The first African American to be named U.S. attorney for the Western District of Washington is no stranger to television fame.
Nick Brown says being a contestant on the CBS show “Survivor” prepared him for the sometimes harsh glare of the spotlight.
He is a native of Steilacoom, a former Army lawyer, federal prosecutor and aide to Gov. Jay Inslee.
But he says the one job he knew early on he wanted was the one he was appointed to just six months ago, given the impact he hopes his groundbreaking appointment will have.
“What I always tell people, I never mind talking about it,” said Brown. “I hate when it’s the first thing.”
Brown has accomplished much in his 45 years: Army officer, federal prosecutor, Governor’s general counsel, son, husband, dad, too.
So, the last thing he wants to talk about is often the first thing he is asked.
What made him do it?
“What made me do it was a little bit of 23-year-old naiveness,” he said.
In 2000, he tried out for the CBS show “Survivor.”
“I figured if I could get in the room, I would have a shot,” he said. “Because I had a story to tell. I was young. I was at Harvard. I had the Army background. All these things were interesting.”
And he was right. He, along with 15 others, beat out a whopping 50,000 applicants to head to Australia for only the second season of Survivor.
He ultimately got voted off. But he also learned about the darker side of short-lived fame.
“That was my first exposure to being really publicly criticized,” Brown said. “But I had to really learn how to not be affected by that. And now that I am in the position of being in public again, I don’t think it impacts me as much. Because I’ve been through random strangers who don’t like me. And I can’t let that affect my job.”
He is now the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Washington, a post he actively sought and finally got last fall.
“You have so much ability to shape the way justice is done in the community,” said Brown. “I’m the chief federal law enforcement officer for western Washington. So, I get to set policy on the type of cases we focus on. I get to decide how we use our resources. I get to decide who we hire, who we work with.”
As it happens, he prosecuted federal cases in these very courtrooms for six years until 2013, when he left for Governor Jay Inslee’s office.
Does it matter that he’s African American in this role?
“I guess that depends on who you ask, right?” he said. “It matters immensely to me, just knowing all the people before me who would have never had this opportunity means a lot to me.”
But, it also means he is the face of a criminal justice system not known for its even-handed, unbiased treatment of those who look like he does.
“My hope is that because I’m the first Black U.S. attorney, and because I understand and come from that history and that community,” said Brown, “that I can bring a little bit different perspective about how we use the tools of justice.”
He says that means recognizing what the current system gets right and what it gets tragically wrong.
“When I was a kid growing up in the ‘80s and the ‘90s, I always think about all of the people that I knew at the University of Washington, or Washington State University, I went to high school with that were doing drugs on a regular basis,” he said. “Rarely, if ever, did they worry about law enforcement knocking on their door. While at the same time, five miles south, law enforcement is swarming through communities of color, in the south and etc. And people don’t think about that being racially motivated. But I don’t know how else you explain it.
“Things like that, I can have an impact on.”
Like all U.S. attorneys, Nick Brown’s tenure is dependent on who is in the White House as President Biden appointed him. If Biden gets booted out of office or decides not to run again, Brown could be out, too. So, he knows time is short to make a real difference.
“The Department of Justice itself is a gigantic, titanic of an institution,” conceded Brown. “And my hope is that we can shift the trajectory a little bit by making sure the justice system is fair and equitable.”
If so, it could make him the greatest Survivor of them all.
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