By DeWayne Wickham
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Alvin Brown, the Democrat who will be sworn in as mayor of this longtime Republican stronghold on July 1, is a political enigma.
He beat the Tea Party’s candidate in the runoff for the job with the help of more than $500,000 from Florida’s Democratic Party and $300,000 that was raised for him by Peter Rummell, one of this area’s most prominent Republicans fund-raisers.
Brown brandishes his faith like a card-carrying member of the religious right. He wouldn’t move into the mayor’s office he won last month until his pastor went there to bless it and pray with him. But on the issue of crime — which he wants to fight with education and after-school programs — he sounds more liberal than conservative.
Brown shuns tax increases like a disciple of Grover Norquist, but says he is committed to “closing the poverty gap and the opportunity gap” even as he works to balance Jacksonville’s budget that’s due two weeks after he takes office.
“We can’t cut our way out of” the city’s budget woes, Brown told leaders of non-profit organizations shortly before the mayor’s office was blessed by the Rev. Henry T. Rhim. “We’ve got to grow our way out of it” with new jobs and the economic activity they spawn, he said.
In a political world in which the divide between Republicans and Democrats has turned many politicians into stuttering, ideological parrots, Brown is neither fish nor fowl. He’s a new breed of elected official — one who has improved upon the multiracial, multiethnic coalition that hoisted Barack Obama into the White House three years ago.
Obama, the nation’s first black president, built his coalition with talk of change that energized his liberal base and won him a strong following among independent voters — but alienated congressional Republicans. Brown, 48, the first black mayor of Florida’s largest city, won election with a surprising fusion of Democrats and Republicans.
He won the support of influential Republicans like Rummell and Adam Herbert, who Brown called Florida’s Colin Powell. And while he claims race never surfaced as an issue in the mayoral campaign, Brown — who was a finalist for the NAACP’s top job in 2008 — said he’s never been accused of not being “black enough” because he has “always stayed connected to the black community.”
Winning the support of a sizeable block of white voters while holding onto a black base is a difficult political balancing act. But getting leading Republicans to publicly champion such a campaign is something even Alvin Toffler, who authored Future Shock — the 1970 book that envisioned the societal changes the new millennium would bring — never contemplated.
It may not be long before we know if Brown can take full advantage of the groundbreaking political alliance he’s forged. He’s appointed Audrey Moran, one of the Republican candidates in the mayoral race, and Democratic state Sen. Tony Hill, as co-chairs of his transition team.
“My campaign wasn’t about Democrats or Republicans. And it wasn’t about me. I made it about Jacksonville: one vision, one city, opportunity for all,” he told me, using words that were the mantra of his successful campaign to become mayor of the nation’s 11th largest city.
If Brown is able to make what he’s trying to do work; if he succeeds in creating a new governing alliance in a city that was once deeply wedded to partisan firefights, he will have plowed a road that can transform American politics — and carry him to an even loftier political height.