In the course of my newspaper career, I have interviewed countless politicians who found themselves on the hot seat, their political career in jeopardy.
Some were caught having extramarital affairs, others were caught with their hand in the proverbial cookie jar, and still others who sold out their constituents, and their own oath of office, for what amounted to a handful of magic beans.
Invariably, when caught the perpetrator denies all wrongdoing - talking in circles, lying and weaseling for as long as possible - then when the evidence is finally too overwhelming and damning to ignore, will then shift the blame to an underling, a political enemy, lawyers, the media or rogue government agents out to get them.
They’ll say they’ve decided to resign to spend more time with their family, pursue other interests, or get some much-needed rest. That last part may actually be true, since lining your pockets with other people’s money is demanding work, and can really take a lot out of you.
What they won’t do is tell the simple, honest truth. “Yes, I (stole the money / took the bribe / slept with an intern / insert your own transgression here) and I’m terribly sorry. I knew better, I shouldn’t have done it, and I’m ready to accept my punishment for doing it.”
I’ve witnessed the scenario played out a thousand times, and the results are so predictable, most of the time I could almost write the story before sitting down for the interview.
Until Wednesday afternoon.
Embattled city councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown sat down with the Tribune’s editorial board for an exclusive interview - her first full interview since agreeing to pay more than $40,000 to the city’s ethics board for a laundry list of serious campaign finance violations - serious enough to sink her career and any future aspirations. Eric Mayes’ compelling piece on Brown’s visit can be read here.
What she did was something I’ve never seen done before - she started the interview by taking full blame and responsibility for every violation, and by giving us a complete timeline of her actions, and why she violated the trust Philadelphians have given her over her long career.
It started as a scenario with which many can sympathize: her husband walked out, but neglected to mention that he had stopped paying the mortgage on the house. By the time she found out, she was $40,000 behind and the bank was threatening foreclosure. Desperation sunk in. She had a child in school, and an aging mother she was taking care of. She scrambled to get the money, cashing in her retirement accounts and dipping into her daughter’s college fund. She borrowed from friends, one of whom was her old pal, Rep. Chaka Fattah.
Fattah had his son give Reynolds Brown $3300, which she later ordered her campaign manager John McDaniel to pay back from her campaign fund. She knew it was wrong, but as she told us Wednesday, “When you’re in a stupid place, you make bad decisions.”
A second bad decision was not checking up on McDaniel, who falsified the campaign finance reports. She took other money, deposited it in her personal account, and allowed McDaniel to write all checks from the campaign without oversight. (Only minutes before Brown showed up for her interview, news broke that McDaniel was being charged by the feds with wire fraud, having allegedly stolen $100,000 from her campaign coffers.)
Reynolds Brown could have laid it all on McDaniel. The opening was there, during that interview, to throw him under the bus and claim, with some validity, that she was the victim here.
She didn’t. She not only took responsibility, she admitted that her actions had severely damaged her reputation, and her standing with the voters who put her in office. She vowed to do everything in her power to repair the damage she had done, and restore her good name.
If she was acting, it was an Oscar-worthy performance. It’s pretty tough to convince a bunch of hard-boiled cynical news hounds of your sincerity after a self-inflicted wound, but she came as close as anyone.
Eyes welling, she said, “I just hope the voters will look at the totality of my record, and come to the conclusion that 18 months of bad, stupid decisions don’t add up to 18 years of dedicated service.”
I don’t know if the voters will forgive her, or even if she deserves their forgiveness. But maybe, just maybe, she does deserve a chance to redeem herself.
Daryl Gale is the city editor of the Philadelphia Tribune.