For U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, 2017 is show and prove time — especially for the eastern part of his district.
Lawson, who beat Corrine Brown in last year’s Democratic primary before rolling to a general election win against a perennial also-ran Republican candidate, has had difficulty messaging to Jacksonville.
Speculation abounds that former Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown is looking at the seat, along with other politicians with strong local bases.
Other Jacksonville politicians may be looking as well. They won’t discuss it on the record. But when the notebook is closed, they have plenty to say — and plenty of criticisms of Lawson.
In that context, events like Wednesday evening’s town hall at the downtown campus of Florida State College – Jacksonville are essential.
In a half-filled auditorium, the Congressman spoke — and Lawson kept his remarks, as is his tendency, at a macro level.
His canard about “Washington being partisan” popped up in the first few minutes of the event. And reiterated, as a functional refrain.
“The partisan bickering has got to stop,” Lawson reiterated later. “Once you get to Congress, people start working for the next election. They cross the street and start raising money.”
In contrast, Lawson wants to “be a voice” for his constituents.
Lawson, who has yet to file a bill in the Congress, also discussed the importance of “earmarks,” noting his commitment to “the dredging issue which is so important here,” alluding to conversations with the Governor, the City Council, and Rep. John Rutherford.
When asked about local appropriation requests after the event, Lawson had this to say.
“You know, I filed appropriations requests for infrastructure — roads, bridges. I can’t be specific because in the area we talked about we said we needed more funding for ports, for dredging issues, for issues to enhance educational opportunities, and so forth.”
Lawson added that “you really don’t do many earmarks anymore. You work with your colleagues to solve those particular issues. The same kind of resources you need in most areas you need throughout the district.”
When asked about the JaxPort dredge — a matter of local controversy for many reasons — Lawson said that “early on, I met with the Riverkeepers [SIC], and they told me they were not opposed to dredging as long as there were adequate funds in there for mitigation. And so I thought — and more and more I talked to them, I was surprised to see they were going to file a lawsuit on the dredging issue.”
“The dredging issue — being almost like an environmentalist myself — I know there’s safe things you can do in the river because we’ve been doing it for years,” Lawson added, discussing “issues related to the river in Duval for many, many years.”
“There seems to not be a lot of trust. But anytime you can bring in and satisfy the environmental concerns and bring in 15,000 jobs, that seems to be very significant for this particular community.”
Lawson was more comfortable with big picture stuff.
On Syria, Lawson wanted the “United States to take the moral high road,” and “take care of those kids we can.”
“We don’t know how much we accomplished. But we do know that it’s necessary,” Lawson said, adding that for President Trump to go into Syria, he needs Congressional authorization, and “to work with other countries, to make sure we [protect] humanity.”
Later on in the town hall, Lawson pledged that he wouldn’t vote for a declaration of war, but he “probably would have voted for some kind of strike,” even though it may or may not have “solved anything.” And “we really need to take [Assad] out … because it’s inappropriate, what he’s doing, destroying life.”
Finally, in the post-event gaggle, Lawson refined his position.
“Assad is a thug and he needs to be removed. No one should do what he’s done to be people of Syria. That’s unacceptable. Very humane. Unhumane, what he has done, [SIC]” Lawson contended, adding that “hopefully, Russia will come around.”
Lawson tried to elucidate common ground in the sprawling, cartographically-challenged Congressional District 5, waxing poetic about the district extending west, before noting the importance of affecting “the quality of life in people’s community.”
Lawson also reprised his familiar refrain about Eureka Garden, crediting Sen. Marco Rubio for calling attention to the issue, and lauding HUD Sec. Ben Carson for coming to Jacksonville on Tuesday.
While he knows there are other complexes that need help and the spotlight, he didn’t name them.
This was something that came up, obliquely, at the Jacksonville City Council meeting Tuesday night, with Councilwoman Katrina Brown noting that Lawson hadn’t been to her district yet.
Lawson noted that he had gotten to “address the city commission and have the opportunity to know them just like I’m doing in every city.”
“It’s not just in Jacksonville, but it’s seven other counties where you have to interact with city commissioners,” Lawson added, before discussing his collaborations with Rep. Rutherford again.
When asked about being an older Congressman and dealing with a learning curve in Jacksonville’s particularly parochial politics, Lawson said age was “not an issue.”
“When you go up to Congress, you’ll see that most people are kind of elderly … I wouldn’t be in Congress if I thought I couldn’t solve the problems in the district.
Lawson, asked about education, said that he backed charter schools — and that he intended to bring Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to Duval County, to “educate” her on local schools.
“I like charter schools. They put competition in there … so our kids can have the best quality of education.”
“Our kids is performing very low in this state,” Lawson noted. “Whether it works or not, only time will tell.”
Questions from locals about environmental contamination issues at an EPA Superfund site on Fairfax St. led to Lawson first recommending they go to City Hall, then suggesting they get legal counsel, before rushing them off the mike.
Other hyperlocal questions (including one about a failed Habijax project called Fairway Oaks, where the land wouldn’t support the homes built on them, and another about the NIBIN program that locals are using, in tandem with the feds, to identify shell casings to solve violent crimes) also got that long stare that politicians get when their sole connection to the area, before exploiting Corrine Brown’s legal morass, is buying clothes in Jacksonville as a kid and a friendship with Artis Gilmore.
The Congressman would have seemed to be on firmer ground with big picture, national talking points, including the Affordable Care Act.
However, his answers there lacked any specifics or anything that could be pull quoted, before he launched into one of many stories about his work in the Florida Legislature — in which Lawson discussed successes from almost a decade ago in Tallahassee.
Asked about a bill that would decriminalize cannabis on a federal level, meanwhile, Lawson did address the costs of mass incarceration — briefly — saying that the country can’t afford it.
Lawson, discussing cannabis legalization, punted on taking a position in discussing it, saying he doubts the bill is going to pass — as the questioner spoke with conviction about the wastefulness of America’s war on weed.
In the post-event gaggle, however, Lawson committed to supporting rescheduling marijuana.
Some questions didn’t have gaggle followups, however.
When asked about Net Neutrality, Lawson punted to his legislative assistant, as “they’ve been dealing with that issue long before I got there.”
Congressional District 5 was once a Jacksonville seat. And it will be again — unless Lawson figures out a way to bridge the distance, both physical and metaphorical, between the State Capital and the Bold New City of the South.
Barring an acquittal, Corrine Brown won’t take that seat back.
But other pols are licking their chops … yet Lawson isn’t concerned.
We asked about Alvin Brown — and potential others.
“I don’t worry about that. I can’t come up there and be in Congress for three months, and then worry about who is going to run. Whoever wants to run, it’s a free country — let them run. I have never backed down from anybody who wants to challenge,” Lawson said.
“When you just get in office and you’re trying to learn your way to do something, how are you going to worry about who’s going to run? You’ve got to go and do a job.”