Things are looking good for Congressman Al Lawson, and it shows. His hard-fought campaign against former Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown is nearing conclusion; many are predicting the incumbent will win handily. So it’s no surprise that Lawson seems relaxed and in his element when we meet in the lobby of the Hyatt in Downtown Jacksonville on Monday morning, chatting familiarly with the hotel employee who shows us to a 17th-floor conference room with expansive views of Jacksonville and the St. Johns River.
Asked to what he credits predictions that he will win the Aug. 28 Democratic primary, Lawson said, “Bringing over $50 million down for the [St. Johns River] dredging here in JaxPort and $18 million to build a new veteran facility and the $85 million that [I] was able to secure during the hurricane to help feed a lot of people and so forth.”
In the last session, Lawson also proposed $136 million in Federal Emergency Management Funding to address flooding in Northeast Florida, a disastrous situation which was brought into harsh focus by Hurricane Irma last year. “Right now, it’s still in limbo; it’s a very big ask,” he said.
The first-term congressman has spent the last 17 months focusing on issues that he considers key, while familiarizing himself with the lay of the land in Congress, which he concedes is “really toxic,” and working with the other freshmen representatives to try to break the gridlock. For an example of this gridlock, Lawson points to House Speaker Paul Ryan holding the farm bill hostage earlier this summer by insisting it include work requirements for recipients of the Supplemental Nutritional Program, or SNAP (aka food stamps), which the Congressional Budget Office estimated would eliminate an estimated 1.2 million recipients. Lawson voted against the bill, which passed narrowly in the House, but failed in the Senate. “We should be increasing the benefits for the people, instead of cutting the benefits,” he said, adding that the Senate is currently working on a new version of the bill, one he hopes will be an improvement.
Lawson’s time in Congress has coincided with some of the most extreme partisanship and division in the history of the United States. Asked if President Trump’s rhetoric has affected the nation, Lawson doesn’t hesitate. “Yes, it really has. You’re finding more division among people, among races. You’d really hope the president would try to take a stance when he would try to bring America more together,” he said. “… He’s leading more and more to divide.”
Though Lawson does agree that the Russians have influenced and still continue to work to influence American elections, he does not believe Trump will be impeached. “They ask you to vote to impeach, but you can’t really impeach him because he hasn’t committed a crime or anything like that.” He says he’d vote with his Democratic colleagues to do so if given the opportunity, but doesn’t think it likely. “I will vote to impeach, but we’re not going to get the opportunity to vote on that.” Nor does he think the likelihood will increase if the Democrats take the helm of Congress in November, as some have predicted. “Even if the Democrats take control,” Lawson said. “You just can’t really impeach anyone unless they committed a high crime or something of this nature. I just don’t see it coming, it’s just a popular thing to say.”
For years, the nation has struggled with the subject of immigration reform; since Trump took office, the extremely contentious debate has been thrust into the forefront of the national conversation. Lawson believes that congressional inaction has exacerbated problems within the system. “Congress has fallen down on its effort to do comprehensive immigration reform, so that’s what we really need, comprehensive immigration reform,” he said.
Lawson remains hopeful that the next session of Congress will take up the subject; the fruits of those efforts should, in his mind, continue to allow for thoroughly vetted admissions. “I don’t think you can take everyone, but I think people need a pathway to citizenship,” he said, pointing out that America is a “nation of immigrants” and that most immigrants make a positive contribution to our society. He also supports a path to citizenship for beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) legislation, commonly referred to as Dreamers. He also says it’s important that farmers have access to a stable labor pool, such as through the guest worker system.
He didn’t shy away from pointing out that Trump and others have fostered a culture of fear of immigrants and promoted the inaccurate belief that many are “bad people,” “murderers,” “rapists” and the like.
Like his opponent, Lawson supports the state constitutional Amendment 4 on Florida’s November ballot that would restore civil rights to nonviolent felons who’ve served their terms. “I think it’s critical for people who have paid their dues, they should be allowed to become citizens again, have the opportunity to vote,” Lawson said.
He also similarly believes that Stand Your Ground should either be significantly overhauled or repealed. The law has proved a more difficult subject for Lawson on the campaign trail, because he was one of the co-sponsors of the original Stand Your Ground bill when it unanimously passed Florida’s state senate in 2005. Lawson says that the law was originally written to protect homeowners from being prosecuted for defending themselves from trespassers, and has since been amended, including in 2017, when lawmakers switched the burden of proof, in ways that have fundamentally altered it from lawmakers’ original intent.
“I sent a letter to the governor, the senate president and the speaker about them going into a special session to repeal or fix it, because you even have law enforcement officers making an interpretation.
“So there have been people who have been murdered as a result, so I think it probably ought to be repealed.”
As our time came to a close, we asked Rep. Lawson what he would focus on, should the voters send him back to Washington, D.C. for a second term. He proceeded to rattle off a laundry list of goals. If he wins, AL Lawson intends to focus on protecting Social Security, which he says is likely “the only pension” most will have, protecting and improving access to affordable healthcare, supporting veterans, making college more affordable, providing more nutritional assistance for kids, and improving the nation’s infrastructure.
“I have enjoyed representing this 5th District, especially Jacksonville. Any time as a freshman you file 20 bills and nine of them get adopted, that’s pretty significant,” said Lawson.