U.S. Rep. Al Lawson was in Jacksonville Tuesday for a town hall, as he looks to repel a challenge in the Democratic primary from another moderate who hasn’t been afraid to blur party lines in former Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown.
The question this campaign for Lawson: can he parlay incumbency and a primary opponent who has myriad flaws into consolidating support on the eastern side of the district?
The answer is as yet unanswered.
Lawson’s town hall came after a roundtable with veterans earlier on Tuesday, and ahead of an endorsement event with the local Fraternal Order of Police Wednesday.
For those expecting talking points to rally the base, they were not to be found. Instead, what Lawson offered was a robust defense of bipartisan cooperation.
The event kicked off with over 100 people in the crowd. And they heard Lawson lament a reality of the current system of government.
“By the time you get there, you’ve got to start raising money for the next election,” Lawson said he was told.
“One of the problems with Congress is … in order to serve on committees, you’ve got to raise a lot of money,” Lawson said, noting that he was told he had to raise “two or three hundred thousand dollars to be on the Appropriations Committee.”
Lawson’s unprompted meditation on fundraising was interesting, as the incumbent is starting his re-election campaign slowly and with a high burn rate.
As of the end of March, his campaign had just under $160,000 on hand — roughly half of the almost $320,000 raised, with very little laid out in the way of a campaign infrastructure.
Brown, who raised $167,000 in his first quarter in the race, had almost $128,000 on hand.
Beyond the fundraising issue, Lawson addressed some hot-button issues in response to questions from WJXT’s Kent Justice, a local television moderator who asked Lawson scripted questions in lieu of questions from the crowd.
On guns, Lawson noted that he’d gotten an “NRA rating of zero for the last thirty years,” though Vote Smart suggests that there were years when Lawson was above that threshold.
Lawson spoke a lot about bipartisanship, noting that after Hurricane Irma, he worked to “convince” House Speaker Paul Ryan of the need for FEMA reimbursements, while working well with Rep. John Rutherford and Mayor Lenny Curry.
Lawson noted that on hurricane relief and efforts to fix problematic Eureka Gardens, working across the aisle is key.
Unlike any other politician in this market today, Lawson expressed interest in crossing party lines repeatedly during the event.
Lawson was asked about a claim from 538.com regarding his voting with President Donald Trump more often than some might like: “If it’s good legislation, doesn’t make a difference if it comes from Trump or anybody. If it benefits this area, I support it.”
“The man is the president of the United States,” Lawson added, noting that he finds it perplexing when people castigate him for not voting with the Congressional Black Caucus on every roll call vote.
“Nobody in the Black Caucus voted for me. That’s why I don’t understand when people say [I] don’t vote with the Black Caucus,” Lawson said, noting that he votes for what his district wants.
The question of Lawson clapping for the President at the last State of the Union came up also.
“There were other African-Americans there who did clap, but the camera focused on me,” Lawson said, noting that “some people take a spin, opponents and stuff, say ‘he is the President’s new best friend.”
“I’m the friend of the people who are going to help my constituents,” Lawson said, to scattered applause. “You don’t have to like the President, but if the President is doing something for the people you serve, you embrace him.”
In an activist year, as a candidate from the other side of the district, it’s interesting to hear Lawson pitching collaboration and cooperation.
There is an endgame for the region, in theory; Lawson said he wanted to build a VA hospital in Jacksonville.
Jacksonville politicians were nowhere to be found at this event. Democratic activists, whatever their issues with former Mayor Brown, have largely fallen in line behind the previous standard bearer of the Duval Democrats.
Despite these issues, Lawson has expressed confidence that he can play well in Duval.
He got 20 percent of the vote in 2016’s Democratic primary against Corrine Brown, outpacing a third place spoiler candidate in that election.
And his mastery of the emotional appeal helped, in anecdotes ranging from post-Irma flood victims.
Ultimately, however, the Brown/Lawson race comes down to two regional Democrats fighting for control of a geographically distended district without appreciable common ground.
Ironically, given that she faced bigger issues than re-election in the end, it was Corrine Brown who made the failed argument that the redrawn Congressional District 5 wasn’t valid because it didn’t aggregate “communities of interest.”
The Alvin Brown/Lawson race, with its geographic divide still looming as the key narrative point, underscores the reality that Corrine Brown’s words (part of her “everything and the kitchen sink” legal defense) have yet to be convincingly refuted.