Florida’s largest city is in a conservative region that traditionally tilts heavily toward the GOP. Yet an African-American, Alvin Brown became the city’s first Black mayor by defeating a Tea Party candidate last May. Brown was the first Democrat in 20 years to sit in the Jacksonville mayor’s office.
One can only conclude that extremist positions promoted by the Tea Party were too outrageous for even Jacksonville’s conservative electorate.
The late Lee Atwater, architect of Republican victories in the 1980s, used to court the South assiduously as a GOP electoral base. But at the same time, he would caution privately that a backlash would occur if this powerful base were perceived as driving national policy for the Republican Party, which needed themes that could also win voters in other parts of the country.
Brown’s victory certainly raises questions of whether the GOP’s presidential candidates can run viable general election campaigns after aggressively courting the Tea Party during the party’s nomination process. The scenario seems to mirror presidential politics in the 1980s when Vice President Walter F. Mondale and Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis were dismal general election candidates after wooing liberals to win the Democratic presidential nominations in 1984 and 1988, respectively.
In his mayoral campaign, Brown also won by displaying savvy political skills. These are traits that he surely learned as a close ally of Ronald H. Brown (no relation), the former secretary of commerce and Democratic National Committee chairman who led the party’s rebirth that resulted in Bill Clinton’s presidential victory in 1992. Alvin Brown was seen as more of a centrist than a liberal. He opposed tax increases and gained key financial support from leading Republican fundraisers. He built a broad coalition in Jacksonville, much as Ron Brown had done two decades ago for the Democratic Party.
Most important, Alvin Brown was able to gain support from Whites while aggressively energizing a base of African-Americans. In fact, one of the campaign’s strategies was to significantly increase the Black turnout, which it accomplished.
Brown also gave voters reasons to like him. He came across as energetic, aggressive and confident yet humble, hardworking and the type of person with values who was at ease joining anyone for a beer, a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.
As unusual as it may sound, perhaps the president of the United States could learn lessons about politics and personality from the new mayor of Jacksonville.
Craig Kirby is a Washington-based political consultant, who managed Alvin Brown’s mayoral campaign and was its chief strategist. This piece was original posted on America’s Wire, an independent, non-profit news service run by the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education.