Seats of Power: Kwame Brown May Anger Colleagues With Committee Assignments
Kwame Brown, the next D.C. Council chairman, is the most thoughtful man on the planet. His wisdom knows no bounds. His intelligence is extraordinary.
At least, that’s a rough approximation of what many of Brown’s colleagues are saying about their new leader these days. It’s a remarkable turnaround from a few months ago, when Brown’s colleagues were anonymously questioning his intelligence in the press.
Brown’s popularity is the result of his new power, as council boss, to assign committee chairmanships. Why should you care? Chairmanships, believe it or not, actually affect how the D.C. government is run. A competent committee leader can hold a city agency in check; a dud can let dysfunction get worse. Good committee chairs can also prevent bad proposed legislation from ever seeing the light of day. Bad ones, on the other hand, can pole-axe worthwhile ideas.
Intelligence and good judgment, alas, aren’t likely to be Brown’s only guiding factors. Instead, the next D.C. Council chairman will take into consideration political ambitions, past deals he may have made, and the fickle temperaments of his colleagues as he seeks to start his new gig with as much consensus—and as few enemies—as possible.
Put another way: a few false moves and Brown could be making a shit sandwich he’ll have to gobble down over the next two years.
“This is where Kwame risks a debacle,” says local Democratic political strategist Chuck Thies.
Brown has been mum on committee assignments, other than to say every member will get one. He has started meeting with councilmembers, but spokeswoman Traci Hughes says Brown doesn’t have a specific timeline.
Councilmembers, like children with their hearts set on one particular Christmas toy, are anxious. But while kids can only hope from help from Santa, pols can take matters into their own hands by lobbying Brown—and by taking potential rivals down a peg or two in the process.
The marquee matchup is between Councilmembers David Catania and Mary Cheh for the chairmanship of the yet-to-be formed education committee.
Almost Mayor Vince Gray made the education committee the entire council’s responsibility, in the form of the Committee of the Whole. Wags at the Wilson Building speculate Brown will keep his current chairmanship of the Committee on Economic Development by making it the subject for the Committee of the Whole. That leaves a high profile education committee in need of a boss.
Cheh, who represents Ward 3, is usually happy to speak at length, but was tight-lipped when LL asked about her committee preferences.
Maybe Team Cheh just doesn’t want to jinx themselves; one council source says her staff thinks she’s got the gig all but wrapped up.
Cheh wouldn’t make her case to LL, but her rival Catania, who holds an At-Large council seat, was happy to make her case as he sees it. The relatively inexperienced Cheh, he says, would leapfrog the more seasoned Catania and both run education and become chair pro tempore (the council’s largely meaningless No. 2 slot) thanks in large part to some political debts: She endorsed Gray in the primary, though Still Mayor Adrian Fenty remained highly popular among her Upper Northwest constituents.
“The only reason to break with the seniority system would be a simple crass political payback and I think people can see right through that,” says Catania.
A council source says Catania tried to interest Cheh in the Committee on Health, which he currently chairs. Cheh balked, the source says, calling the health committee’s workload “too complicated.” Catania then launched a trial balloon, a Washington Post blog item saying he wanted to run the education committee.
Catania says he has a strong record as chairman of the Committee on Health, and has the skills necessary to get a handle of the DCPS’ notoriously convoluted finances.
Catania’s also wooing Brown’s inner teenager. It’s no secret plenty of people at the Wilson Building wonder whether Brown will be a pushover when the council and the mayor’s office come to loggerheads. Pick me, says Catania, and you show the world you’re your own man.
“It’s obvious that if Kwame were to select me instead of Mary that it would be a sign of greater independence,” says Catania. “Vince obviously thinks he has greater leverage with Mary than me, and I don’t blame Vince for wanting to have kid gloves.”
If that wasn’t clear enough, Catania continues: “I’m certainly not angry with Vince for trying to advance a person into a position that is going to be more predisposed to letting him having his way than someone who is not. One thing is clear, I’m no pushover.”
Still not sure what Catania’s saying? Here’s one more zinger: “It is obvious that Vince has greater control over Mary than he does over me.”
OK, David, stop. LL gets it. The question is whether Brown does.
Not everyone is happy with Catania’s aggressive approach. His frequent nemesis, Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry, tells LL Catania is out of line. “Kwame Brown is going to make those assignments, and I have been quiet about it on purpose,” says Barry. “Everybody but David Catania has been quiet about it.”
That’s not altogether true. Councilmember Michael A. Brown tells LL he’d be a “nice fit” as head of the Committee on Economic Development. (Just about everyone agrees that Kwame Brown isn’t going to give that plum assignment to a potential rival in a future mayor’s race.) And both Ward 2’s Jack Evans and At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson expect to keep their current committees.
Barry, by the way, may be headed toward the Committee on Human Services, as LL noted a few weeks ago. (Says Barry about that column: “You’re gonna speculate on what committee I want. I mean, what the shit is this?”)
The Committee on Public Works and Transportation seems likely to become the second-best battle—pitting Ward 6’s Tommy Wells, who currently leads the human services panel, against incumbent chairman Jim Graham, who sits on Metro’s Board of Directors.
Wells is a favorite of the smart-growth set. He attends almost every one of Graham’s committee hearings, and made transportation central to his re-election campaign. His slogan: “For a livable, walkable community.”
But Graham’s no pushover, and will likely play a strong defense. LL had no luck getting a game plan out of Graham. Instead, the Ward 1 councilmember lectured LL on how much he loves the First Amendment—before insisting LL needed Graham’s explicit permission to use a voice recorder while interviewing him in the council chambers.
For his part, Wells tried to strike a diplomatic note: “This is not Tommy Wells versus Jim Graham,” he says. “This is what Kwame Brown thinks is best for the city.”
If Wells really believes that, then God bless him. The final pick will probably be a lot more about what Brown thinks is best for him.
And on that front, he’s already getting lobbied. “Kwame Brown faces a defining moment for his chairmanship,” says Ken Archer, a contributor to the Wells-admiring Greater Greater Washington website. “Will he appoint chairs who will pursue innovative policies in D.C. to move our city forward, or will he let politics or the status quo define his committee choices?"
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery