JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – U.S. Rep. Al Lawson is facing a serious Democratic primary challenge from Jacksonville's former mayor as the congressman seeks a second term in a 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. After winning the office in a close race in 2011, Brown lost his mayoral seat after one term.
Prior to serving as mayor, Brown worked for Sen. Bill Nelson, in various posts in the Clinton-Gore administration and was an advisor to Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Andrew Cuomo before he was elected governor of New York.
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. They both say they support gun reform.
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.
"It's unfair," Lawson said, adding 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.
As a former state lawmaker, Lawson said he's against stand your ground as it is written.
"(I) request to the governor and Senate present (and) House speaker convene in special section to fix it or get rid of it," Lawson told News4Jax earlier this summer.
Lawson has hit back at Brown, noting the failure to win reelection 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.
Political observers said Brown's margin of support from Jacksonville voters might not be higher because he didn't fully embrace the Human Rights Ordinance or other more progressive issues while mayor. Then he waited until six months before the election to jump into this race.
"I just think he has not fully embraced his role as a politician. He has a very limited scope of what he can do," retired Florida State College at Jacksonville political science professor Marcella Washington said. "Even though he lost to Lenny Curry, he still has that advantage of being ... not only the former, the first black mayor of Jacksonville."
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 Minority 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.
On Friday, Martin Luther King III, the eldest son of the Civil Rights leader, called News4Jax to endorse Brown.
King told Kent Justice that he's known Alvin Brown for 30 years and that Brown clearly is concerned about children and representing the people of Jacksonville. King also urged people to exercise their right to vote – no matter who they’ve decided to support.
"My father used to say, 'A voteless people is a powerless people,' and one of the most important steps is that is to step to the ballot box," King said. "My father and others gave their lives so we would have that precious right, and whenever that opportunity comes, this is a time where we all can universally speak for who we believe in to serve us. I would encourage people to vote for Alvin Brown."