Al Lawson defeats Corrine Brown in Congress

Al Lawson. Courtesy of WJCT.

A sea change occurred in Jacksonville politics in 2016 when Congresswoman Corrine Brown, in office since 1993, was defeated for reelection by Al Lawson. Brown, by far the most powerful Democrat in the Jacksonville area and a major force in Florida’s congressional delegation, had not had a serious challenger in years. At the time of the 2016 elections, however, Brown was facing a federal indictment on fraud charges, for which she was subsequently found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison. Additionally the district, which had incorporated heavily African-American neighborhoods in an oddly shaped space stretching from Jacksonville to Gainesville and Orlando, had been redrawn as part of an anti-gerrymandering move earlier that year. Florida’s 5th District now ran from Westside Jacksonville through the Panhandle, incorporating historically African-American neighborhoods of Tallahassee.

Al Lawson, a former longtime member of the Florida Legislature from Tallahassee, defeated Brown in the 2016 Democratic primary for the newly redrawn district, bringing an end to Brown’s long tenure. He then easily defeated Glo Smith in the general election. In 2018, Lawson retained his seat after defeating former Jacksonville mayor Alvin Brown in the Democratic primary before dispatching Republican Virginia Fuller in the general election.

The defeat and rebirth of the Human Rights Ordinance

In 2012, advocates in Jacksonville’s LGBT and business communities proposed a change to Jacksonville’s Human Rights Ordinance that would protect LGBT citizens from discrimination in housing, employment, and business accommodations. The HRO became a major controversy, with pushback from various church groups and conservative organizations. To get a bill through an increasingly squeamish City Council, the advocates offered a watered down version of the bill that would protect lesbians, gays and bisexuals but not transgender individuals. This bill was unexpectedly shot down 10-9, with Democratic council member Johnny Gaffney reversing his earlier supportive position. Later reports suggested that Mayor Alvin Brown, who had refused to take a position on the bill, opposed it and pressured Gaffney to kill it behind the scenes.

The defeat was seen as a black eye for the city, but the HRO was not the kind of thing that goes away. It became a significant issue in the 2015 mayoral campaign, causing many LGBT and allied voters to shift away from Brown (Brown’s opponent Lenny Curry also refused to take a stance on the issue). In 2016 and 2017, with public sentiment in both Jacksonville and the country as a whole increasingly moving toward support of LGBT rights, City Council considered another bill for a fully inclusive LGBT ordinance. On Valentines Day of 2017, City Council approved the HRO with a bipartisan 12-6 vote. Two weeks later, it became law without Curry’s signature.

The HRO was a major victory for Jacksonville’s LGBT community, and a sign demonstrating how much the city, traditionally one of the most conservative in the country, had changed in a relatively short amount of time.

The Jacksonville Landing gets razed

After purchasing the Jacksonville Landing in 2003, Toney Sleiman began developing plans to redevelop the space. After several proposals to renovate the structure failed to get off the ground, in 2013 he shifted to demolishing the Landing and replacing it with new buildings, requesting a $12 million incentive package for a mixed-use development to be built at the space. The plan found support from Mayor Alvin Brown, but received pushback from other city leaders, who found it overly expensive and unimpressive.

That plan was scrapped when Lenny Curry came into office. After years of sparring with Sleiman, in 2019, Curry announced a new deal: the city would spend over $20 million to buy and demolish the Landing. This soon became controversial for its expense, lack of public input, and lack of a clear replacement plan. Curry pushed forward, however, and the 32 year old structure festival marketplace started coming down in November 2019.

Demographic and political shifts

2018 gubernatorial race results. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

One of the biggest changes to affect Jacksonville over the 2010s came relatively quietly: demographics shifts are changing the city thanks to two related trends. First, large numbers of mostly white, middle- and upper-income families have been leaving for the suburban counties. Census records show that Duval County had 6,300 fewer white people in 2017 than in 2008. Meanwhile, Duval continues to grow rapidly, and its demographics are increasingly diverse. The same census records found 93,000 more African-American, Latino, Asian and other nonwhite residents in the county in the same period. Jacksonville is on the verge of becoming a minority-majority city, if it hasn’t happened already.

Jacksonville’s voting habits are also changing along with its demographics. The groups coming to and staying in Jacksonville - ethnic minorities as well as younger voters - tilt more heavily Democratic than the families heading for the burbs. In 2018, a majority of Jacksonville voters chose Democrat Andrew Gillum in the governor’s race, the first time the county had swung for a Democrat in a gubernatorial election in 32 years. Jacksonville also went for Democrats in two of the other four other statewide races that year.

However, the Democrats’ success at the statewide level did not trickle down to the local and district elections, which went heavily for Republicans, many of whom ran without Democratic opposition. In 2019, the Democrats infamously failed to run a candidate for mayor or various other local offices. As such, while Jacksonville is changing rapidly, it may be some time before those changes have a discernible effect on the local political scene.

JEA tries to privatize

Courtesy of JEA.

At the end of the decade, JEA, Jacksonville’s public utility, faced one the biggest potential changes it had experienced since it was established in 1895: the potential privatization of the utility. Likely in the works for years, the plan became more concrete when the board selected Aaron Zahn as CEO in April 2018, and then made him permanent in November of that year.

After months of denials, in July 2019 the board elected to move ahead with Zahn’s plan to explore privatization and ostensibly other options for JEA’s future. What followed was a series of controversies that are still being untangled as we step into the next decade. Most notably, after it came to light that Zahn and the board had approved a performance unit plan (PUP) that would have awarded millions of dollars at taxpayer expense for top employees if the utility was sold, the board terminated Zahn without cause in December 2019.

This was only one of several controversies plaguing JEA in the last few years. The utility had also begun a marketing campaign promoting privatization, while at the same time claiming it was not promoting privatization. JEA was also notoriously unforthcoming about its internal proceedings, going so far as to host final bids for the sale outside of Jacksonville in Atlanta. With City Council members and voters alike criticizing JEA’s actions, it would seem that the fallout will continue well into the next decade.

Article by Bill Delaney. Contact Bill at