Michael A. Brown moved easily through the morning crowd of more than 400 that filled the staging area in front of the Commerce Department and spilled onto 14th Street for the naming of Ron Brown Way.
“Hey, buddy, I worked for your dad,” someone called out.
“I loved this man,” someone else said, rushing over to shake hands.
It was part of a spate of tributes to mark the 15th anniversary of the day that a plane carrying Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and 34 others on a trade mission crashed into a Croatian hillside.
There will be a commemoration at the crash site April 4, and Tuesday, at a dedication for a new U.N. mission building in New York named in Brown’s honor, President Obama said, “I’m president in part because of him — because of the example he set, because of the organization that he brought to the Democratic Party.”
At the street-naming Friday, Michael Brown, the tallest man in the crowd, stepped to the microphone, and spectators honored the father by paying rapt attention to the son. He acknowledged his mother, Alma, and sister, Tracey Brown James, and talked about his father’s vision of economic empowerment and his legacy of inclusion.
Ron Brown was the first African American commerce secretary, as well as an icon of Washington’s black political class about whom Bill Clinton once wrote, “I could not have become president without Ron Brown.” He led trade missions and was a player on the world stage.
Shortly after 10:30 Friday, the two brand-new street signs were unveiled simultaneously, and Michael Brown, 46, an at-large D.C. Council member for the past two years, playfully pointed to the efficiency of the D.C. government. His is an intensely local focus, because that’s his stage.
Since the commerce secretary’s death, Michael Brown has often had to be a vessel for the grief and expectations of others, while finding his own way forward without his father’s guidance. And the journey has, at times, tripped him up.
Like a generation of Washington insiders and common folks alike, Brown embraces the larger-than-life legacy of his father.
But he has also struggled with its burden.
“It’s hard when folks say, ‘Who is the next Ron Brown?’ ” he said. “Just like it’s hard to say, ‘Who is the next [Michael] Jordan?’ ”
Ron Brown was on a mission to help connect U.S. businessmen to trade opportunities in the war-ravaged former Yugoslavia when he died in 1996.
The trip was his 19th ambitious world-trade mission, including a historic one to South Africa, since Clinton appointed him commerce secretary in 1993. He brought vision and muscularity to a Cabinet position that often lacked vigor.
It was the latest laurel in a career filled with dexterity and intention.
Tragic end to pioneering career
Brown grew up in Harlem, where his father managed the storied Hotel Theresa, which catered to the black sports, entertainment and intellectual elite, and where Democratic Rep. Charles B. Rangel (N.Y.) was once a desk clerk. He learned from his father the importance of always looking ironed, creased and well-groomed. And he passed that lesson on to his son.
He was educated in nearly all-white Manhattan elementary and prep schools, and later at Vermont’s Middlebury College, where his national fraternity, Sigma Phi Epsilon, was suspended for granting Brown membership. After college and Army stints in Germany and South Korea, he attended St. John’s Law School at night and later gained renown on Capitol Hill through his work with the National Urban League. After working on the 1980 presidential campaign of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), he became chief counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee and, later, the first black partner at the powerful D.C. lobbying firm Patton Boggs & Blow.
His work in 1988 smoothing relations between presidential candidates Jesse Jackson and Michael Dukakis before the Democratic convention helped him springboard to national prominence. After the election, he promised the demoralized party that Democrats could win again, as he made a historic run for Democratic National Committee chair. He won, and in the three years before he helped Clinton win the White House, he changed the face of the party.
Opening the party’s doors
“When Brown walked in the room, his presence gave the impression that he understood his sense of self, what he was bringing to the party and to the president,” said Minyon Moore, a principal at the Dewey Square Group public affairs firm who was a senior political adviser in the Clinton White House and in Jackson’s presidential campaigns.
Brown helped empower a class of black and brown people who hadn’t been invited inside the party infrastructure, she said. “That was the beauty of having the wind behind you. You came in with a sense of boldness, a sense of intention. You were so sure you were supposed to be there, that you had no fear of bringing other people with you.”