On Wednesday, it became official, Jacksonville has a new Mayor. His name is Alvin Brown, a Democrat who is African-American. The former hadn't happened in Jacksonville in 20 years, and the latter was a first.
The election is getting a lot of attention, as it should. This is a big deal. It is a big deal for Democrats, who for most of two decades, have been relegated to the sidelines in citywide elections in Jacksonville. It is also a big deal for Jacksonville, which for much of its history--like a lot of Northeast Florida (google my hometown of St. Augustine), has had a pretty sorry record on race relations.
Alvin ran a smart race. He worked his base vote to a second place showing in the initial primary, then smartly guided by the adult leadership of former top Graham and Sink advisor Chris Hand, did exactly what he needed to do to position himselfas the center-right candidate in a city that elects center-right Mayors. When you look at the match-up, Alvin Brown is the kind of guy that Jacksonville elects as its Mayor. In many ways, he was supposed to win, and he did. More on this point later.
First, the Florida Democratic Party deserves a tremendous amount of credit for getting in this race, investing early, supporting the candidate both financially and with staff and seeing it through to the end. The party actively raised money and Scott Arceneaux, the party's talented Executive Director, essentially lived in the campaign for the last few months. Given the political history of the city, it was a gutsy call. They drove the ship and deserve a ton of well-deserved credit for the win.
And like all elections, the race's dynamics had as much to do with the win as anything. The leading vote getter in the primary was Mike Hogan, who ran from the tea party wing of the GOP. Alvin came in second in a four way primary, besting two moderate Republicans, who in many ways had split the traditional moderate Jacksonville support. The final match-up was a Tea Party Republican against a center-right Democrat, with an undecided business community.
Jacksonville has a long tradition of electing center-right Mayors---which for the last 20 years have been Republicans. Alvin ended up in filling that space, and was widely supported by moderate Republican business leaders, who openly campaigned and supported him. They made Alvin competitive, and the campaign's message and turnout effort got him over the top.
So, what does this mean?
* First, Jacksonville hasn't been as 'red' (its still quite republican) of late---we got nearly 49% there in 2008 and Sink, considering her loss, was very competitive (46%). In addition to Brown, another Democrat bested a Republican for a city-wide Council seat, and just two months earlier, in the primary (cityprimaries are all open), Democrat John Crescembeni won re-election over three Republicans in a city-wide primary.
* Secondly, the 2010 enthusiasm gap--which definitely existed, is gone. Democrats showed up, volunteered, voted, and were engaged. The same thing happened in the Tampa Mayors race in the spring. This is the most important take-away of the race.
* Third, even in the most partisan communities, there are degrees of acceptable partisanship and ideological extremes. Mike Hogan ran as a tea party Republican, and at least gave the appearance of taking the centrist part of his party for granted. When it was all said and done, those centrists found a home with Alvin Brown. If Hogan had been closer to the center, or if one of the more moderate Republicans had won the primary, the outcome might have been different. Even in this traditionally 'red' area, the GOP nominee went too far. Democrats should heed this as well. Regular voters aren't as partisan as their leaders.
* Fourth, you have to go get it. Hogan played it safe, avoided debates and other public gatherings. Brown didn't. In the end, that mattered.
* Fifth, while this is a boost to Democrats, the race is a much bigger deal to Jacksonville than it is to Barack Obama. Parts of Hogan's coalition, labor specifically, will probably line up with the President, while parts of the Brown coalition will probably help the Republican nominee. While I wish politics was a simple as win Jacksonville Mayor, win Jacksonville Presidential, the reality is Obama has to run his own race. But as I mentioned above, the energy from the win is definitely a plus for the President.
* And finally, I also believe it will convince more good Jacksonville Democrats to get off the sidelines and throw their own hats in future rings---hopefully including one good Democrat who I think is reading this, but has held their own powder out of concerns of electability. Competition always leads to a better product---and better elected officials.
And why it really matters.
We moved to the First Coast in 1984, when I was just shy of ten years old. Growing up in a moderately sized, rustbelt Illinois town, then moving to what was in those days, a pretty deep south North Florida was quite a cultural shock, especially for a kid who had never really known race as a tangible thing. In the late 1980's, that part of the world was still very segregated, even if not legally so.
While Jacksonville has gotten better, the 2003 Mayor's race between Nat Glover and John Peyton was not without its own racial issues, so when I first heard that Alvin was thinking about running, I'll admit to being a bit skeptical, and not because he wasn't a good candidate.
But all of the sudden, his coalition started to look a lot like John Peyton or John Delaney's---that combination of base PLUS the center-right civic leadership of Jacksonville...then he got the Jacksonville Times-Union endorsement, and it started to look more and more real. Even as more of my non-Democratic friends (yes, I have non-Democratic friends) from Jacksonville started to suggest he might pull it off, I'll admit to harboring doubts--- not a lack of hope, just doubts.
But in the end he won, just like he was supposed to. He just happened to be a Democrat, and African-American, and neither mattered---just like the new Mayors of Charlotte, North Carolina and Columbia, South Carolina, both elected last year.
Talk about real change---and a new day in the south. And that is what really matters.
So congratulations Mr. Mayor, and Go Jaguars!