After a very successful tenure as Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Ronald Brown (1941-1996) was appointed Commerce Secretary by President Bill Clinton. His reign as Secretary was cut short when his plane crashed during a mission to Bosnia-Herzegovina, killing all on board.
Ron Brown made history in 1989 when he became the first African American chosen to lead a major U.S. political party. From 1989 through 1992, Brown served as the highly visible deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Prior to that, he was Jesse Jackson's manager at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. But Brown's liberal roots go even deeper: he was earlier the National Urban League's chief Washington lobbyist, the deputy campaign manager for U.S. Senator Edward (Ted) Kennedy's 1980 presidential bid, and a chief counsel for the Senate Committee on the Judiciary. Brown's confirmation in 1993 as President Bill Clinton's secretary of commerce, however, focused the nation's attention on him even further.
As a boy growing up in the Theresa Hotel in Harlem managed by his father—boxer Joe Louis and actor Paul Robeson were guests there—Ronald Harmon Brown learned early to straddle two worlds. The Theresa, near the famed Apollo Theater, was an oasis for the black entertainment and professional classes of the day. Brown, whose parents were graduates of Howard University, was bused to exclusive preparatory schools and attended the virtually all-white Middlebury College in Vermont. Because of such a background, Brown, unlike many black political leaders of his generation, had for the most part no involvement in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. While Jesse Jackson led 278 students arrested at sit-ins over civil rights at all-black North Carolina A and T State University, Brown was fulfilling ROTC responsibilities at his private rural college.
One instance of activism came far from the beaten paths of Southern civil rights battlefields but would characterize his later skill at nonconfrontational negotiations. The only black student in his freshman class at Middlebury, Brown was rushed by white classmates from the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, the campus "jock house." But the national organization objected because of an exclusionary clause that barred blacks. As the debate dragged on, reported Time magazine, "Brown let it be known that he was unwilling to finesse the issue by accepting house privileges without full membership." Finally, fraternity members rallied to his side, provoking their expulsion by the national chapter leaders. Middlebury then barred all exclusionary charters from campus. Brown became a trustee at the mostly white school.
After college Brown served as the only black officer at his U.S. Army post in West Germany. Back home, he earned a law degree, worked as an inner-city social worker, and then joined the National Urban League—considered the most moderate of civil rights groups—as its Washington lobbyist. Later, he became the first African American attorney at the high-powered Washington law firm of Patton, Boggs and Blow.
Political Savvy Paid Off
Brown's election as head of the Democratic party came despite his carrying all the wrong credentials as far as many party regulars were concerned: he had served as Jesse Jackson's campaign manager in the 1988 bid for the party's presidential nomination. Brown's ties to the aggressive and somewhat controversial Jackson made some observers feel he was too volatile for the job, but his role as peacemaker between the Jackson and Michael Dukakis camps during the 1988 Democratic Convention helped cement his reputation as a suave negotiator. Jackson, who knew his '88 bid for the Democratic nomination was out of gas, at least wanted respect from Dukakis.
Such respect, however, was hard to elicit from the Dukakis camp, since it seemed to have the nomination—if not that 1988 general election against the Republicans—all wrapped up. Divisiveness within the party could have been a disaster for the Democrats, with even worse repercussions than Dukakis's eventual defeat against George Bush. But Brown helped to avoid an irreparable split in the party along color lines. "He is not bragging when he says that his conciliation efforts 'played a part in turning a potential disaster into a love-in,"' wrote David Broder in the Washington Post. And Donna Brazile, a Democratic activist aligned with Michael Dukakis in the 1988 election campaign, told the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, "If Ron was a pop singer, he would have crossover appeal."
Brown was the consummate Washington insider who learned how to work the levers of power by being a team player. Before becoming party chairman, he served on the DNC's Executive Committee as deputy chairman and chief counsel for the party and worked for Ted Kennedy and other Democrats in Congress. "His political formation is within national political processes and not within ethnic political processes," Harvard professor Martin Kilson told the Washington Post. "Brown is the new black transethnic politician." Soon after his election to the DNC in 1989, Brown made a vow to the committee, stating, as reprinted in the Washington Post, "I promise you, my chairmanship will not be about race, it will be about the races we win."
Brown's political savvy was evident in his engineering of his own election as party chairman. He began the campaign as just one of five candidates for the post, but he deployed his lobbying skills early. One call Brown made looking for support went to his former boss, Senator Kennedy, chair of the crucial Labor Committee. Soon after the call, the AFL-CIO endorsed Brown. The New York Times wrote, "Mr. Brown's election, the product of a meticulously organized campaign, gave him such an overwhelming advantage that his four competitors dropped out of the contest weeks before the voting."
However, Brown faced scrutiny for trying to be too many different things to too many people. "If you asked people in the Fifties and Sixties what it was to be a Democrat, they could easily tell you," Brown told Gentleman's Quarterly. "Somehow in recent years, it has become harder and harder. If we continue to let our opponents … define us … there's no way we're going to win elections." But some critics feel that Brown's own self-analysis betrays just that weakness. When the magazine asked him to define his own beliefs, Brown replied, "Let's see, what did we come up with? I'm a mainstream progressive Democrat … meaning I embrace the traditional values of the Democratic party, but I'm progressive."
Chairman of Democratic National Committee
The role of Democratic National Committee chairman became increasingly important during the dozen years between 1980 and 1992 when Democrats were out of the White House. As party chairman, Brown was successful in raising funds against the odds and helping to elect approved candidates. The 1989 off-year elections were, in Brown's own words, "a slam dunk," according to the New York Times. Democrats registered two firsts: a black governor in Virginia and a black mayor in New York City. Just as significantly, the Democrats picked up four congressional seats in special elections, including winning former Vice-President Dan Quayle's seat in heavily Republican Indiana. Brown remarked to the New York Times, "What the party does over here and over there should be strategically connected. The voter registration, the redistricting, the state party building and the campaigns—everything should be connected to winning elections." That the party, and Brown, succeeded in that to a good degree is made even more impressive given President Bush's sky-high approval ratings during that period.
Still, potentially thorny racial questions—exactly the kind that could alienate jumpy white Southern Democrats—always threatened to grab headlines. There too, though, Brown found a way to defuse the many pressures facing him. In the Chicago mayoral election of 1989, for instance, Brown dodged a tricky, racially-charged issue— whether to support white Democratic nominee Richard Daley, son of the late mayor, over black alderman Tim Evans, a Jackson ally running as an independent. He vowed to toe the party line and back the Democratic nominee, Daley.
But there was nowhere to escape to, no corner of America in which Brown could hide, when the political theater expanded from local elections to the presidential campaign of 1992. After the Persian Gulf War with Iraq, President Bush was enjoying high favorability ratings with the American electorate, and it appeared the Democratic party would again face an uphill battle to wrest White House control from the Republicans. Initially, because of Bush's popularity, Brown had difficulty raising money for the Democratic National Committee. Another problem was that, in the eyes of some Jewish contributors, Brown had not sufficiently distanced himself from Jesse Jackson, whose anti-Semitic remarks several years earlier were still a festering sore spot in Jewish/African American relations.
Worked for Democratic Unity
But Brown's greatest challenge, in terms of attracting dollars and, ultimately, the votes of Americans, was to remold the image of the party, shedding the "tax and spend" label that the Republicans had successfully applied to democratic candidates in the past. "We need to define ourselves as a party," Brown was quoted as telling Black Enterprise. "When you allow your adversaries to define you, you can be assured that the definition is going to be a very unpleasant one and that you find yourself on the defensive trying to dig yourself out of a hole. We can't let that happen again."
The answer, as many political observers had long known, lay in the middle. Brown understood that for the party to reclaim the so-called Reagan Democrats, it would need a candidate with fiscally conservative economic policies that would not adversely affect the struggling middle class. While he could not keep liberals such as Iowa senator Tom Harkin out of the primaries, Brown did muzzle the potential candidacy of Jesse Jackson, who, Brown feared, would unwittingly tarnish the new, moderate image that the party desperately needed.
Brown's plan was to minimize any acrimony among the primary candidates, hoping to focus their disparate voices on the need to unseat the Republican president. Bush, meanwhile, had suffered a precipitous fall in popularity, as his success in the Persian Gulf was overshadowed by a lingering recession in the United States. At a time when the citizenry had grown tired of politics as usual and were calling on the U.S. president to focus on domestic affairs, the Democratic party became the agent of "change."
In addition to nudging the party toward the center of the political spectrum, Brown's plan was to throw the party's support behind its candidate early in the political season. Indeed, one primary candidate, former California governor Jerry Brown, accused the party chairman of coddling to then-Arkansas governor Bill Clinton, who was emerging as the leading democratic figure, in spite of several personal and professional scandals in the Clinton camp that might have led to yet another Democratic loss in the general elections.
At the Democratic National Convention in July of 1992, Clinton won the nomination despite the various controversies surrounding him, and Brown, having calmed many of the voices of dissent, earned widespread praise for a smooth democratic crowning whose central messages were unity and enthusiasm for the party candidate. "Ron sensed what he had to do right from the start," former DNC chairman Kirk was quoted as saying in the New York Times. "He knew the party had to show it could govern itself before it could hope to govern the country." Brown's public trumpeting about a redefined Democratic party, and his behind-the-scenes maneuvering to generate support for Clinton, were seen as key to the first democratic presidential victory since 1976.
Named Secretary of Commerce
Brown's departure from the DNC was as controversial as his election as its chairman. In what some skeptics viewed as a political payback and an effort to create a racially diverse cabinet, Clinton nominated Brown as secretary of commerce. Immediately, Brown's past experience as a lobbyist took on the weight of a political liability. As secretary, he would make administrative and policy decisions that might affect his former clients, to whom, it was feared, he would feel some sort of allegiance. Moreover, several political commentators found it ironic that Clinton, who had campaigned against the status quo and the government-insider lobbyist crowd, had nominated Brown, the Washington power broker who played the political game with expert finesse. Illustrative of the ethical questions raised by Brown's nomination was a celebration in his honor that several of the largest American and Japanese corporations had planned. These companies, whose financial interests are impacted by decisions of the commerce secretary, were to have donated $10,000 each for the gala, which was abruptly canceled by Brown after Clinton expressed disapproval. Despite these setbacks, Brown was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 1993 as the nation's first African American secretary of commerce. He pledged to make the department more responsive to the country's needs and concentrate on the promotion of American business interests both at home and in the international arena.
Brown's tenure as commerce secretary was a troubled one, however, as he was the target of numerous allegations that he acted improperly in his business dealings prior to his cabinet appointment. These allegations included charges that he failed to disclose his investment in a low-income apartment complex and that he did not report a $400,000 payment from a former business partner. By May of 1995, Brown was being investigated by the Justice Department, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and Congressional Republicans.
Brown's policy at the commerce department was one which emphasized trade over nuclear proliferation and human rights. His backslapping friendly manner resulted in American businessmen signing memoranda for new projects worth $4 billion in India on a January 1995 visit and over $6 billion in China during a September 1994 visit. On the China trip, Brown had 24 American CEOs accompany him to insure that the potential for some dealmaking would exist. He also led delegations bringing CEOs to South Africa, Northern Ireland, and Gaza. As a result of this policy Brown managed to acquire more foreign business for the United States than had any of his predecessors.
It was on a similar trip to Croatia, hoping to rebuild the war-torn region's infrastructure and economy, that Ron Brown died. Thirty-three people, including the secretary, business executives, and commerce staffers, were killed when their plane went down in the midst of a storm between Kalamota, near Dubrovnik, and the Cilipi airport on April 3, 1996. There were no survivors. As quoted in USA Today, President Clinton called Brown "one of the best advisers and ablest people I ever knew."
Further Reading on Ronald H. Brown
Atlanta Journal and Constitution, January 7, 1989; February 12, 1989; May 22, 1989.
Black Enterprise, March 1992, p. 48.
Boston Globe Magazine, October 22, 1989.
Business Week February 13, 1989, p. 54; June 18, 1990, p. 30;January 11, 1993, p. 31; September 12, 1994, p. 54.
The Economist January 21, 1995, p. 37.
Gentleman's Quarterly, July 1989.
Nation, February 20, 1989.
Newsweek, February 6, 1989, p. 20.
New York Times, February 11, 1989; March 28, 1992, p. A9; July 20, 1992, p. A11; January 14, 1993, p. A1.
New York Times Magazine, December 12, 1989.
Oakland Press (Oakland County, MI), December 13, 1992, p.A12.
Time, January 30, 1989, p. 56.
USA Today, April 4, 1996, pp. 1A, 2A, 13A.
Wall Street Journal, January 8, 1993, p. A14.
Washington Post, February 5, 1989; February 11, 1989.