JACKSONVILLE, Fla.—The mayor arrives right on time, at 10:30 a.m., when the women of the Lincoln Villa Senior Center were expecting him. They’re crocheting hats for babies and polishing off word puzzles when Alvin Brown, the first black mayor of Jacksonville—the first Democrat to hold the office since 1991, who is currently polling at 35 percent in a four-way race—strides into the room and starts preaching.
“I’m standing strong!” says Brown, a rectangular 51-year old, as the seniors applaud. “Don’t you want me to stand strong? Y’all happy to be here this morning? I’m gonna find out.” He walks from table to table. “I’m gonna found out if you’re happy to be here this morning. If you believe like I believe that God has been good to you—why don’t we thank God?”
Brown raises his arms as an aide darts around him to snap photos. “Raise your hands—clap!” says Brown. “How many of y’all gonna vote for the mayor?” Everyone in the room, two dozen people, lifted an arm. “All right! I got a hundred percent here. I’m just checking!”
He looks down at Sylvia Rowe, a retiree identifying the missing items from a picture. “Keeping your mind active,” says Brown. “Inspiration! Information!” Then Brown walks to the center of the room, and asks a question of everyone he can see.
“Faith without works is—what?”
“Dead—that’s right! You gotta work it.”
As Brown gets quality time with some of the most reliable voters in the city, an aide passes out cupcakes from Winn-Dixie. In case anyone misses the import, they are reminded: The mayor once worked at the counter of the mostly Southern chain. As they eat, the retirees talk about how nice the mayor is, and how unfair the ads are, the ones on TV paid for by the Republican Party that blame him for laying off 147 police officers.
“He doesn’t do politics like that,” says one retiree, Piccola Wells. “He’s a good man.”
Brown has another senior center to hit in another part of Jacksonville’s western sprawl, so he heads toward the door and wheels around with raised arms and a question.
“You gonna pray for me?” he asks.
“Now, what did I ask you do to when you pray for me?" the mayor asks. "Call me by name! Now, why do I want you to call you by my name? It’s personal—it’s Alvin Brown.”
Then he’s out the door, and the chatter at Lincoln Villa gets back to crochet. That’s fine for now. Early voting has just started in the all-party primary for mayor, and Republicans (who have plenty of reasons for saying this) insist that Brown is ahead. It’s been four hard years since Brown shocked the GOP, first by making the runoff, then by winning by a margin of 50.4 percent to 49.6 percent. Brown’s victory completed an unheard-of Democratic sweep of Florida’s biggest cities, and came the same month that the party won an election for a New York congressional seat drawn to elect Republicans.
In the city, Brown’s win was called a “Mandela moment.” Republicans, after congratulating the local history-maker, called it a fluke. “The liberal organizers who want to keep the American people enslaved by wasteful spending and hideous deficits need to know that they have jumped the gun on 2012 and have awakened a sleeping giant,” Duval County Republican Chairman Lenny Curry told the Miami Herald.
Shortly after that, Curry became the state GOP chairman. Today, he’s the party’s mayoral nominee for Jacksonville, running as an avowed “conservative” who will save the city from liberal mismanagement. Republicans can’t let Jacksonville—which has been contiguous with Duval County since 1968—become a Democratic city. By 2024, Jacksonville is expected to become the latest majority-minority metropolis. Like Florida, like the country, if the voting patterns of 2012 don’t change, Democrats can count on non-whites and progressive whites to sideline the GOP. The Democrats woke up the black electorate in Duval County, and don’t ever want it to nod off.
“They are trying to regain control of the machine in Duval County,” says Bill Bishop, a Republican councilman who ignored the sharp elbows of the GOP to mount his own bid against Brown and Curry. His reward: Being accused of creating a “racial divide” by appointing white committee chairs, and being called a “career politician” by a former state GOP chairman.
“Because Florida is so important to winning the White House, this has become a party deal,” says Bishop, who looks and talks like Michael Gross’s paterfamilias in Family Ties. “And Lenny is a party boss.”
More than that, Curry is a combatant in 2016’s first skirmish between the Clintons and the Bushes. Neither man would call it that, and the campaign is turning on the familiar topics of jobs (36,000 new ones since Brown took office) and crime (down since 2011, though the outgoing sheriff has endorsed Curry). Yet Brian Swensen, Curry’s campaign manager, is among the people who see this “a bellwether for 2016.” The Florida Democrats and Republican Party of Florida have spent a combined $3 million on the race. Curry has kept pace with Brown’s fundraising, calling in every favor he earned as chairman.
Jeb Bush was one of the early donors to Curry’s campaign, and he rolled out an official endorsement two months before the primary. Brown’s political career started with Bill Clinton, with a job on the president-elect’s 1992 transition team. After a failed 1994 run for Congress, Brown returned to the White House for a series of roles in urban policy.
In 2007, Brown joined Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign as an advisor on those issues. When she didn’t win, he made a bid to run the NAACP, making a short list of finalists, falling short. The run for mayor, which looked hopeless until it wasn’t, represented all of that effort, all of those chits, coming together at the right time. In 2011, Bill Clinton recorded robocalls for Brown, promising voters that he’d give them the same great work he’d given the former president.
“I saw him speaking to you as a successful mayor and a fully-grown man,” said Clinton at a 2012 appearance in Jacksonville, after Brown had introduced him. “When he came to me, he was a young man, full of dreams, full of hope, and I’m really proud of him as a human being and as a leader.”
In 2015, Brown has handled the Clintons gingerly. The former president appeared in the city in mid-February, at an event sponsored by his Taking Jacksonville to the Next Level PAC. (In Florida races, PACs can raise and spend without limits.) It was closed to the press; no photos of it made the paper.
At another senior center stop, after shooting pool with a few retirees, Brown sits down and explains his relationship with Clinton in the most clinical terms. “Well, you know, the president supported me the first time I ran,” he says, seguing from the altar-speak of the campaign trail to the powerpoint-speak of the mayor’s office. “He supports me now. He’s well respected, a true leader when it comes to putting people back to work. I think, at the end of the day, people understand that relationship. He’s a personal friend. I worked in his administration. That’s why, when we did have the event, I made sure it was all about Jacksonville. Nothing else.”
Yet the election isn’t just about Jacksonville. The fast-growing, diverse city—30 percent black, 8 percent Hispanic, 10 percent born outside the United States—was the place where Democrats won Florida in 2008 and 2012, and where the GOP held it in the midterms. In 2000, when a series of ballot and voter registration parlor tricks cost him the state, Al Gore took only 40.7 percent of Duval County’s electorate, or 108,039 votes. Eight years later, Barack Obama won 48.6 percent of the county, good for 202,618 votes. He slid back in 2012, but barely, to 196,737 votes. The president defeated Mitt Romney statewide by only 74,309 votes.
That had a lot to do with the work of Steve Schale. As the 2008 Florida director for the Obama-Biden campaign, Schale argued that Democrats could “move the ball forward” by arranging media buys and candidate visits to Duval County.
“In 2008, 2011, 2012—if there was a single common thread, it was a focus on turning out low-propensity African-American voters,” said Schale in an interview. “The fact that some of these voters were touched in 2008, 2011, 2012, now 2015, a lot of that is helpful. Where I fall short is with people who say the outcome here means something for 2016—but there’s definitely a morale boost if Alvin wins.”
Yet Brown isn’t portraying his race as a cause for Democrats. It wouldn’t work if he did. No Democratic candidate for president has carried Duval since 1976, when Jimmy Carter over-performed throughout the white South. Brown declined to campaign for Barack Obama in 2012 (though he did vote for him), and declined to campaign for Charlie Crist against Republican Governor Rick Scott in 2014. In conversation, he mentions “Governor Scott” more than any politician.
Curry’s goal has been to convince a Republican-leaning city that it should stop falling for this, and that Brown has been a disaster. He’s chipped away at the mayor’s popularity, which peaked at 75 percent in 2012 but settled to 55 percent in the last poll. In a wide-ranging conversation at his campaign office – where a stand-up of Ronald Reagan is perched in front of a vintage Jeb! for governor sign – Curry insists that Jacksonville’s growth has lagged behind comparable cities, that Brown has borrowed credit for investments he didn’t negotiate, that his ride-alongs with police and visits to hospitals have educated him on how Brown failed.
“This is about having a serious approach to economic development,” says Curry. “This is about more than photo-ops and press conferences.”
The small irony is that Curry got into this position by being a party chairman, a job better known for press conferences than for outreach to skeptics. He is hardly the first operative to make this move. Virginia is governed by a former DNC chair, Terry McAuliffe; its 2014 Senate race pitted former Virginia Democratic Party chairman Mark Warner against former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie.
To the eternal annoyance of nervous Democrats, Gillespie re-branded himself as a “businessman” who merely worked for “a president.” But he was aping the successful McAuliffe. Asked how being the Florida Republican boss prepared him to run a city, Curry takes the same tack.
“I think my entire life experience has prepared me,” he says, telling a story about his work as an accountant. Only after some prodding does he say what winning back Jacksonville would mean for Republicans. “Conservative principles and conservative values work. Budgets are balanced. The taxpayer dollar is spent wisely. There’s a return on investment for the taxpayer and the city. These are all conservative principles – the streets are safe.”
A few hours after the interview, Curry heads east from his office to a bar in St. John’s Town Center, an outdoor megamall en route to the beach towns that almost beat Brown in 2011. The event is a low-key, no-charge meeting for “young professionals,” a dry run for an event on March 18 that will star former Texas Governor Rick Perry. As “Hungry Like the Wolf” and “It’s My Life” blast through the club, Curry grabs a beer and chats with twenty-something conservatives whom he keeps calling the future of the city.
Later, right before a country-rock band takes the stage, Curry climbs up to deliver a seven-minute stump speech. “I will be the enemy of mediocrity, every day,” he says. “If we cut the private sector loose, neighborhoods will flourish. We ought to encourage after-school competition, particularly in the areas of STEM. If we do that, in 10 years, that will transform our workforce.”
Curry’s vision for Jacksonville is a “destination city,” like the state around it, a place where the future comes to settle down, and hire, and grow. It’s what Scott promised on a larger scale, what Mitt Romney promised on the largest scale—and Curry had a 1-1 win record with his fellow supply-side dreamers.
The next day is quieter. For the first time, Curry, Bishop, and Brown will meet on TV for a debate. They bury themselves with prep until 6 p.m., when they arrive at the studios of WJCT – Curry to a friendly mob of supporters waving a blown-up poster of his face. Bishop and Curry arrive early in the studio, and chat with reporters and guests. Brown talks to Bishop, about getting lunch after the election, but other than that he’s locked in on the debate itself. Curry spends every fresh moment he has reminding voters that he’s a businessman, and a conservative, and Brown is neither.
“Mayor Alvin Brown stated he was focused on the port,” says Curry. “He has a relationship with the president of the United States, President Barack Obama, who in his most recent budget, didn’t even put funding for our port.”
Brown waits, poker-faced, as Bishop answers. Then he’s up: “I’m in favor of deepening the harbor. I’m proud to say my administration led the way in working with the Congress, the legislature, and Governor Scott.”
Both Curry and Brown dodge a question about whether the city’s anti-discrimination code should be amended to include LGBT people. (“I reject the premise that the people of Jacksonville are people that discriminate,” says Curry.) Bishop answers it, with a yes. Curry insists that Brown, who’s never gotten a tax increase from his Republican city council, will need to ask for one to paper over his mismanagement.
“You’re for tax increases, and I’m against raising taxes,” says Curry.
“There he goes again,” says Brown. “The city is on strong financial footing.”
First he gave a calculated non-answer on LGBT rights, then he paraphrased the Gipper. Brown’s campaign is a test for Democrats that requires them to win in a place more conservative than America at large, with a candidate less ready to call himself a Democrat.
The Republicans, who have weeks to go, can have a lot more fun. Curry heads from the debate studio to a nearby hotel bar, where fans and campaign workers have been cheering him on. As volunteers stop by, and ask him how to help, Brian Swensen confesses that the 2011 race has haunted him. It never needed to be a bellwether. Brown had won after two credible Republican candidates knocked each other out of the first round; the last Republican standing, Mike Hogan, ran one of the Tea Party-powered jumbles of a campaign that the party, under people like Lenny Curry, had stopped allowing to win.
“They dropped me on the ground, and I had five, six weeks to build a grassroots operation,” says Swensen. “If I’d have had another week, I’d have had those 1,400 votes, and we’d have had a Republican mayor.”
If Curry can win those voters in 2015, and unseat the star of the Democrats’ voter turnout innovations, it would go a long away toward convincing Republicans to play in Florida. The allies of Jeb Bush will have won a round in the proxy war. The allies of Hillary Clinton would learn, and evolve.
“My vote goal for Hillary Clinton in Duval would be for her to lose by 10,000-12,000 votes,” says Steve Schale. “That wouldn’t change if the Republicans won back the mayor’s office, because we don’t expect to win Duval. We just have to ensure that the Republicans don’t win by much.”