Ronald Harmon Brown
The career of Ronald Harmon Brown is a portrait of a consummate Washington, D.C., insider. As an African American attorney, Brown broke several color barriers during his rapid rise in politics from the 1970s to the early 1990s. He first entered the public eye as a CIVIL RIGHTS leader for the NATIONAL URBAN LEAGUE. Soon his reputation for persuasiveness and ingenuity led to a variety of assignments: political strategist to Senator EDWARD M. KENNEDY (D-Mass.) and JESSE JACKSON, chief counsel of the U.S. SENATE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE, and lobbyist for foreign governments. In the 1980s, Brown became the first black chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). He steered the DEMOCRATIC PARTY toward a more centrist position, thus helping prepare the way for President Bill Clinton's election in 1992. Clinton picked him to head the DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE. Although Brown had some notable successes in reviving the lifeless bureaucracy, allegations of corruption damaged his tenure.
Born on August 1, 1941, in Washington, D.C., Brown was raised in the company of successful role models. His parents, William Brown and Gloria Brown-Carter, were both graduates of Howard University, and they moved the family to Harlem, where William managed the Hotel Theresa. Brown grew up in the hotel, surrounded by famous black entertainers and celebrities: it was a stopover for them after playing Harlem's Apollo Theater. As a young man, he attended Middlebury College, where he was the school's first black fraternity pledge. He married Alma Arrington in 1962, and then served in the Army from 1963 to 1967, attaining the rank of captain. Leaving the service, he joined the National Urban League as a WELFARE caseworker. Brown did not toil in the trenches for long. His skill at negotiation stood out, and, after adding a law degree from St. John's University, he became the organization's Washington, D.C., vice president and assumed the role of spokesman.
The give-and-take of politics suited Brown. "What I love most," he said, "is changing minds." In 1979 Brown's association with the Democratic party got a boost when Senator Kennedy named Brown his deputy campaign manager in an unsuccessful run at the presidency. The job marked the beginning of a stellar ascent through party politics. Kennedy chose Brown as chief counsel of the Senate Judiciary Committee—and that position led to a stint as chief counsel of the DNC, the party's steering council. By the mid-1980s, Brown was an insider, well-known and highly regarded in the nation's capital.
Politics offers alluring choices to its best-connected practitioners, liberal and conservative, and Brown's next career move was perfectly in step with the ethos of Washington, D.C. Brown became a lobbyist. He joined the Washington, D.C., firm of Patton, Boggs, and Blow, known for its high-profile clients. The attorney had no shortage of these: the businesses he represented included the financial giant American Express and twenty-one different Japanese electronics firms. Yet what gained him notoriety was his representation of foreign nations. He worked for the interests of Zaire, Guatemala, and Haiti, and the last two affiliations, in particular, hurt him. While he lobbied on behalf of Haitian strongman Jean-Claude ("Baby Doc") Duvalier, Haitian citizens suffered political repression and saw their national treasury pillaged. Guatemalans were tortured and murdered. Later, when Brown prepared to assume the high position of secretary of commerce, critics would be quick to recall that he had supported dictators.
Democrats wanted Brown back, and he left LOBBYING to become chairman of the DNC. The job demanded much: Democrats, after all, had failed to capture the White House since 1976. He had to unify a party that had lost three consecutive presidential elections, seen massive defections of its traditional voters, and suffered from an identity crisis that split its moderate and left-wing members. He also had to soothe fears that he was too closely allied with one of the party's most liberal leaders, Jesse Jackson. "My chairmanship won't be about race," he told critics. "It will be about the races we win over the next four years." As it happened, Brown was everything the ailing party hoped for. He helped orchestrate a shift to the center in the Democrats' national agenda—abandoning traditional bullishness on taxation and welfare, for instance, and asserting a pro-business outlook—which paved the way for the centrist candidacy of Clinton. And as a party boss, he was decisive. Once Clinton emerged as the front-runner, Brown curtailed the primary process; he even secured Jackson's endorsement. "This party was ready," Mickey Kantor, Clinton's campaign manager, said after the election, "and it was because of Ron Brown … the best chairman we've ever had."
As a reward, Clinton nominated Brown for the cabinet role of secretary of the Department of Commerce. Originally conceived as a regulatory agency, Commerce had seen better days; by the 1990s, both liberal and conservative critics considered it to be an ineffective bureaucracy tied up in red tape. Despite his credentials and the reform-minded talk of the Clinton administration, Brown's nomination faced some fears and objections. Business worried about his being too tough on it with new regulations. Some critics, such as the Center for Public Integrity, worried about the opposite. This non-partisan watchdog group argued that Brown was too well connected to avoid potential conflicts of interest: he would have to regulate industries and foreign countries that he had once represented, seemingly in contradiction to Clinton's promise to clamp down on the selling of influence by political appointees. The group's December 1992 report, The Torturer's Lobby, hammered Brown for representing repressive governments. Brown called the Center's charges an attempt at implying "guilt by association." The Senate confirmed him with little difficulty.
As commerce secretary, Brown won praise for breathing new life into the department. He revived its export programs, winning lucrative multibillion-dollar contracts for U.S. aircraft and TELECOMMUNICATIONS firms. He also presided over a $900 million annual budget for promoting high technology in small and medium-sized business, nearly double the amount spent during the administration of GEORGE H. W. BUSH. The New Republic called him "the most formidable Commerce secretary since Herbert Hoover" (1 May 1995). Business fears about his being too liberal proved to be wrong; he was utterly pro-business, even to the point of attracting criticism for helping McDonnell Douglas Corporation secure contracts to build aircraft in China. The liberal Committee for Economic Organizing complained that he was "promoting companies, not jobs."
But scandals nearly sank Brown. In 1993, during Brown's first year as secretary of commerce, a Vietnamese businessman alleged that Brown had accepted a $700,000 bribe from the government of Vietnam to remove a long-standing trade embargo. Brown denied the charge; the FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION conducted a year-long probe, and he was ultimately cleared. By late 1994, rumors spread in the press that he would resign to run Clinton's reelection campaign. In February 1995, new allegations emerged. U.S. attorney general JANET RENO opened another criminal probe into Brown's personal finances. This time, congressional Republicans accused him of violating disclosure requirements and evading taxes. Brown again denied any violation of law, but Republican critics began calling for his dismissal—as well as the elimination of the Department of Commerce itself, which they called irrelevant and outdated. In May 1995, fourteen Republican senators told Attorney General Reno that fairness required that the probe be conducted outside of the Clinton administration. Reno agreed; she requested the appointment of an INDEPENDENT COUNSEL to examine Brown's finances. Particularly troubling was one odd-looking business deal: Brown had earned nearly $500,000 from selling his interest in a firm in which he had never invested.
Brown won high regard for his work in the law. He was the recipient of two American JURISPRUDENCE awards for outstanding achievement in jurisprudence and for outstanding scholastic achievement in poverty law. He
served as a trustee of Middlebury College, and as a board member of both the United Negro College Fund and the University of the District of Columbia. He was a fellow of the Institute of Politics, at the JOHN F. KENNEDY School of Government, at Harvard University.
On April 3, 1996, Brown was killed in a plane crash near the city of Dubrovnik, Croatia, with thirty-two other Commerce Department officials and U.S. business executives. They had planned to explore investment opportunities for the reconstruction of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Brown, Tracey L. 1998. The Life and Times of Ron Brown: A Memoir. New York: Morrow.
Holmes, Steven A. 2000. Ron Brown: An Uncommon Life. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
"Ron Brown Remembered" 1996. The Washington Lawyer 10 (May-June): 30.
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