Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown announced this week that he is not endorsing Barack Obama in the Presidential Election.
Brown’s triumph in the 2011 Mayoral Election was perhaps the state party’s greatest victory in a decade. Chairman Rod Smith rightfully won plaudits for his effort in this race and the ability of Brown to cross racial lines and win votes of left leaning whites in the Riverside area as well as some working class white voters who had previously turned their back on the Democrats. But in fairness, Mike Hogan wasn’t the best candidate the Republicans could have offered: had the more moderate Republican Audrey Moran made the runoff it is likely Brown would not have won. Still, Brown ran well on the west-side of town, turning Moran votes into his own and cut Hogan’s projected margins in Arlington enough to come out ahead and become Jacksonville’s first ever African-American Mayor.
The victory was the boost Democrats needed to push momentum going in 2012, and Brown was instantly a statewide star. While Brown himself is an incredibly attractive candidate with a good resume, but does fit the profile of a Clinton era DLC Democrat. But Jacksonville is a conservative city where association with Barack Obama could doom electoral prospects, correct? Wrong.
While Jacksonville is more conservative than other big Florida cities (for example Tampa last elected a Republican Mayor in 1983), Duval County is beginning to trend away from the reactionary conservatism that was prevalent in the area from the late 1980s until recently. Liberals would decry Jacksonville as a redneck, racist town, something which wasn’t entirely fair but a thesis that was formed due to several high profile incidents in the 1960s and 1970s. Attitudes towards Jacksonville began to change with Nat Glover’s victory in the 1995 Duval County Sheriff’s Race.
Still the Republican takeover of the Florida Legislature gave Jacksonville its greatest power on the state level since Haydon Burns was Governor. Not only were many of the legislature’s most influential leaders from the area but so was the Chairman of the state GOP, Tom Slade who was also a national figure in Republican Party circles.
But like most big metropolitan areas in Florida, demographics have begun to change in Jacksonville. The area has not experienced the influx of Hispanics that the rest of the state has but many more moderate to liberal northerners have moved to the area since 2000, which has begun to shift the partisan landscape of the city. Barack Obama received close to 49% of the 2008 Presidential vote in Duval County, compared to the less than 42% John Kerry received in 2004. The margins the GOP took out of the county in Gubernatorial elections was also smaller in 2010 and 2006 than they were in 1998 and 2002.
What Alvin Brown doesn’t seem to realize in avoiding an endorsement of President Obama is that he was the beneficiary of long term changes in the area who favor candidates like Obama. Jacksonville’s white business class elites who were Democrats until the late 1980s/early 1990s are now all solidly Republican. They vote Republican and Brown has been courting them as Mayor even thought most of them will never support him. Those who supported Brown were moderate working class white voters who consciously cast a ballot for an African-American Democrat just as many of them had done in 2008 for President.
I can relate to Brown’s thinking. The Jacksonville of perceptions and caricatures is a conservative place dominated by insurance and big business. But Brown won largely due to the changes taking place in Jacksonville as well as a smart campaign and outside party help. Not endorsing Obama is not going to help him the way he thinks it will when he runs for reelection in 2015.
All of this having been said it is important that progressives continue to root for Brown’s success. As a historic figure in Jacksonville and the man who gave Florida Democrats their most significant win in a decade the hope is that Brown realizes the error of his ways in the near future.