Brown Goes Down, Ward 6 A Player in His Defeat

The District Beat
Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells and At-Large elect Councilmember David Grosso enjoy a drink on Election Day. Photo: Andrew Lightman

The seemingly impossible happened on November 6: an incumbent D.C. councilmember was defeated. On that day, independent challenger David Grosso upset Councilmember Michael Brown (I-At Large), besting him by over 20,000 votes to win one of two of the at-large seats that were up for grabs. (Vincent Orange easily won the other.)

The news was momentous not only because incumbents so rarely go down in general elections in D.C., but because it symbolically marked the downfall of the third political family that had occupied seats on the D.C. Council until this year. Brown’s fall followed Harry Thomas, Jr.’s in January and Kwame Brown’s in June.

In the wake of Grosso’s big win, residents and political analysts alike are looking at whether his victory has marked the start of an emerging shift in how the city’s residents vote. Moreover, future candidates looking to knock off incumbents are taking stock of what Grosso did to beat Brown. In this, there are interesting developments and lessons to be learned.

First off, Grosso laid out a clear strategy for defeating incumbent councilmembers that future challengers are sure to try. Most importantly, he followed in the footsteps of Adrian Fenty and Kwame Brown before him by starting early—a full year early. One 2014 hopeful has already taken this message to heart: former Ward 1 ANC Brianne Nadeau has already announced that she plans on unseating Councilmember Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) in two years.

Second—and this ties into the first point—raise a lot of money. Grosso didn’t only raise more, but he also spent it wisely, saving about half of his $160,000 bankroll for the final month of campaigning. Obviously, Brown suffered from having $113,000 stolen from his campaign, but even without that loss Grosso would have remained close in fundraising. (In Nadeau’s case, she says she’s already raised $30,000.)

Finally: find a message and stick to it. Grosso consistently pointed to Brown as yet another ethically challenged D.C. legislator, and the message seemed to stick. Looking to 2014, there’s little to say that Graham can’t suffer the same fate; though he’s never been found guilty of anything, there have been enough allegations of improprieties floating around to make many of his constituents uncomfortable.

Of course, Grosso also benefited from the fact that Brown ran a non-campaign. The incumbent never really made the case for himself, had virtually no volunteers and a non-existent get-out-the-vote operation on Election Day. It’s not much of a surprise that he wasn’t ready for Grosso, though—Brown’s last campaign was a cakewalk, seeing as he only had to defeat a Republican for the At-Large seat he eventually won.

As for how the election played out, there two factors to consider. First, while Grosso’s win was notable, it didn’t completely break the predictable mold of how many recent citywide races have played out. Though Grosso soundly drubbed Brown in overall votes, he did so by racking up impressive margins in the western wards and in parts of Capitol Hill, enough to outweigh the comfortable wins that Brown saw in precincts throughout many parts of Southeast and Northeast D.C.

Breaking down the vote tallies, it becomes clear that Grosso won largely because the animus towards Brown was much more significant in wards 2 and 3 than it was against Grosso in the ward 7 and 8 precincts that he lost. While Grosso saw margins of victory approaching 40 percent in some of the precincts in the western wards, Brown could only muster gains of 20 percent in areas east of the Anacostia River. It also didn’t help that support for Brown in his home base of Ward 4 slackened significantly—he lost thousands of votes relative to his 2008 win—nor that Grosso was able to stay competitive on his own turf in Ward 5.

That being said, Ward 6 emerged as a new player in deciding citywide elections. According to final counts, both the number of registered voters and number of residents actually voting grew more aggressively in Ward 6 over the last few years than anywhere else. Grosso’s single biggest margin of victory over Brown came in the Eastern Market area; with the endorsements of Councilmember Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and predecessor Sharon Ambrose, he also did solidly in the rest of the ward.

What does this mean moving forward? The dynamics of winning citywide office are shifting, if only slowly. While Ward 4 used to help decide elections—it was one of the reasons that Fenty fell to Mayor Vince Gray in 2010—Ward 6 may now become a younger, more politically dynamic battleground. Of course, it’s too early to know how influential those new Ward 6 voters might be: will they come out in the same numbers in non-presidential election years?

Farewell Michael Brown; Long Live Michael Brown?

Despite his loss to Grosso, though, it isn’t the end of the road for Brown. In fact, it may only be a few months until the two are serving alongside each on the D.C. Council.

In the wake of his upset, Brown was quick to claim that he was defeated because the media treated him unfairly and because voters were confused by which Michael Brown they should have voted for. (The other Michael Brown, of course, ran for Shadow Senator.) He further argued that he had seen an outpouring of support from constituents asking that he run again.

Well, he’ll soon have a chance. With Phil Mendelson’s ascension to the D.C. Council’s top spot, the At-Large seat he once occupied is now vacant. As we explained last month, the D.C. Democratic State Committee will select an interim councilmember in early December, and a special election will have to be held at some point in the next four months.

Should he choose to run, Brown will certainly be competitive in that race—despite losing to Grosso, he still mustered over 58,000 votes from across the city. Additionally, special elections often see large numbers of candidates and a low turn-out of voters, a perfect recipe for a candidate with name recognition to sneak by with a small proportion of the votes. Though no one has yet declared themselves a candidate, D.C. Democratic State Committee chairwoman Anita Bonds has expressed interest, and even former candidates Bryan Weaver, Sekou Biddle, Peter Shapiro, and Patrick Mara have been cited as possible contenders.

But should Brown actually run? I certainly don’t think so.

D.C. political culture is small and insular enough as it is; we don’t need politicos looking at elected office as a lifetime appointment or the type of job they’re entitled to. With Brown, this seems like a very real danger. In his post-defeat comments, Brown never fully recognized that maybe his own personal failings are what turned voters against him.

Even worse, he’s toyed with the idea of once again becoming a Democrat—he changed party affiliation in 2008 to Independent so he could run for his At-Large seat—indicating that he’ll do just about anything to remain in office. The most dangerous elected officials are those that see themselves as being indispensable. (See “Barry, Marion.”)

Brown is a very likable guy, and in many ways a very competent legislator. But much like Orange, who hasn’t yet found an elected office he won’t run for, he’s clearly pinned himself as a political opportunist. If Brown wanted to display true leadership, he could admit to his mistakes and say that he’s stepping out of electoral politics for the time being.

Martin Austermuhle is the Editor-in-Chief of DCist.com and a freelance writer. He lives in Columbia Heights.


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