DC City Council member Michael A. Brown has a lot going on—some of it welcome, some not. When chairman Kwame Brown resigned earlier this year in a fraud scandal, causing a shift in the council, Brown’s fellow members elected Phil Mendelson as chairman and Brown as chair pro tempore. He’s also up for reelection as an at-large council member, calling himself an “Independent Democratic candidate.” Last time he ran for the seat, in 2008, he changed his affiliation from Democrat to Independent to qualify for the ballot. What’s more, earlier this year, he informed the DC police that money had been embezzled from his reelection campaign fund. His campaign treasurer was fired. An investigation continues, though he prefers to call it a “review.”
Brown is also among council members who are considering a run for mayor should the embattled incumbent, Vincent Gray, get indicted by the US Attorney’s office and choose to resign. Brown was an official candidate for mayor in 2006, when Adrian Fenty was elected in a landslide.
We caught up with Brown today to talk DC politics, campaign funds, and candidacies.
How do you assess the state of the city right now?
On two tracks. The one track, which is clearly related to behavior here in the council, is no different from other jurisdictions around the country, including Capitol Hill. We passed ethics reform legislation, and hopefully that will cure some of the behavior.
And the other track?
We have 1,100 new residents coming in every month. We have the hottest restaurant community in the country. We have one of the best fund balances of any local jurisdiction in the country. Our bond rating is extremely strong. Construction is up. The city is running very, very, very well.
When you are out among constituents, what do they talk to you about?
It’s interesting. Jobs. Affordable housing. What I’ve coined “responsible economic development.” [They also] tell me, “My Supercan [a large trash can provided by the city] is messed up and I need a new Supercan.” Tip O’Neill was right—all politics is local.
What do they say about Mayor Gray?
When members go to a community meeting, we are pretty naked there. We give our five- or ten-minute talk, and then we take questions. The community can ask anything they want. I’m not suggesting I don’t get any questions about the mayor, but most of the questions are about the quality of their lives.
Does your own campaign fund investigation come up?
Review. Not investigation. They side with me. I’m the victim in this one. It doesn’t get any more ethical than when you blow the whistle on your own organization. I called the police department immediately. People feel I’ve been the victim of an alleged crime, but I can count on one hand the numbers of times that has come up.
Have the fraud scandals of other city council members, and the federal investigation of Mayor Gray, put the city government in a state of inertia?
I’m not sure. Again, we’re no different from other jurisdictions around the country and Capitol Hill. I’ve been talking about campaign-finance reform for years. If you’re really serious, then the public funding of campaigns is the one major way to get money out of politics. I’m going to explore [public financing] in the coming months.
When members of the council are alone together, discussing Gray, does it become contentious between those who have asked for his resignation and those who have stayed out of it?
Contentious? No. It also started happening after the last legislative session. I don’t agree with those who have asked him to step down. It’s extremely premature. Let the legal process play out.
Talk about the investigation into the money missing from your campaign fund. Where does that stand?
It’s under review, not an investigation. It’s hard for me to comment on it. The auditing is going on now, the review, as we speak. They don’t keep me up to date. They will inform me at some time. I don’t know what they’ll do when they have their findings. I’m glad we discovered it.
In June there were reports that as much as $50,000 went missing from your campaign fund. Has that number held up?
Whoever said that definitely did not have the correct information. What I discovered in my own review was concerning enough for me to call the police department and the office of campaign finance.
You sort of answered part of this question. You did your own review. Is that why [campaign treasurer] Hakim Sutton had to go?
I can’t comment on that.
How many lawyers are you having to pay to deal with this review?
I don’t have one single lawyer. The office of campaign finance is handling it.
What’s the size of your campaign chest now?
That’s part of what I can’t comment on. I don’t want to give a number and have one of my critics later say, “That’s not the number you gave.”
But you are still accepting contributions?
So if money is coming in, are you allowed to know what it adds up to?
Of course. We’re working with campaign finance now.
Do you have access to the campaign funds? Are you able to use the money?
We’ll stay in the balance of law. Yes.
What do you think you could do, or should do, to move beyond this potential drag on your reelection campaign?
I wish I had some of those resources back.
Is there a chance, when the US Attorney’s office hands down whatever it will hand down about Vincent Gray, if it’s an indictment, that the charges will spread to other members of the council?
I have no idea. I can’t speculate.
Is DC experiencing a crisis of political ethics?
No. I would not call it a crisis at all. When you go back to the late ’80s and ’90s and the alleged bad acts of some election officials, we did have a correlation with the poor running of the city. What’s happening now does not have a correlation with how the city is being run.
How has President Obama been for Washington?
As a supporter of the President and the Vice President, I agree with a lot of things the President has done. I wish he would be stronger in helping us with statehood.
If he’s reelected would statehood be revisited?
I would love for this to be on his to-do list but, so far, he hasn’t added it.
What would Mitt Romney mean for DC?
He’s gonna follow some of his colleagues on Capitol Hill, and how they feel about the District of Columbia; it’s going to be very disconcerting. I’m very concerned if he’s going to listen to those voices, as I’m sure many are concerned.
If Gray were to be indicted and resign, forcing a special election, would you run for mayor?
I haven’t ruled it out. When I go to meetings, people ask me about it. People think I would be a good candidate.
Assuming Gray remains in office, is there a chance you would run in the scheduled election in 2014?
I would never run against the mayor. As an incumbent, he would be formidable. I hope nothing happens.