From behind the wheel of a powder-blue luxury sedan, cruising past storefront churches and shotgun houses, Preston T. Brown reveals secrets of south Richmond.
"That right there is a gambling house," he says, smiling while pointing toward a small house just a few mailboxes down from a local bible ministry. "They have craps, poker, whatever you want." Cruising south on Hull Street, Brown tilts his head in the direction of a drab structure with a neatly manicured and grassy front yard. It's where people go to fence stolen goods, he says.
Brown has worked in this neighborhood for decades. A serial entrepreneur, three of his businesses — a car dealership, a soul food cafe, and an AM radio station — are within blocks of each other near Hull Street and Broad Rock Boulevard.
The temperature hits 101 on this Saturday, two degrees cooler than the hottest July 23 on record in Richmond, and Brown is in campaign mode, hopscotching from one community event to the next.
A lifelong Democrat, Brown is challenging that party's longtime state senator, Henry Marsh, for the right to represent the 16th District, which includes portions of Church Hill and south Richmond. To do it, the 57-year-old is running as an independent. And as it works with many an underdog political campaign, this is a strategy born of necessity. Voter turnout traditionally is much lower for primary elections, and the domain of the party faithful, so Brown decided to skip that step to take his chances in the general election. Taking on Marsh, an incumbent and the closest thing Richmond has to a living civil rights legend, he's going to need every advantage he can muster.
Across town, a large, round man who introduces himself as Sweet Lou Hidalgo waits beside the stage at Dogwood Dell. Every week, Hidalgo buys air time on WCLM-AM 1450, one of two local radio stations co-owned by Brown. He's also the organizer of the Latin Jazz Festival, which has drawn dozens of revelers to Byrd Park, and he's promised Brown a few minutes between sets to address the crowd.
This is the engine that powers Brown's fledgling candidacy, a lifetime's worth of personal connections parlayed into opportunities to win voters. "That's how I'm going to make it," he says. "I'm as grass-roots as it gets."
Opinions will vary, but a win for Brown isn't that far-fetched. Much more unlikely candidates have defied conventional wisdom and defeated well-established incumbents. Remember Alvin Greene? He was the unemployed South Carolina political unknown who in the 2010 Democratic senate primary defeated a popular state politico for the right to get trounced by Republican Sen. Jim DeMint.
In Marsh, Brown takes on a 20-year veteran of the General Assembly and one of the most entrenched politicians in the state. He's at a disadvantage in the holy trinity of political campaigning: fundraising, name recognition and experience. Faced with those political realities, most people wouldn't bother. And there aren't many observers beyond Brown's core of supporters who give him much of chance.
"He's going to need some intervention, divine or otherwise," says longtime political consultant Paul Goldman, who famously managed one of the biggest political upsets in Virginia history — Doug Wilder's gubernatorial victory over Republican Marshall Coleman in 1989. But even candidates with little chance of success are important to the political discourse, Goldman says. Whether single-issue candidates, upstarts looking to gain name recognition or grass-roots party crashers, they can test the invulnerability of incumbents, keep them honest, raise issues that otherwise go unaddressed. And — who knows — maybe even pull off the Cinderella upset.
"If voters are presented with a choice then it remains their system of government," says Isaac Wood, a political analyst with the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "The people are in charge as long as there's a choice."
For Brown, part of the motivation is to remind the people that, despite the quirks of the system, there is a choice, and that they too can air grievances. Even as Marsh heads toward likely re-election, there's at least one constituent willing to challenge him.
People lacking in deep reserves of disposable income or practical political experience usually don't challenge sitting state senators. But they're not Brown, a man who has penchant for making unironic and grandiose pronouncements, such as, "I'm the hope of black America." Eased into his front seat on the way to Byrd Park, he answers a volley of questions on campaign strategy with his typical pluck:
How much money have you raised?
"I don't need much. I just need shoes to walk and talk and show my face," he says. Marsh's campaign war chest stands at $44,518, according to the most recent campaign finance reports, while Brown has raised just $10,080, a healthy portion of which is his own money.
How will you overcome the name recognition problem?
"Nobody under 50 knows who Marsh is. He doesn't hold public meetings in Church Hill or in Hopewell. He has the years, but he doesn't have the community."
Have you lined up support from any elected officials?
"I'm black and going up against the Democratic Party, and going up against the king of the Democrats. So, what political support am I going to get?"
Ultimately, why should voters choose you, someone who has no legislative experience? Why you?
"I'm the coolest dude out here right now. I have heart. I'm not going to fall for the okey-doke, and I'm not afraid to lay it on the line for the people who are suffering right now."
Slightly diminutive at 5-foot-7, Brown talks big — dresses big too. It's the casual-Saturday ensemble of middle-age black men everywhere: pristine white slacks and a short-sleeved, button-up silk shirt, with a line of bulbous gold rings parked on his fingers.
He's tried his hand at just about everything that's caught his fancy. He's sold cars, and before that, ice cream. He worked as a deejay. He performed stand-up comedy, and took up with a local wrestling federation, first as a manager, a pimp character called Iceberg Cool, then as a bonafide wrestler.
At an early age, Brown and his siblings were indoctrinated into the family tradition of entrepreneurship. Brown's father, Roy, worked for Ford Motor Co. by day, and ran a janitorial service at night. Preston and his brothers were the crew.
"He was very fair about it," Brown recalls. "He'd negotiate the contracts, and he'd let us keep the money for whichever place we were assigned to."
At age 19, Brown announced to his parents that he was engaged. He'd graduated from Highland Springs High School in 1972, where he met Elsie, the woman who would become the first ex-wife. They were divorced within a year. Brown had lasted only four months at Norfolk State University before dropping out. He wasn't interested in books, only entertaining, recalls his older brother Otis.
That's not quite right, Brown says, clarifying: "I was interested in money, and most everyone I knew who had a degree was broke."
Then he announced that he was moving to Hollywood. It wasn't that much of a shock to his parents, Brown says. "If they saw an airplane going across the sky, and someone told them that I was flying it, they'd believe it because they knew that I'd try anything," he says. "I was just bold."
To be happy, Brown says he needed more than a house and his menial job moving around barrels of tobacco at a Philip Morris packing plant. But he says Elsie disagreed.
And so Brown departed via bus to Hollywood. He arrived four days later, significantly more broke than before he left Virginia. A stop-off at a casino in Las Vegas had drained his finances, leaving him with just $20 to navigate Los Angeles.
By the time he returned to Richmond, having tried and failed to break into acting, he was more determined than ever not just to live, but to make a fortune and "live big."
Thus began a long career of entrepreneurship, starting with an ice cream truck. Unlike some other operators, he drove into public housing projects after dark, when residents poured out into the courtyards to escape the heat. With the market cornered, Brown says he made a fortune.
Then there was the arcade he opened in the mid-1980s. But like before the money, which always seemed to flow downhill in his general direction, flowed back out just as quickly.
By 1993, at age 39, Brown was in debt and four times divorced. "It was a time when you couldn't say the word bankruptcy to people without them judging you," he says. But he filed for Chapter 11, and then during the course of 18 months began the slow trek back into financial solvency.
In the ensuing months, he decided to quit a job selling cars and strike out on his own. Driving through the South Side, he saw a for-sale sign in front of a small building near 32nd and Hull streets. In the wake of the bankruptcy, he found himself unwilling to work for anyone but himself. So he stopped and approached the owner, James Goodman, about buying the property to convert it into a car dealership of his own.
Brown says he eventually persuaded Goodman to let him have the property for a $500 down payment, having negotiated the price down from $10,000. "I'll pay you before I pay anyone else," he told Goodman, who accepted. "The little Dealer with the Big Heart" reads the copy of his very first newspaper ad. In it, he's pictured with glasses, his hair a mass of glistening Jheri curls. It appeared first in the Richmond Voice, Brown says, after publisher Jack Green extended him a line of credit.
While struggling to get the business started – in other words, scaring up enough capital to buy used cars to stock his lot — Brown slept on a sofa in the back room.
"People never realized that I was broke," he says. "Because I would always carry myself like I had a little something."
In the 18 years since, Brown has sold a few hundred cars — mostly to poor folks — extending thousands of dollars in credit, only to have customers renege and default. "I've seen it firsthand," he says. "The people that come to me, some of them don't have jobs, they're on welfare, they stop getting Social Security benefits, then they can't pay you back after you've agreed to finance them."
"It's a high-risk business," he says.
With the money he made, he was able to afford a lifestyle that allowed him to become partial owner of two community radio stations and open various restaurants, the latest of which is run by his fifth wife, Judy. They have a blended family, with six children between them, four from Brown's previous marriages.
But the dealership's business model wasn't recession-proof. In 2009 Brown filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy to reorganize some $1.4 million in personal debts. "When the economy hit everybody, it hit poor people too," he says. "Poor people are my clients."
Brown says that when the economy tanked, 102 of his customers declared bankruptcy. Brown financed most of his clients using his money. So when his customers defaulted, so did he. His bankruptcy reorganization since has been dismissed, so he's stuck paying down the personal debt on his own.
Like so many candidates for political office, Brown says he was called to run. "I wasn't interested in being no senator," he says. But he'd spent years prior toying with the idea of running for political office.
In 2004 he was among a pack of local politicians vying for the chance to challenge Reva Trammell for the 8th District seat on City Council. That honor eventually went to Jackie Jackson, and Brown never made it onto the ballot.
Political life still beckoned, while he began sprinkling in political commentary with the soul and gospel tunes on his weekly radio show. Ultimately, though, it was his wife, Judy, who convinced him to act. She said, "You're just one person," he recalls. In order for people to really listen, she advised, he needed to run.
A summation of Henry Marsh's background reads like a hagiography. After graduating from Virginia Union University in 1956, Marsh went on to become a famed civil rights attorney. He was elected to Richmond City Council in 1966.
He inevitably rose to the Virginia Senate, where he's served since 1991 as representative of a district that includes some of the poorest sections of Richmond, Hopewell, Petersburg and Chesterfield County.
To some, that resumé makes Marsh the dream of the civil rights movement realized — a black state senator. More importantly, that pedigree may make him impossible to beat in a head-to-head race.
Indeed, the last time Marsh faced a challenge was in 2007, by an independent named Robert Owens. Marsh beat Owens by a whopping 33 percentage points.
But to Brown and his like-minded supporters, Marsh is an empty suit, having gone without a significant challenge long enough to become complacent.
Parts of Marsh's district, like much of the city, continue to be devoured by poverty. The latest census figures show 23 percent of Richmonders live below the poverty line.
Unemployment numbers are even worse. According to the June report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate in Richmond, Petersburg and Hopewell ranged from 10 to 12 percent, but in some communities it's much higher.
Jack Green, publisher of the Richmond Voice, a local newspaper serving Richmond's black community, says he counts both Marsh and Brown as his friends. Nonetheless, Green rates Marsh's stewardship of the district at a five on a scale of one to 10. "Longevity doesn't mean that you get to keep a seat forever," he says. "Both blacks and whites are hurting across the region. If they don't feel like you're doing enough to address that, they're going to want to make a change."
Others are less hedging. "I think Mr. Marsh has had his day," former Richmond City Councilman Sa'ad El-Amin says. "We need somebody with energy, fresh ideas, and a sense of humility that Mr. Marsh has not shown for a number of years."
With a November challenge looming, Marsh may have gotten the message. But it might not have been Brown who delivered it.
"All incumbents are vulnerable," Delegate Joe Morrissey says. "And as an incumbent, it's upon him [Marsh] to engage with the community, to remind them of who he is and his accomplishments. If he's not doing that, then to that extent he, like any incumbent, would be vulnerable."
Rumors that Morrissey would challenge Marsh for his seat swirled through Richmond's political circles for months before he put them to rest in June.
After the wrenching halt of that announcement, Morrissey said he instead would focus on his on bid for re-election in the House of Delegates. Morrissey says he tested the waters after his own polling showed he and Marsh neck-and-neck in a race for the 16th District seat. Most observers say Morrissey could have seriously challenged Marsh. But Morrissey backed off. "I'm a Democrat," he says. "At the end of the day, I did not want to split the party."
Sources inside the Democratic Party say that Morrissey "didn't want Henry's scalp on his belt." By winning, he could potentially have alienated the black wing of the party. That wasn't something he was prepared to do, they say.
So, now, it's just Brown.
As political challenges go, Marsh seems to be taking this latest one in stride. "This is what democracy is all about," he says, reached by phone late last week. "The people get a chance to weigh my record against Mr. Brown's. Of course, his record is essentially nonexistent."
For a guy 77 years old, some argue he's past his prime as a legislator, Marsh is quick with a barbed reply. On Brown's plan to create jobs in the district: "Talk is cheap," Marsh says. "I'm curious as to how he can do that with little seniority. Because that's what's necessary to make good on the policy initiatives he says he wants to enact."
As for his own record, Marsh refuses to accept blame for the poverty ailing the district. Calling himself an "instrument of job creation," Marsh points to the recent opening of a Rolls-Royce plant in Prince George County, a project that will create 140 jobs. "I've spent a lifetime helping people who are cursed with poverty," Marsh says. "And if re-elected I will continue to do that."
"I'm P.T. Brown and I'm gonna get down." He drops the boast near the end of his stump speech, at Mt. Calvary, a 130-year-old Baptist church near Gillies Creek Park in Fulton. The pews are packed with graying, all-black parishioners in their Sunday best for Bride of Christ, a special women-centered, post-service revival. It's another sweltering July afternoon, and Brown, dressed up in a khaki suit, has been invited to speak by a member of the church, who, as it turns out, is host of a gospel music hour every week at WCLM.
From the steps in front of the pulpit, Brown begins, making pointed references to Marsh, whom he refers to as "King Henry." This is not intended as a compliment.
"They try to control the black political movement in Richmond," Brown says. "They didn't do the right thing. That's why we're at where we're at."
The "they" in his accusation is the old guard of black political leadership, of which Brown says Marsh is the leader. According to Brown, blacks in Richmond are worse off than they were in 1977, when Marsh became Richmond's first black mayor. "And we've been losing ever since," he says.
Brown says he has nothing but respect for Marsh and his accomplishments as a civil rights activist, but that the Senate needs new ideas.
Regardless of whether that's true, losing Marsh would be a huge blow to the state Democratic Party. After two decades in the statehouse, Marsh has risen to membership in a number of powerful committees, including local government, finance and transportation. He also chairs the Courts of Justice committee, which with its House counterpart nominates judges in the state.
Were the Senate to lose Marsh, there's no guarantee that the slot would be filled by another senior Democrat, much less Brown.
"I'm not against the Republicans or the Democrats," Brown says. "I just want the freedom to be able to vote on an issue and not just a party, to do something that's best for the community."
What's best for his community, Brown says, is jobs and decreases in government fees. These seem the two main planks in Brown's still-developing platform. Business development, minority business development to be specific, is the cure for what ails areas such as south Richmond, he says. "We have to make it easier for people to go into business," Brown says, "[and] by supporting small businesses and cutting out the red tape we help get them open. The more small businesses open up, the more you jobs you create and the less people you have living in poverty."
So who is better qualified to clear the way for entrepreneurs than someone who has been starting businesses his entire life, Brown asks?
If elected, what would be the first actions on his agenda?
Partisan divide: Reach across it.
Fees charged to state prisoners for their own incarceration: Abolish them.
Voting rights for felons: Restore them.
Of course, to do anything he first must win. And despite the conventional wisdom, Brown is supremely confident, which he lets the assembled, mostly middle-aged congregation know in dramatic fashion.
It's a call-and-response speech worthy of the pulpit — or a wrestling ring. "They told me I was too small to be a wrestler," he says, listing the litany of things that people have tried and failed to deny him: radio, media attention and now the state Senate. "But you can tell them after Nov. 8, what I'll say now — I did it." S