Mr. Brown's Hustle 

Preston Brown's plans to make it big took him from the East Coast to the West Coast, from the black to the red and back again. Now he wants to climb Richmond's most powerful hill.

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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."

click to enlarge Preston Brown’s used-car business at 32nd and Hull streets finances cars for people who don’t otherwise have the means. It’s also where he organizes his campaign. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Preston Brown’s used-car business at 32nd and Hull streets finances cars for people who don’t otherwise have the means. It’s also where he organizes his campaign.

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."

click to enlarge At Mt. Calvary Baptist Church in Fulton in late July, Brown makes his stump speech. - ASH DANIEL
  • Ash Daniel
  • At Mt. Calvary Baptist Church in Fulton in late July, Brown makes his stump speech.

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."

click to enlarge Brown’s interview room at WCLM-AM 1450, where he broadcasts his daily radio show, in a building next door to his used-car business at 32nd and Hull. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Brown’s interview room at WCLM-AM 1450, where he broadcasts his daily radio show, in a building next door to his used-car business at 32nd and Hull.

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


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