U.S. Rep. Al Lawson is facing a serious Democratic primary challenge from a former Jacksonville mayor as he seeks a second term in a congressional district that stretches across a large part of North Florida.
Lawson, 69, handily beat longtime Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown, in 2016, while she was embroiled in a criminal investigation that led to her eventual conviction on corruption charges and a five-year prison sentence.
But now Lawson, who served nearly three decades in the Florida Legislature and lives in Tallahassee, is being challenged in the Democratic primary by Alvin Brown, 56, the first African-American elected as Jacksonville mayor. Brown lost his mayoral seat after one term in 2015, after winning election in a close contest in 2011.
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Both candidates take similar positions that reflect the voters in Congressional District 5, which sprawls across eight North Florida counties, running 206 miles from the urban neighborhoods of Jacksonville west to the rural enclave of Gadsden County near Tallahassee.
The district is heavily Democratic, with 61 percent of the voters supporting Hillary Clinton in 2016. It has the third-highest voting-age population of African-Americans among Florida’s 27 congressional districts. The winner of Tuesday’s primary will be a heavy favorite in the November general election against Republican Virginia Fuller.
Brown and Lawson said they would support impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump. They oppose repealing the Affordable Care Act and want to expand health-care programs. They support efforts to curb student debt and to improve economic opportunities, particularly in rural areas.
But despite those similarities, Brown has campaigned aggressively against Lawson. Earlier this year, Brown’s campaign slammed Lawson as “Trump’s favorite Democrat,” after Lawson applauded during the president’s State of the Union speech. Lawson said he reacted because Trump was talking about lower unemployment rates for minorities.
Brown has combed Lawson’s lengthy record in the Legislature and has highlighted Lawson’s support for issues like the use of publicly funded vouchers to send students to private schools.
He also criticized Lawson for supporting the original “stand your ground” legislation in 2005. The issue gained more visibility after the shooting of an unarmed African-American man in Pinellas County last month, with the Pinellas sheriff declining to seek charges because of the law. The shooter has since been charged with manslaughter by the local state attorney.
Lawson said the 2005 law had bipartisan support, and he voted for it as an effort to let homeowners defend themselves. But he said he now supports repealing the law after a series of changes, including a 2017 revision that makes it harder to prosecute shooters who cite the law in their defense.
“It’s telling that Al Lawson has disgracefully defended support for ‘stand your ground’ for over a decade, and has now changed his tune,” Brown said.
But Lawson has hit back at Brown, noting the failure to win re-election as mayor, calling his one term in office “a disaster.” Lawson has also criticized Brown for failing as mayor to aggressively support a human-rights ordinance guaranteeing protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Like the 2016 race, the Lawson-Brown contest also represents a geographic battle.
Lawson won only 20 percent of the Duval County vote in his race against Corrine Brown in 2016. But his victory was based on his commanding lead in the counties outside of Jacksonville, including winning 75 percent of the vote in Leon County.
A similar scenario could be shaping up this year, based on a poll released Thursday by the University of North Florida’s Public Opinion Research Laboratory. In a survey of 402 likely voters, the poll showed Lawson leading Brown by a margin of 48 percent to 29 percent, with a 4.9 percentage-point margin of error. Twenty-two percent of the voters were undecided.
The poll showed Brown leading in Duval County by a 47-29 percent margin, while Lawson held a 68-10 percent lead among voters in the rest of the district.
Through Aug. 8, Lawson had raised $504,000 for his campaign, with $131,000 in cash on hand, according to federal election records. Brown had raised $389,000, with $84,000 in cash on hand.
Lawson has won support from a solid majority of the members of the Congressional Black Caucus. U.S. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi endorsed Lawson last month.
“Al has proven to be an effective voice for North Florida during his first term in Congress,” Pelosi said in a statement.
Brown has secured a number of endorsements, including from major labor groups. The Florida Education Association and Duval Teachers United are supporting his campaign.
“Alvin Brown shares our values and vision of a Florida in which all of our children can receive a quality education regardless of ZIP code,” said Terrie Brady, head of the Duval teachers group and former chairwoman of the state Democratic Party.