The race for North Florida’s only Democratic seat in Congress has been a low-profile contest despite real stakes for the candidates and the sprawling district anchored by Jacksonville’s black community.
U.S. Rep. Al Lawson and former Mayor Alvin Brown have barely set up campaign signs in Northside neighborhoods that for decades were the seat of power for Lawson’s predecessor, now-imprisoned former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown.
Our Florida Times-Union news partner reports both have sought new supporters at far ends of the nearly 200-mile-long 5th Congressional District and are working to activate their bases for the Democratic primary vote that ends Aug. 28.
But with Lawson already in office and holding an advantage in campaign money, Brown seems to have a hard road ahead to unseat the freshman from Tallahassee.
Brown will need enthusiastic support in Jacksonville to do that, but there’s little time left to reach voters who aren’t already with him.
“I thought Alvin Brown would be making a splash seven or eight months ago. To me, he seems to be late to the dance, and it may hurt him,” said Marcella Washington, a political scientist and retired Florida State College at Jacksonville professor.
The damage may already be done. A poll released this month by St. Pete Polls said Lawson led Brown by 22 percentage points. Lawson said his campaign’s internal polling showed a smaller advantage but still a double-digit lead. The primary winner still has a Republican opponent, Virginia Fuller, in November, but the heavily Democratic makeup of the district makes victory by another party almost unimaginable.
Brown said volunteers are phoning thousands of people and knocking on thousands of doors to tell voters he’ll be a “voice for the voiceless” and advocate for marginalized communities.
Brown’s campaign is getting help from organized labor, with the Florida AFL-CIO calling him “the fighter we need” to speak for working families. Duval Teachers United and state and national teachers’ unions have endorsed Brown, as have the International Longshoremen’s Association and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
The campaign hopes the endorsements help persuade voters Brown deserves support as a matter of self-interest.
“If you’re helping me, you’re my friend,” sheet-metal worker Erikk Harris said before he left an IBEW hall with Brown to knock on doors of other union members.
But some unions that dealt with Brown when he was mayor — from 2011 to 2015 — are backing Lawson instead.
Appointments Brown made as mayor hurt his chance of winning support from Jacksonville firefighters, said fire union President Randy Wyse, who said Lawson helped firefighters during the 28 years he spent in the Florida Legislature and earned the union’s backing.
Jacksonville’s Fraternal Order of Police endorsed Lawson in May, and the statewide lodge backed him this month.
Some of Brown’s backers in Jacksonville focus on the fact that because he’s local, he’d be better positioned to advocate for Jacksonville’s interests.
“I feel strongly that that district should be represented by someone who lives in Jacksonville and has ties to Jacksonville,” said Duval County Democratic Party Chair Lisa King. “I’ve known Alvin for 20-odd years. I think he has a lot to offer in terms of relationships and energy that we need from a member Congress in order to be successful.”
Jacksonville is important to the race, but it’s not the whole contest.
About 55 percent of the district’s voters are in Duval County, spread across the Northside and Westside and in pockets of Arlington and the Southside.
But when Lawson won two years ago, primary turnout was higher in each of the district’s seven other counties, meaning Duval voters mattered less because many didn’t cast ballots. For comparison, turnout within the district was 29.6 percent in Duval County, but 46.8 percent in Gadsden County, the farm country west of Tallahassee where Lawson grew up.
Lawson represented the four counties in the western half of the district when he was a state lawmaker and developed support networks that have been put to use since he entered Congress. While he campaigned for re-election last week, Lawson stopped in small-town Quincy in Gadsden County for a ceremony where local officials renamed a street Barack Obama Boulevard. He posed for photos with a succession of people there, comfortably ribbing some about their age because they had been his high school classmates.
Lawson has more money for campaigning, too, although both candidates are running comparatively low-dollar campaigns. As of Aug. 8, the last day the campaigns reported their finances to the Federal Elections Commission, Lawson’s organization had $131,143 on hand, leaving more advertising options open that the $84,361 left in Brown’s campaign.