As Richard Brown Sr. sees it, Madison is suffering from a crisis of leadership. A former Dane County supervisor, Brown says the crisis will end only when voters stop living in the past.
"We're stuck in the Paul Soglin time warp," Brown says. "People have lost confidence in the mayor's office. There is no leadership there."
Brown, 57, is one of four candidates aiming to put Soglin -- running for what would be his eighth term since 1973 -- out to pasture.
A systems accountant in the county controller's office and former youth football coach, he has big ideas for solving some of the city's most enduring problems.
In 2011, he won the city's prestigious Rev. James C. Wright Human Rights Award, which is given to those who, among other things, have demonstrated a commitment to social justice.
Although his resume is impressive, a formidable obstacle stands between Richard Brown and victory -- Richard Brown.
Since the late '90s, according to court records, Brown has been hit with dozens of small claims suits, losing nearly every one. He fell into financial ruin in the years following his 2003 divorce, eventually defaulting on numerous loans, mortgages and taxes.
He's also been prosecuted numerous times for building code violations, buttressing his reputation as a former slumlord.
And there have been unsubstantiated allegations of financial impropriety surrounding his departure as manager of an acclaimed minority-owned business incubator in 2009.
"Would he make a good mayor? That's a good question," says Vern Acker, a Waunakee-based real estate agent who successfully sued Brown in 2006. "The thing about Richard is that when he gets kicked down, he gets right back up. He's an outside-the-box kind of guy."
Brown entered the race less than a month before the Jan. 6 filing deadline, after failing to persuade better-known African Americans, like former Madison Police Chief Noble Wray, to run.
"When no one stepped up, I looked at all of the things I had done and said, 'Wow! You're actually the most qualified of them all,'" he says. "The question is whether Madison is ready for an African American mayor."
Brown is running against Soglin, former Ald. Bridget Maniaci, current Ald. Scott Resnick and political upstart Christopher Daly in the Feb. 17 primary. The two candidates with the most votes square off in the April 7 general election.
Those who've worked with Brown describe him as civic-minded and earnest, a politically ambitious people pleaser who cares deeply not only for the African American community, but the city he's called home for 32 years.
Brown acknowledges that his business failures may give some voters pause.
"Confucius said, 'He who makes beds sleeps on floors,'" he says. "Maybe I spent too much time caring about our city and not enough time on myself. But it doesn't look like our finances are being managed that well right now. I'm applying for a job, and every job I've had I've excelled at."
He continues, "What I'm saying is maybe, just maybe, I'm the person who makes that bed."
Once among the city's largest providers of low-income housing, Brown now lives paycheck to paycheck, according to documents filed last year in family court. He attributes this reversal of fortunes to bad luck (2008's financial collapse) and his own bleeding heart.
"You know why I lost my [rental] housing?" he asks. "Because I couldn't kick out kids. If I kick out parents, I kick out kids. All I did was try to help people."
Representing Madison's southwest side on the county board, Brown dealt a self-inflicted blow to his business by supporting a 2006 amendment to the county's housing code requiring landlords to accept tenants through the federal government's Section 8 rent subsidy program.
When a motion was made six months later to rescind the amendment, he stood by his original vote.
"I almost had a monopoly for a while," he says. "About 80% of the people I rented to were on Section 8."
Former Ald. Isadore Knox says his wife, a probation and parole agent, often turned to Brown to help house people no one else would rent to.
"Richard did more for keeping families from being homeless than anyone I know," says Knox, who is running Brown's campaign.
Unable to keep up with his numerous financial and legal obligations, Brown's properties fell into foreclosure and he lost his county board seat in 2008. He filed for bankruptcy, but the case was dismissed.
"After losing my business I went back to work and have been working ever since."
Vision for Madison
Like his opponents, Brown doesn't pull punches over what he sees as Soglin's many failures and shortcomings. "He's always traveling," Brown says. "Even when he's here, he's traveling."
But Brown is most animated when discussing Mayor Richard Brown, who he says would be a consensus builder.
"I don't believe the council and mayor have a shared vision," he says. "We need to pull together for the common good."
Allies say Brown has a record of bipartisanship.
"Richard is Richard," says Supv. Dave Ripp, one of the few Republicans still on the county board. "He would study each issue individually then do his thing. He was independent. You never knew how he was going to vote."
Drawing from his considerable administrative and government budgeting experience, Brown says he can hold the line on taxes while making meaningful progress on racial inequality, homelessness and public spending.
A deacon at Mt. Zion Baptist Church on Fisher Street, Brown is also a believer in the power of partnerships, especially with schools. "We can't fix the community unless we fix the schools," says Brown, a father of two adult sons.
He would allow city employees four hours each month of paid time to volunteer in a city school. "That's 8,000 hours a month in school tutoring."
He would like to establish two new offices, one to provide alders with issue papers ahead of important votes, the other to promote faith-based initiatives.
The latter initiative would ask churches to provide homeless residents housing. Under his plan, each church would adopt a family and call on parishioners to volunteer time, resources and expertise. "I want each church to follow one family around so they will be successful," he says.
Brown also identifies ways to cut costs. Partnering with the county could eliminate expensive redundancies. "We're in the same building, so why do we need two IT departments?"
And establishing a reserve police force, similar to the one he served in during his U.S. Army stint at Fort Polk, La., could reduce police overtime by 50%.
"I'm not talking about reducing government, but moving money around," he says.
Slumlord or savior?
The same year the county board approved the Section 8 amendment, it also approved a lease agreement giving Joining Forces for Families, a service provider for low-income families, an office inside Brown's apartment building at 2501 Fish Hatchery Road.
Brown blames the county-funded agency for bringing undesirables to the property, creating problems.
"[Joining Forces] only occupied that apartment a short time," says David Marshall, a county Department of Human Services employee, via email. "We moved our office to Badger Road and Park Street to be closer to those in need of our services."
During the period the agency occupied the apartment, its occupants complained to city building inspectors about holes in walls, broken windows, spongy floors and leaking ceilings, among other things.
Tenants at many of Brown's other properties made similar complaints, prompting the city to prosecute Brown for code violations. Brown counters that he was targeted after purchasing a drug house the city wanted to condemn and by other property owners who didn't like the low-income tenants he rented to.
He struggled with other ventures. Between 2006 and 2009, Brown managed the Genesis Enterprise Center, a minority-owned business incubator on Madison's south side.
When Genesis Development Corp. fell behind on its financial obligations, the building was placed in receivership, Brown was fired, and police were notified when the court-appointed receiver -- who wouldn't speak to Isthmus -- discovered $5,000 in checks Brown had written to himself.
Neither a police investigation nor a forensic audit were conducted. Brown denies any wrongdoing, claiming he and his staff are still owed money for work.
"The point of an incubator is to give businesses a place to grow," he says. "Look at the businesses there under my watch. We built up those businesses, and they're still going today."
When those businesses moved out, new businesses were never found to take their place, he says.
"It was one of those situations where success equals failure," he says.
In it to win
Brown ranks his need to be liked, if not loved, among his greatest weaknesses. Over coffee at Starbucks, campaign manager Knox tells him to "get over it."
"I tell him, 'The secret to failure is trying to please everyone,'" says Knox. "Richard loves people. He's a collaborator. I don't know anyone who is better at bringing people together."
Even some old foes remain fond of him. Vern Acker, who sued Brown when he defaulted on a $5,000 personal loan, says Brown was "always straightforward" with him.
"I wouldn't mind having a beer with the guy," Acker says. "I don't know what kind of baggage he still has, but I know he burned some people. As far as being a good mayor, he'd probably be a little more conservative than Soglin."
Brown hopes people can see beyond what they read about him.
"I did my best to repay everyone I owed," he says. "I'm not a deadbeat. I raised my kids. My business just didn't happen."
Correction: The print version of this story misidentified the name of an award Brown received, the city's Rev. James C. Wright Human Rights Award.