JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Incumbent U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown and Democratic challengers Al Lawson and L.J. Holloway took the stage at Jacksonville University Thursday night for a live televised debate among the Democratic candidates for the 5th Congressional District.
The third of three nights of political debates at the Swisher Theater was different from the others, partly because Brown is in the middle of a criminal case accusing her and her chief of staff of using funds from an unregistered charity for their own benefit.
The debate began at 8 p.m. and was moderated by Kent Justice. Brown referred to her experience to validate her answers to most questions. Lawson focused on being a businessman and differentiating himself from Brown, while still having experience in politics. At the same time, Holloway said she is very different from both Brown and Lawson because she has a law degree and she is not a career politician.
Debate watchers said they were anxious to see how Brown and her challengers would handle the question about the federal indictment. Brown defended herself after being asked if a person facing trial should be disqualified.
"The Fifth Amendment says that the prosecutors have to prove their case. Now, what if I said, as we standing up here talking, that you were a pedophile? You would think there would be something wrong with me. So, you would put together a team of lawyers and you would go to court, and duke it out in court. And that's what I've been trying to do. Just because someone accuses you, doesn't mean that they have the facts. The federal government under these, have a slush fund, and they can do and they can bring charges," Brown said.
Halloway and Lawson had varying opinions that pointed back to Brown.
"Let me just say that what I know of a grand jury is, typically, they do fact-finding, and if a grand jury brings back an indictment, there typically is findings. Not withstanding any of that, I do know that the federal prosecutors have a 98.2 percent conviction rate. So I hope for the sake of the incumbent and the sake of the children that should've received those funds, that the allegations aren't true," Halloway said.
"You have an African-American attorney general who is bringing these charges. That's significant. And my opponent has violated public trust. There's no way you can be effective in the Legislature at the same time you have a cloud over your head. People just will not support your issue. I think my opponent should not be in this race. She needs to be concerned about those charges, and not been in the race violating public trust," Lawson said.
The candidates had similar responses to topics on helping the community, the Affordable Care Act and the Black Lives Matter movement.
"Black Lives Matter is only a group of young people who are concerned about police brutality, and so forth, and they're coming together in a group. They are not a terrorist group. They are your kids and grandkids and cousins and stuff involved around this country who want to make this place a safer place for everyone to live. And they want to feel that they can trust the men and women in blue," Lawson said.
"Black Lives Matter. What we need to do in Congress is pass a comprehensive bill dealing with the whole area of criminal justice," Brown said. "I absolutely think that all lives matter. But Black Lives is making a statement."
"I do not believe that Black Lives Matter creates a threat on terrorism. What I believe is in the criminal justice system, we need reform," Holloway said.
When asked about a minimum wage increase to $15, the candidates agreed it should be done, but gradually. There was some back-and-forth between Brown and Lawson -- Brown saying Lawson has voted "no" in the past on raising minimum wage and that American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) said he was no help. Lawson began firing back, saying he has had support for AFSCME for 20 years.
"I favor increasing the minimum wage, but I think it needs to be phased in," Lawson said.
"Absolutely I support it and we need to start with the federal and state government. And when Al Lawson was a state rep, or when he was a senator, he did not vote to give the state employees their increase. So I really believe that the government is the catalyst for raising the wages," Brown said.
"First of all, that's not true. I think if you went to Tallahassee, or across this state in any of these counties, there's no one supporting workers more than I have," Lawson said in response.
Holloway said, "I certainly support increasing the minimum wage. However, I'd like for it, as a small business owner, I understand that 88 percent of the small businesses in America have less than 100 employees, so in an effort not to put small business owners out of business, I believe that we should have a phase process."
Another topic discussed was the troubled Eureka Gardens apartment complex on Jacksonville's Westside.
"What a legislator who represents the 5th Congressional District should do is A -- have a working relationship or staff assistant who has a working relationship with Secretary Castro, who is the Secretary of HUD, to ensure that all citizens, not only just the citizens in the 5th Congressional District, but all citizens have conditions that are safe. It's deplorable what is happening, what has happened over at Eureka Gardens, and like you said, it didn't just happen, it's been happening over years," Holloway said.
"The federal HUD has really failed this community, and it really came to light because of Sen. (Marco) Rubio visited and highlighted it. HUD, along with Ms. Brown, has failed these people for 20-something years. It shouldn't just be that now it just becomes an issue due to the fact that they haven't paid any attention to it," Lawson said.
"Let me just say that Eureka Gardens is not just a problem in Jacksonville, it's a problem in Sanford. And it took them 20 years to get it straight. One of the problems is that in the budgetary process, HUD has gotten squeezed, and we need to make sure they have the resources to inspect and work with the communities," Brown said.
After the debate ended, Brown was asked if she's "having a cash issue."
"Yes. I am," Brown said in response. "It's very challenging to balance both, you know, running a campaign and your legal bills."
In the post-debate interview, Brown went on to say, "Because somebody makes an accusation about you, doesn't mean you're guilty. And if so, then what's going on with our system of government? What happens when you are charged? Do you get a chance to defend yourself? Or is it some ******* Peyton Place with a witch hunt?"
Richard Mullaney, director of Public Policy Institute at Jacksonville University, which hosted the debate, said Brown's legal troubles and a drastically redrawn district could be an opportunity for Lawson, who has had success in Florida politics.
"The incumbent has a very serious challenge. It's rare to see incumbents get beat," Mullaney said. "(Brown) has been in office for over two decades, and those constituents know her, but in the new district, they don’t know her as well. Her opponent, in particular Al Lawson, is very formidable. And the final thing is this grand jury investigation."
The winner of the Democratic primary will face Republican Glo Smith in November.
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