The Name Game

By P.J. Orvetti
|  Wednesday, Sep 1, 2010  |  Updated 12:16 PM EDT
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The Name Game

D.C. Councilmember Phil Mendelson

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It looks like the D.C. Council is about to get browner.

In the race for Chairman, voters seem likely to trade gray for brown by boosting At-Large member Kwame Brown to the post. A Washington Post poll shows Kwame Brown with a nearly 2-to-1 lead over another color-named candidate, Vincent Orange. Though Orange has pressed hard against his rival over his personal and campaign finances, he has not been able to get much traction, as the media and voters have focused on the close race for mayor.

A Kwame Brown win would be no surprise. But another Brown’s possible victory could be.

The Post poll also found D.C. Shadow Sen. Michael D. Brown leading incumbent Councilmember Phil Mendelson in Mendelson’s bid for re-election, by 38 percent to 21 percent. A third candidate, Clark Ray, has arguably been campaigning harder than either of them, but collects just 7 percent to show for his yearlong effort.

Michael D. Brown’s surge seems due mainly to the fact that many voters think he is Councilmember Michael A. Brown, who is not on the ballot this year.

Michael D. is a veteran D.C. statehood activist with an M.A. in public policy from the University of Maryland, so he’s certainly qualified to sit on the Council. He is attending candidate forums and is not actively trying to confuse voters. Last month, he told me, “As far as my support being entirely based on name confusion, I think this is foolish. I don’t believe voters are that dumb.”

The white Michael D. has argued that if he wanted voters to think he was the black Michael A., he would not show his face at public events, which is a fair point. But he must know that most of his support does come from confusion -- the Post poll makes that clear.  A few people cited by the Post even said they thought the candidate on the ballot was the black incumbent, and Michael D.’s support is strongest in the black wards east of the Anacostia.

Ray, at least, seems to be taking it in stride. “I can't get ticked off at Michael Brown because his name is ‘Brown,’” he told DCist.
So we may have three Browns on the Council. Maybe they can start their own caucus.

What, then, will become of Kwame Brown’s current seat? If he moves up to the big chair, a special election will take place -- and there’s some speculation that it could just turn into overtime in the Mendelson race. Ray could just slide on over to that contest, and if Mendelson loses, he could do the same.

It’s possible Orange could do so, as well. He has been itching to get back into D.C. politics since his 2006 campaign for mayor flopped, and taking on Kwame Brown for chair is a win-win. If he is able to win that race, he gets to lead the Council. If he loses, he has spent the summer rebuilding name identification and support so he can seek a newly open At-Large seat.

All of this could be mere prologue to the next big race down the road. Yet another candidate with a colorful name, Vincent Gray, is poised to be elected mayor. Four years down the road, he’ll be past 70. These candidates may already be laying the groundwork for 2014.

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