Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown has shifted his campaign rhetoric sharply to the left in recent days following four years of centrist governing and sinking poll numbers. Brown’s opponent former RPOF Chairman Lenny Curry has taken advantage of the incumbent Mayors unease with the Democratic base to race ahead in polling ahead of the May 19th General Election.
Mayor Brown has decided suddenly that the issues of economic justice that have long ailed the City of Jacksonville are worthy of discussion. The populist themes Brown has begun to play mirror much of what Charlie Crist ran on last fall – issues which many in the Democratic establishment who are more comfortable with moderate messaging and milk toast candidates fashionably blamed for Crist’s defeat.
Florida Democrats have repeatedly made progressives the fall guys for electoral defeats, though party insiders have time and again insisted on moderate candidates and moderate messaging. What is particularly galling as we sit and watch the pivoting to the left of Brown and his FDP backed media campaign is that we can assume many establishment Democrats will blame this messaging if and when Brown losses to Curry in less than two weeks.
It is worth noting that Brown began pivoting privately weeks ago, saying the right things to get the endorsement of Councilman Bill Bishop, a moderate Republican who ran third in the March Primary. One of the key issues locally Bishop stressed was the deepening of the St John’s River shipping channel and the cleaning up/preservation of the river.
Florida’s Democrats might be learning some of the lessons activists and others like myself have tried to impart – that social justice is not mutually exclusive from economic justice- you cannot be a good social liberal without being an economic one. In today’s society being progressive on social issues is easier than ever given the changing attitudes of millennials towards issues like LGBT rights, race and reproductive rights (though data indicates this particular view may not endure). But what is far more difficult is resisting the temptation for elected officials and candidates to raise money from vested economic/corporate interests who seeks to exploit and profit of influence in government. It is also a temptation which those who claim to be political activists on the left find hard to resist.
Hired guns and those who hope to be hired or part of an “in” crowd advocate moderate / establishment candidates, neutral views on economic issues and ultimately a Democratic Party that checks ideological purity at the door in the interest of “winning.” The problem is this formula has done little to actually bring success in elections, as the Florida Democrats record of losing 17 of the last 18 races for state office and 19 of the last 20 statewide elections without Bill Nelson can attest. Mayor Alvin Brown benefited from a divided Republican Party in his 2011 election, but now in 2015 he is feeling the pain of abandoning the party’s base for most of his tenure in office.
A big question is whether Brown’s late lurch to the left is simply cosmetic or indicates a change in direction for Florida’s Democrats. Many operatives were quick to blame populist economic rhetoric for Charlie Crist’s 2014 defeat, but the evidence provided by embracing the corporate or Wall Street agenda is that Democrats don’t fare much better statewide. Congressman Patrick Murphy has been targeted by the Progressive Democratic Caucus of Florida for his previous willingness to take campaign cash from Wall Street. Murphy is the overwhelming choice of Democratic insiders both in Florida and Washington DC, but perhaps his tact will be to run a more progressive campaign with populist messaging if Brown’s pivot is successful.
While some after the election might try and spin a Brown loss if it occurs as due to his shift to the left late on in the race, his loss will in fact be more due to his abandonment of the principles of progressiveness and economic justice for the majority of his time in office. Regardless of the result the Jacksonville Mayor’s race could provide us with a clear lens into the future of the Democratic Party.