Ronald H. Brown doesn't intend to lead the Democratic Party as a symbol, although he'll be one - or as a liberal, although he is one.
He is about to become the first black chairman of a national political party and he vows to build the Democrats a campaign organization that can help win the White House, something they have managed only once since 1964.Brown is a sure thing to be elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee on Feb. 10 to succeed Paul G. Kirk Jr.
Brown, 47, an urbane lawyer-lobbyist with a lengthy political resume, says the chairman's job is not a pulpit for any ideology, left or right. He promises evenhanded leadership at the national committee, especially when candidates begin lining up for the 1992 presidential campaign.
One of them is likely to be Jesse Jackson, Brown's candidate in 1988 when he served as convention manager for the black challenger to nominee Michael Dukakis. They are allies and friends, but Brown says his new role will lead inevitably to differences.
"I'm not looking to set up a fight to prove something," he said in an interview. Brown said that when his new responsibilities require saying no to Jackson, that's what he'll do.
Setup or not, that will send a useful signal to his Southern and conservative opponents, who insist that race is not a factor but that Brown's liberal ties send the wrong message to the voters who have chosen Republican presidents in four of the last five elections.
Again and again, Brown has pointed out that the Jackson campaign was a 90-day assignment in a long political career. But it was the most visible, as he negotiated for Jackson in televised glare of the Atlanta convention, and it now is the one with which he is most widely identified.
Not that his earlier affiliations win points with the party's more conservative wing. After working at the National Urban League, Brown served as a committee aide to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, and as a deputy manager in the Massachusetts senator's losing bid for the 1980 Democratic presidential nomination.
Kirk was Kennedy's campaign manager that year. There's no sign that Kennedy has reaped any benefits from the fact that one former aide has been party chairman and another is about to take over the job.
As chairman, Kirk made his mark with a relatively low profile. He engineered the elimination of midterm conventions, issues conferences which had become forums for ideological warfare. He also ended party recognition of special-interest caucuses, calling them political nonsense. Neither of those steps fits the liberal agenda.
Party chairmen often are little known outside Washington and political circles. Brown will be out front as chairman. That's obviously his preference, but the lower profile wouldn't be an option even if he sought it. As the first black chairman he is sure to be a spokesman on issues and topics that go beyond the nuts and bolts business of political organization.
"I've got to be one of several messengers," he said, a spokesman as well as a technician. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and House Speaker Jim Wright are the ranking messengers. Brown said he already has discussed his role with them.
Now he has to sort it out with skeptics, with Democrats who see him as the wrong representative to choose after a presidential election in which the L word - liberal - was used by Republicans as a political curse. To that end, even before the committee election, Brown plans a swing across the South, "to reach out . . . raise the comfort level."
He knows the Democrats have problems on issues like national defense, law and order, federal spending. But he says copying Republicans is no answer. "The last thing this country needs is two Republican parties," Brown said. "One is quite enough."
That has a familiar ring. As newlyelected chairman in 1985, Kirk said much the same thing, and immediately went South, saying he didn't need to wait for an invitation to go fence-mending.
"Today marks the end of the soul-searching, the end of the identity crisis of the Democratic Party," Kirk said four years ago when he became chairman.
EDITOR'S NOTE - Walter R. Mears, vice president and columnist for The Associated Press, has reported on Washington and national politics for more than 25 years.