Kwame R. Brown doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as a liberal or conservative, although at times he sounds more like House Republicans John A. Boehner and Darrell Issa than House Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Eleanor Holmes Norton.
In another assertion of independence, he said that under his leadership as D.C. Council chairman, the body will not serve as a mere “rubber stamp” for Mayor Vincent C. Gray.
Mr. Brown, who Wednesday marked his first month in his new post, said “too many parents are absent in the lives of their children” and that some schools “don’t want parents to participate.”
The chairman also said D.C. officials should root out government waste and that recouping federal reimbursements is his No. 1 priority for revenue enhancement.
Mr. Brown made his comments during a wide-ranging interview with The Washington Times as the District’s elected leadership reckons with a potential $600 million deficit, ornery unemployment numbers, and educational and cultural issues that are drawing the attention of congressional Republicans and Democrats.
Appearing at ease in his new City Hall offices, Mr. Brown, 40, came of age during the city’s politically tumultuous 1990s, a decade that began with the FBI’s videotaped drug arrest of Mayor Marion Barry, led to three turnovers of the mayor’s seat, and included Republicans and the Clinton White House imposing a federal control board to lift the city from bankruptcy.
It included a huge cultural shift, with middle-class blacks following their white counterparts to the suburbs for better schools and with the city being labeled America’s “Murder Capital.”
During that time, Mr. Brown, a graduate of D.C. public schools and Morgan State University, engaged in such grass-roots politicking as volunteering for the Barry campaign and bids by other Democrats, including Charlene Drew Jarvis and John Ray. He also worked for both of Bill Clinton’s presidential campaigns, and Al Gore’s unsuccessful 2000 White House run.
While working for the Clinton administration and, later, with global giants MCI and Wal-Mart, Mr. Brown kept his finger on the city’s political pulse, which was concerned about a stagnant business community and a burgeoning class of undereducated residents. By 2002, Mr. Brown, who had been weaned in politically active Ward 7, had decided to make a citywide run for the D.C. Council.
He beat his 2004 Democratic primary contender, incumbent Harold Brazil, and breezed to his next two victories. With campaign yard signs often side by side with Mr. Gray’s and no Republican opponent, he handily won the chairman’s race in 2010.
Mr. Brown said all the while he has kept his eyes trained on what he calls the “equalizer.”
“Education should be the equalizer,” said Mr. Brown, who sends both his children to public schools. “It’s unacceptable that we have schools that aren’t teaching the kids. I’m going to continue education reform to hold accountable not just teachers but principals and parents.”
The council chairman said he wanted dropout prevention to occur earlier in the system because of the difficulty of turning around a failing high school student.
“Look at education in our middle schools. The country itself suffers. … At Kramer Middle School, 82 percent of kids qualify for [subsidized] lunch and 30 percent of the parents are single moms with five kids each. The real question is how do we fix our middle schools? You don’t get caught up in high school,” he said.
Mr. Brown, who urged Education Secretary Arne Duncan to continue funding a D.C. school voucher program, said “I’m all in” when it comes to policies designed to improve a child’s academic lot, which he said includes holding parents accountable.
“I’m all in. Too many parents are absent in the lives of their children. Parental school involvement should be mandatory,” he said.
“Some schools don’t like parent involvement. They say when parents come, they complain too much. They don’t want parents to participate. They don’t say it, but that’s the code. I will support anything that puts parents in the schools.”
Asked whether that meant endorsing a Florida proposal that would allow teachers to grade parents, Mr. Brown said, “Yes.”
“I’m open to look at all options.”