Lawson vs. Brown: Geography, ideology, is key in North Florida’s 5th Congressional district

By: - August 24, 2018 12:19 pm

From left to right: Candidates Alvin Brown, Al Lawson

When the race for a seat in the 5th Congressional District got started, incumbent Democrat Al Lawson was considered vulnerable because of geography:

The North Florida district had been redrawn in 2015, with nearly half in urban Duval County on the Atlantic Coast.

In contrast, Lawson had spent more than three decades representing voters in the state capital and nearby rural counties, first as a state lawmaker and then as a Congressman.

Enter Alvin Brown, the former Jacksonville mayor and Democrat poised to seize that geographical advantage in the 5th Congressional District race, by siphoning voters closer to Lawson’s traditional turf.

But in the waning days just before the Aug 28 primary, the reality is looking much grimmer for Brown, with two recent polls showing Lawson with a substantial lead.

But Brown isn’t backing down just yet.

“We see a lot of momentum, a lot of energy and excitement about the campaign,” the 56-year-old Brown told the Phoenix in an interview earlier this week.

“Just in the last 10 days we’ve knocked on over 15,000 doors. The response has been good. We’ve got a good ground game. We’re making the case, we’re closing the gap, and we’re doing this through the district.”

The district’s boundaries extend northwest from Jacksonville to Tallahassee, encompassing all of four counties (Baker, Gadsen, Hamilton and Madison) and portions of four others (Columbia, Duval, Jefferson and Leon).

A poll released Thursday by the Public Opinion Research Laboratory at the University of North Florida shows 48 percent of likely Democratic primary voters said they would vote for Lawson, while 29 percent would vote for Brown and 22 percent remain undecided.

“Roughly half of Congressional District 5 voters are in Duval County, and even though Brown is ahead by 18 percentage points in Duval, that isn’t nearly enough,” said pollster Dr. Michael Binder from UNF. “Lawson is ahead by nearly 60 percentage points in the counties west of Duval.”

Those results follow along the same lines as a St. Pete Polls survey from two weeks earlier, which showed Lawson with a 22-percentage point lead.

Lawson, who will turn 70 next month, has represented the Tallahassee area and surrounding counties on and off for 36 years. From 1982 to 2000 he served in the Florida House.

He then moved to the Senate from 2000 to 2010. Lawson ran unsuccessfully for Congress twice before 2016, when the congressional district where he lives was radically reshaped into a Tallahassee-Jacksonville seat.

Brown has been out of politics after losing a bid for reelection for Jacksonville mayor in 2015. He previously served as a senior advisor in the Clinton administration, in several federal agencies.

Of the two Democrats, Lawson is considered more conservative and Brown is running more towards the left in this race.

The tensions between the two Democrats surfaced recently when they sat uncomfortably side-by-side for an hour-long discussion of the issues in the editorial offices of the Tallahassee Democrat that was streamed on Facebook.

One noted difference between the two occurred when Brown called for the repeal of the controversial Stand Your Ground law, while Lawson, who co-sponsored the original bill in the state Senate in 2005, said the Legislature needed to reexamine it, but should not repeal it.

Less than a week later, however, Lawson flipflopped, saying the law should be repealed. He had been speaking at a rally held in Tallahassee in front of the family of Markeis McGlockton, the 28-year-old man who was killed over a handicapped parking spot in a Stand Your Ground incident in Clearwater.

After the rally, Lawson’s campaign put out a statement saying: “While my intentions to protect homeowners were pure, this law, as it has been expanded three times over the years, is no longer about protecting yourself or your family. Instead, countless times it has allowed criminals to hide behind legislation to get away with murder.”

Brown wasn’t impressed.

“I think he’s a career politician who will say anything to get elected,” Brown said.

Brown also raps Lawson for standing behind the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, also known as ICE, which many liberals have denounced this summer for their actions in deporting undocumented immigrants.

Brown says the federal government “should just dismantle ICE as it stands,” or reform it.

“We have the best minds in the world, we know how to protect our own, so why not reform ICE and bring it into the 21st Century?” he said.

Brown also bashes Lawson for being too cozy with controversial U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Lawson accepted a $1,000 campaign contribution in his ‘16 bid for Congress from Devos’ husband, Richard, and met up with Betsy DeVos when she visited Tallahassee last year.

Lawson says he has always voted for public education, and noted to the Jacksonville Times-Union that charter schools are public schools, and that many African-American churches run charter schools.

When it comes to higher education, Brown supports a plan that would make community college tuition free for students advancing to a four-year institution or for vocational training.

The Florida Phoenix reached out to Congressman Lawson for an interview, but his office did not respond to our request.


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Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has covered politics and government in Florida for more than two decades. Most recently he is the former politics reporter for Bay News 9. He has also worked at Florida Politics, Creative Loafing and WMNF Radio in Tampa. He was also part of the original staff when the Florida Phoenix was created in 2018.