U.S. Rep. Anthony G. Brown (D-Md.) has what can only be described as a sterling resume.
He is a Harvard-educator lawyer, a decorated war hero, a former lieutenant governor and now a member of Congress. But his career suffered a setback in 2014 when he was upset in the race for governor by Republican Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. Two years later, a rare House vacancy in Maryland provided a way back in to the political arena.
Brown has elevated his profile of late, speaking out with more passion and frequency on issues impacting the nation and the state. Brown was also a high-profile supporter of Pete Buttigieg in the Democratic presidential fight and could be offered a job in the next Democratic administration if former vice president Joe Biden prevails in November.
Reporter Bruce DePuyt spoke with Brown recently about the multiple crises that are hitting people of color in a disproportionate manner — social injustice, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the collapse of the economy.
Brown discussed these issues, offered a caustic assessment of Hogan’s governing style, and discussed the possibility that he will take another run at the State House in 2022.
Below is a transcript of their conversation, lightly edited for space and clarity.
Maryland Matters: There is no modern parallel for the public protests against police misconduct and social injustice. How do Americans make the most of this moment?
Rep. Anthony G. Brown: I am definitely encouraged by the generational diversity, and the racial and ethnic diversity, that we are witnessing in support of this battle cry that now is the time, enough is enough, and we need to rein in law enforcement, hold police accountable and reform the ways in which we insure the safety of the public.
Now it’s incumbent upon each of us in our unique way to ensure that we don’t miss this opportunity when more people than ever before are focused on this problem. For members of Congress, that means not just introducing legislation like the Justice in Policing Act but getting it done, getting it passed.
MM: How does this moment compare to other times when the use of police force aroused public opinion?
Brown: What makes this different is that we witnessed this atrocity in the middle of an existing crisis that we’re all just trying to get through.
This pandemic has caused many Americans to spend a lot of time at home, absorbing information and then you have this — and it’s not new — too many names on too long of a list, men and women, Black, who’ve been killed at the hands of the police.
What makes this different is that people are consuming a lot of information without distraction and they have been able to absorb this and understand it.
And I certainly don’t say this to minimize the peaceful protests, but it gave people an opportunity to get out of the house and a good reason to do so.
We’re trying to survive the pandemic. Unemployment numbers are going through the roof. Deaths are going through the roof. And all of a sudden you have this incident, yet another one, Black man with a white cop, knee on his neck for nine minutes, and he dies. And it’s like, ‘Wow. Wait a second.’
MM: [Maryland House] Speaker [Adrienne] Jones and others have called on Gov. Hogan to implement police reforms. What actions can the state take now?
Brown: I tweeted back at the governor on Thursday when he issued a proclamation for Juneteenth. I said ‘that’s great, but that’s not enough.’ I said, ‘You’e a governor with executive power. Let’s get police reform done.’
The governor could start by enacting the provisions in the federal Justice in Policing Act, which we will vote on this week. We have a lot of different police departments in Maryland and I don’t believe they have all outlawed the chokehold or other restraints that are excessive. I think he could do that.
We could establish a registry and a database for police complaints and misconduct for officers who get in trouble in one place and then move to another. We always need to be investing in better training, screening and recruitment of law enforcement — and training on biases.
MM: What sort of accountability should we see in the wake of the government’s attack on peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square on June 1 — and how do we ensure that something like that never happens again?
Brown: It’ll be the election in November that ensures that that doesn’t happen again under this administration. This president has been almost lawless in the way that he’s tried to exercise power, especially the police power of the state.
We need to give the mayor of Washington, D.C., responsibility over the D.C. National Guard like what governors have.
There is an investigation of the helicopter low-hover overflight. On the House Armed Services Committee we have had some oversight on what happened. And you may see some changes in the way that the military and federal law enforcement respond in the District of Columbia.
MM: The COVID-19 epidemic has had a disproportionate impact on people of color, front-line workers and low-income people. And we know the threat isn’t going away any time soon. What can we do to protect people who, in many cases, were already struggling to make ends meet?
Brown: We’ve got to deliver the resources that are needed to testing, contact tracing, treatment and quarantining.
The contact tracing needs to be done by a trusted agent in the community. You don’t want to bring in outsiders. That’s why the House, in the HEROES Act, is putting $75 billion more into the testing, contact tracing and treatment. We’ve got to get that into our communities of color.
But we also have to think long term about the underlying disparities that have been exacerbated in this pandemic — health, education, criminal justice, etc.
I have a bill that’s modeled after the Health Enterprise Zones we created when I was lieutenant governor to address these persistent health disparities that we see in communities of color. [Rep.] Steny Hoyer supports it and he doesn’t sign on to a whole lot of bills.
We also have to make sure that we are protecting those essential front-line workers and making sure they have PPE, and that OSHA issues regulations that require employers to safeguard their workforce and their customers.
MM: What does the phrase “defund the police” mean to you and could you support literally defunding the police?
Brown: Systemic racism pervades far too many police departments. We need structural and transformational change in our police departments to root out the racial bias that has taken the lives of far too many Black and Brown Americans. That means reducing militarization, removing bad officers, eliminating obstacles to criminal prosecutions and civil damages for illegal behavior, banning chokeholds and no-knock warrants, eliminating racial profiling and increasing transparency. Officers should act as guardians of the community, not warriors.
This week, the House will vote on the Justice in Policing Act which will begin to bring about these necessary changes.
We have to make greater investments in our communities, and acknowledge that for far too long we have neglected to address structural disparities and the needs of our communities. Gaps in economic opportunity, mental-health, housing, pre-K and health care, all of which have widened along racial lines during this pandemic. Our action on these issues must reflect that reality.
MM: Distance learning has been very uneven, with the “haves” faring much better than the “have-nots.” Are you worried that existing disparities will widen and become an even greater crisis?
Brown: The technology divide is going to result, I believe, in greater disparities and outcomes. And in many schools, teachers are not well equipped, because they have never had to deliver instruction remotely.
We include money to support schools in the HEROES Act. Part of that $1 trillion for state and local government is because we know that they are experiencing declining revenues because of the pandemic.
The governor was going to veto Kirwan [the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future] before the pandemic. And I think he has probably ridden himself of guilt and feels more justified in his position because he’s hiding behind a pandemic, but he was going to veto that even before the pandemic.
In 2014, he was against expanding Pre-K, and one of his rationales was we have to expand K through 12. He’s done nothing to expand K-12. Nothing. It’s easy to veto the legislature’s proposal but it’s a lot more difficult to govern when that includes putting forward ideas. I didn’t see a proposal come out of the governor’s office, one that he could rally the legislature around.
I think he has squandered the last six-and-a-half years and has done nothing to improve Maryland’s schools.
MM: You seem to have a higher profile now than you used to. I can’t help but wonder whether you’re thinking about 2022 and perhaps another run for governor.
Brown: You are definitely accurate in your observation that I have stepped up my engagement on Maryland statewide issues.
Why am I speaking up more?
The governor won in 2014. The voters spoke and you want to work with the governor. He made a commitment to work in a bipartisan way, but the only way that he’s been bipartisan is when he’s stood behind the legislature and not vetoed what they’ve done.
He hasn’t led on a single thing that he campaigned on. If you’re the governor with the extraordinary powers that you have, you get people to yes.
Vetoing Kirwan. The objectionable proposal to expand I-495 and not consider a transit option. Raising bus fares in Baltimore but lowering the tolls over the Bay Bridge. So I started speaking out on issues that impact my constituents.
This pandemic demonstrated his ineffectiveness as a manager. He made some good decisions at the outset, but he fumbled the ball on unemployment insurance benefits. He fumbled on processing SNAP benefits and he wasn’t straightforward and candid on testing capacity and what he was doing to support nursing homes.
This is a guy who ran on competence in management and yet he’s demonstrated incompetence. And I think it’s important that we in public office hold one another accountable.
The governor talked about acquiring the Baltimore-Washington Parkway from the federal government to improve it. He talked about acquiring a national park in Oxon Hill so he could give it away to the Redskins. Not once did he come to the congressional delegation to discuss this with us, even though it takes an act of Congress to make those things happen.
So he hasn’t demonstrated a willingness to work with his colleagues, either in the General Assembly or in the delegation. So enough is enough. At some point you’ve got to speak up and speak out.
MM: Do you think about running for governor?
Brown: I will serve in the position that puts my skills to the best and highest use. I believe that service in state government is very important. The issues that are confronted in Annapolis are important. I spent 15 years there. I know the issues. I know the players. I know the people.
Right now I’m trying to gain the same level of experience and understanding and effectiveness on Capitol Hill. I’m up for re-election, which is pretty much secure.
The race for governor is in the next cycle. Let’s get beyond November. Let’s get Joe Biden elected president. And then I will look at what’s next in 2022, whether it’s re-election to the House of Representatives or any other office where I believe that I can add value and where I can get excited.
Does that mean I could run for governor? Certainly I could run for governor.