Even at a distance, he is instantly recognizable. The perfect hair, the polished smile, the well-cut suit that these days is a bit baggy thanks to the campaign diet, the voice that could just as easily come from the pulpit as the stump, together creates an unmistakable figure. When we arrive for an interview in the heart of Jacksonville’s Northside, he’s chatting with a would-be constituent in front of Soul Food Bistro; several more greet him as we make our way to a table.
The Alvin Brown the public knows is friendly yet reserved, some would say to a fault, great with crowds, comfortable with strangers. As with many public figures, there is a disconnect between the man in the public eye and the man himself. In his case, it’s partly of his own making. “Even though I was public, I’m really private,” he says. That’s something that he’s been working to correct since announcing his candidacy for the 5th Congressional District in January. He faces incumbent Rep. Al Lawson in the Democratic primary on Aug. 28. (Folio Weekly offered the Lawson campaign an opportunity to participate in an interview for this issue; the campaign responded after press time.)
Settling in amid the din of conversation and delightful cooking smells at Soul Food, Brown dishes on politics, policy, and family. Some parts of Brown’s platform will be downright surprising to people who remember his reputation as a right-leaning Democrat; these days he’s toeing a far more progressive line.
Since leaving office in 2015, he’s done a stint as a professor at Georgetown University and spent time with family. He’s also suffered some devastating losses. His mother-in-law passed away; months later, his brother-in-law, with whom he had a very close relationship, died unexpectedly. Not long after, his mother had a stroke. She’s still recovering and relearning fundamental skills. “She’s a fighter,” he says.
Now Alvin Brown is back in the public eye, making the case as to why he should represent the district on Capitol Hill. Doing so includes opening up about himself—both as a candidate and as a man who rose from humble beginnings to prestigious positions in the federal government to high office.
“A lot of people didn’t know I worked for President Clinton, they had no idea I ran a four-billion-dollar economic development program that focused on urban areas and rural areas in this country,” he says. “Very few people know I was a senior advisor for Al Gore.”
These are admittedly impressive credentials for a kid who came up with the odds stacked against him. Alvin Brown’s mother, with help from his grandmother, raised five children as a single mother in the ’60s and ’70s, often working two jobs to keep the family afloat. After high school, he attended Jacksonville University, working full-time as a meat-cutter at Winn-Dixie to pay for school. But portioning sirloins didn’t bring in enough cheddar and he nearly dropped out due to a lack of finances. In the nick of time, former JU president Fran Kinne saw to it that he could stay in school.
“Fran Kinne will be 101 years old this year and she didn’t know me from Adam, but she believed in me and gave me the opportunity,” he says, eyes glistening. He blinks fast, recovering that well-known poise. “I’m sorry, when I think about it, it’s hard.”
Brown went on to earn a bachelor’s and master’s of business from JU, and completed post-graduate work at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. He interned for then-Congressman Bill Nelson, then served on the Clinton-Gore transition team in ’92 and ’93, going on to work for the Clinton administration in various capacities, including with Housing and Urban Development and the Agricultural Department.
In 2010, he launched a campaign to become mayor of Jacksonville—a tall order for anyone; for an unknown, black Democrat, it was a long shot, to say the least. Again, Alvin Brown beat the odds. On July 1, 2011, he was sworn in as the first Democrat mayor of Jacksonville since Ed Austin nearly a generation prior. He also earned a place in history as the city’s first African-American mayor.
Today Alvin Brown is trying to beat the odds yet again. He’s challenged Lawson, an incumbent who’s equally comfortable on the campaign trail, with a solid voting base and name recognition, particularly in the central and western parts of the district.
After a soaring start, in recent months Brown’s campaign has come back to Earth. Early on, with the memory of President Trump singling Lawson out for praise for clapping during the State of the Union fresh on the mind, many were predicting a win for the former mayor. Today most would probably agree that Brown is the underdog. Brown gained ground very quickly in the money race, Lawson now has a significant edge; in the local press, Brown was initially favored—since then, he’s taken some licks. The two have traded barbs and competed for endorsements, with heavy hitters lining up behind both. Recently, Lawson got the endorsement of the majority of the Congressional Black Caucus. A poll released Aug. 13 of likely Democratic voters in the 5th District pegged Lawson as having a 22-point lead.
Sitting comfortably in Soul Food Bistro, Brown doesn’t spend much time dwelling on Lawson; he doesn’t even say his name, instead referring to him as “the incumbent.” He speaks mostly about his goals, and the issues.
Brown says that subjects that have repeatedly come up with voters on the campaign trail include education, jobs and the economy. He seems particularly passionate on the subject of public education. Brown has heavily criticized Lawson for his support for charter schools. He mentions that his two sons are both products of public education—one just graduated from Paxon School—and says he believes education levels the playing field for people who don’t come from privilege.
“When you think about it, education is the great equalizer,” he says. “…Charter schools, for-profit schools take money away from public schools.”
To Brown, education plays a key role in fixing what he calls the economic gap, disproportionately high rates of poverty even when, as now, the economy is doing well. This gap particularly plagues some rural parts of the 5th District, as well as urban areas in Duval and Leon counties. He believes the federal government should be more proactive investing in communities plagued by poverty, and provides examples of government paying a percentage of the costs to buy a home in a poor, rural area on the condition that the buyer works there for seven years thereafter, or increasing funding for the “Teachers Next Door” program, which provides grants for teachers to buy homes. To further help correct the economic gap, Brown envisions creating apprenticeship programs and public/private partnerships that will teach kids who might not be college-bound trades like plumbing, roofing, electric work; skilled work that brings in a living wage.
Brown supports the 10-20-30 plan proposed by South Carolina Rep. James E. Clyburn, which would dedicate 10 percent of federal agency funding to the nearly 500 counties nationwide in which 20 percent or more of the population have lived in poverty for 30 or more years. “What that would do is now you’ll take a holistic approach to invest in those areas that have systemic poverty and put infrastructure in, build your roads, your bridges, your public schools, apprenticeship programs, focus on education,” Brown says.
He believes that increasing opportunities for people in communities that have a dearth of prospects to make a living wage, own a home, send their kids to a quality public school, will in turn right many of the nation’s other problems.
But what does he say to the counterpoint that this would increase entitlement spending? “What I say is what you want is productive citizens. You want people to get up every day and work with dignity and respect.” He further points out that raising wages increases the tax base, and in turn the federal government’s spending ability.
It’s impossible to talk opportunity and recovery, particularly as it relates to the black community that’s been hit hardest by mandatory minimums, felony disenfranchisement laws, rigid sentencing and the proliferation of the criminal industrial complex, without also talking about the criminal justice system. Brown says he’s open to reform; on the subjects of felon disenfranchisement, Stand Your Ground and marijuana laws, he doesn’t mince words: The former two should be abolished; the latter legalized. “I support Amendment 4,” he says, referring to the constitutional amendment on Florida’s November ballot, “restoring the voting rights for ex-felons.” He also supports “banning the box” on job applications informing potential employers of an individual’s criminal record.
In many ways, Brown is the person the public got to know as mayor; in others, he’s either changed or we never really knew him. He’s still tempered and smooth, but he’s also more leftist than many may expect or recall. His views on immigration, the environment, even LGBT equality, aren’t in line with his reputation as a centrist. When we spoke, he vowed to work with the St. Johns Riverkeeper and others to seek $50 million in environmental mitigation for the controversial St. Johns River dredging project, a project that he himself was crucial to bringing to Jacksonville, and which the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers has budgeted a paltry $3 million in environmental mitigation. Brown says he supports immigration reform, including of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, and a path to citizenship for law-abiding undocumented immigrants, as well as citizenship for the so-called Dreamers who came to America as minors. “I support the Dreamers. I support it 100 percent. Period.”
On family separations, he’s equally blunt. “No children should be separated from their families. That’s inhumane and it’s shameful.”
A lot of people were disappointed with his administration’s inability—some say unwillingness—to amend the local human rights ordinance to protect people from housing, employment and public accommodation discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression. His platform on the subject may surprise those critics. On the campaign website, he says, “I will fight for policies that ensure equal treatment that’s inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity, including in established policies like the Fair Housing and Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
“The LGBTQ community has made significant contributions to our community, and we can, and must, do better to ensure the fairness and dignity every human being deserves.”
Clearly, a lot has changed since 2015, when Alvin Brown was last in the public eye, both for the country and for the man himself.
Brown says, “I think at the end of the day, I’m making the case all throughout the district that I’m the guy who has the vision, the conviction, the experience.”