First black mayor
Last year, this conservative stronghold elected Democrat Alvin Brown, a former Bill Clinton aide, as Jacksonville’s first African-American mayor.
Democrats hailed it as a huge victory for their party, though Brown is no conventional Democrat. A social conservative, pro-business Democrat, Brown had the backing of some high-profile Republicans, including former St. Joe CEO Peter Rummell, and his opponent was a hard right tea party conservative.
Over the past year, Brown, 50, has slashed city spending, including his own salary, hammered out money-saving contracts with public unions, and launched initiatives to improve schools and better serve the 240,000 Jacksonville residents with military connections.
“I didn’t vote for the guy, but I love Alvin Brown,” gushed Ed Malin, a sandwich shop owner and tea party activist in Jacksonville Beach. “He wrote a budget smaller than the previous year, he’s fighting the Republican sheriff who wants to increase taxes. I love the guy.”
Brown’s City Hall office includes photos of him with Clinton and Al Gore and former Democratic National Committee chairman Ron Brown, but the mayor is clear he won’t lift a finger to help Obama in this critical county.
He waxed on about accountability, efficiency and the bright future of Jacksonville, while repeatedly steering the conversation away from the presidential race. He declined to say even whether he will vote for Obama or Romney, citing a campaign promise not to get involved in partisan campaigns.
“I’m not going to get involved in presidential politics,” said Brown, a statement that would be shocking if it came from almost any other big city mayor in Florida. “I ran a bipartisan campaign, I have a bipartisan administration with Republicans and Democrats. I made a promise I would focus on governing, not politics.”
His caution speaks volumes about the politics of Jacksonville. But Duval County, like Florida itself, is always changing and it may not be too many years before a Democrat elected countywide there can safely embrace his party.
While national polls suggest Democrats lag Republicans in enthusiasm heading into November, conversations across Duval in recent days found Obama’s base determined to give him a second term.
“It’s going to take more than four years to undo all the mess he faced when he got there,” said Democrat John Carter, brushing off the suggestion that Obama fell short of his campaign promises. “He can only do what he’s allowed to do. He still has to contend with Congress.”
In his east Jacksonville barbershop, 29-year-old Navy veteran and Obama campaign volunteer Maurice Miller presses all his customers to register to vote and turn out in November.
“For so long people in this community felt their voices weren’t heard. When they saw Obama win, they said, ‘Our voice does matter, it does count,’” said Miller. “The Obama campaign is really trying to spread the word to the young voters involved, and that’s what I’m working hard at, too. I think that’s what’s going to make or break this election.”
Until Obama in 2008, Democrats had never launched a sophisticated and well-organized voter turnout operation in Jacksonville. Today there are signs that the electorate in the seventh-most populous county in Florida is in the midst of transition.