidates are already quietly lining up support in the event he leaves office.
The story of Michael Brown’s political legacy is on a different level than that of Kwame Brown or Harry Thomas Jr. Michael Brown comes from black political royalty. His father, aside from being President Clinton’s secretary of commerce, was a millionaire lawyer and lobbyist and the first black chair of the Democratic National Committee. A street downtown and a middle school in the District are both named after Ron Brown, who was killed in a plane crash in 1996. His son can tell stories of crisscrossing the country with presidents, working on presidential campaigns with the likes of George Stephanopoulos, and warming up a giant crowd at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion the day before Michael Dukakis lost the 1988 election.
Unlike Thomas, Michael Brown is at ease assuming the legacy of his father. Or at least he says he is.
“I don’t live my life trying to step out of his shadow. I kind of like his shadow because he did such great work,” says Brown during an interview in his council office, which is filled with pictures of his father, including an old Pepsi ad featuring Ron Brown as a child, one of the first directed to black families. “My father had a very strong influence on my life. If he was a dentist, I’d probably be a dentist.”
Brown’s easygoing demeanor doesn’t mean he doesn’t carefully guard his image. When I once wrote on Twitter that my Google alert for “Michael Brown” was useless (because it’s such a common name), his chief of staff called me a few moments later to make sure I wasn’t mocking Brown.
It’s easy to see why Brown would be a little touchy about his rep. The comparisons between father and son haven’t always been kind to Michael, who’s been knocked for not being as smart and ambitious as his übersuccessful dad. That perception hasn’t been helped by Brown’s relatively modest legislative accomplishments and the fact that he had to drop his Democratic Party registration and declare himself an independent to win a seat on the council after losing bids for mayor and the Ward 4 seat.
“I’m always surprised Michael made it,” says one Wilson Building wag who knew Ron Brown. “I never really thought he wanted it that much.”
But while Ron Brown is best, and correctly, remembered as a major player in national politics, he was always interested and involved to some degree in local affairs, Michael Brown says. Michael says it was his father’s time at the Urban League working on social issues where Ron developed key contacts with “old-school pols,” as Michael describes them, such as former Council Chairmen Sterling Tucker, John Wilson, and David Clarke and Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis.
Those ties led to Ron Brown’s being named chairman of the board for the newly formed University of the District of Columbia. His local ties extended into District business, as well. While a partner at Patton Boggs, Brown set up a side business as minority contractor to a firm that sold supplemental retirement programs to District-government employees. Questions about how he’d been awarded the city contract surfaced during Brown’s confirmation for commerce secretary, and he sold his stake in the company.