MAYOR'S RACE: ALVIN BROWN; Inside the World of a Washington Outsider He's Walked the Halls of the White House, but Lacks Local Prominence

By Conner, Deirdre | The Florida Times Union, February 22, 2011 | Go to article overview

MAYOR'S RACE: ALVIN BROWN; Inside the World of a Washington Outsider He's Walked the Halls of the White House, but Lacks Local Prominence


Conner, Deirdre, The Florida Times Union


Byline: DEIRDRE CONNER

Endorsed in local events by his former bosses - President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore - Alvin Brown has brought plenty of star power to Jacksonville to testify that he's more than qualified to be the city's next mayor.

At the same time, Brown is fighting to prove that his local connections are strong enough to be among the top two vote-getters in the March 22 election. A few mornings a week, he takes his listening ear to different parts of town, talking to voters over pancakes and Sausage McMuffins. He works the crowd, introducing himself and jotting down notes about their concerns: jobs, education, city finance.

Yet for many, Brown remains mysterious. He is a man with a compelling personal story and a great deal of experience on how cities work best. But he's doing so without a strong grass-roots campaign - and with an apparent inability to translate his national experience into specific local ideas. The question is whether his current efforts will be enough to position himself to be the shoo-in Democrat in the runoff.

KNOWN AS A LISTENER

To a one, those who know Brown well cite his ability to talk to just about anyone. He leads, they say, primarily by hearing out many viewpoints.

"He understands the value in listening and incorporating ideas for a group of people into one policy that would be a win-win for both sides," said Chester Aikens, his campaign treasurer and longtime friend.

His pastor, H.T. Rhim, has come to see Brown as a son and has been at his side through nearly every significant moment. Rhim went with him to the Oval Office and to minister to the homeless under the Interstate 95 overpass. He officiated his wedding and named his sons. He helped him finish school and prayed with him about political decisions.

Brown, Rhim said, is as at ease conversing in the halls of the White House as a senior Clinton aide as he is chatting with the dispossessed on street corners as part of the St. Joseph Missionary Baptist Church's evangelism ministry.

"He greets no strangers," Rhim said.

Yet as comfortable as he is with a broad cross section, Brown, perhaps accustomed to toiling in the huge federal government without much in the way of media scrutiny, has garnered a reputation for secrecy.

He did not return a Times-Union questionnaire about his platform for more than a month after the deadline, and until he hired a campaign spokesman, he had been reluctant to return calls from media outlets. He has attended relatively few public forums. And when questions arose about why he did not report $16,244 listed by the state Democratic Party as an expenditure for his campaign, he was silent for more than a week before amending his report, saying only that it was an oversight.

The aversion at times shrouds even positive aspects of his experience and campaign from public view. He rarely speaks of accomplishments such as overseeing the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development response to the Red River floods in North Dakota or his role in local efforts, such as a 2004 Jacksonville Economic Development task force.

He says it's an extreme discomfort and fear of bragging about himself, something his wife, Santhea Hicks, has witnessed first-hand since the campaign started. Hicks said she has often been approached at events by supporters recalling a good deed Brown did for them years ago.

"He just doesn't talk about it," she said.

TIES BEGUN AS A TEENAGER

A deeply religious man, Brown sought and received early support from the city's major black churches and influential religious leaders such as Bishop Vaughn McLaughlin of The Potter's House megachurch on the Westside. Brown joined St. Joseph Missionary Baptist Church in downtown Jacksonville as a teenager, and calls Rhim, its pastor, "Dad."

Brown has been battered by "carpetbagger" criticism, a term once thrown out by his one-time political opponent Corrine Brown (who now defends him on that issue). …

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