Reports: Former Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown considered as Biden's HUD pick
Former Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown is a potential top pick to lead President-elect Joe Biden's Department of Housing and Urban Development, according to a Politico report.
Brown made history in 2011 as the city's first Black mayor, serving one term as the top executive for Florida's largest city.
Biden has proposed progressive housing policies for his future HUD secretary — housing vouchers for everyone who qualifies, tax credits for those who don't, increased block grants, reinstating the Obama-era rule that required communities prove they were overcoming obstacles to fair housing in order to receive funding. Yet Brown's mayoral tenure, which once seemed promising, showed little success at accomplishing ambitious progressive goals.
He was unfailingly optimistic as mayor, but that optimism was often dampened by conservative political instincts — Brown's refusal to support anti-discrimination protections for gay, lesbian and transgender citizens; his trust in Christian nonprofits leading him to approve the sale of subsidized housing that would later haunt his legacy; his opposition to a tax increase, which caused a Republican City Council to go over him and take over the budget process.
His lack of transparency not only drew criticism but led to litigation that overturned one pension plan that was already dead from its lack of political support. Brown later passed another pension-reform package, but it was undone by his successor.
Because Biden seems likely to face a Republican majority in the U.S. Senate, Biden may need nominees who could easily pass Senate confirmation. Brown's history of cultivating relationships with Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio could prove an important factor.
As mayor, Brown employed Marco Rubio's brother, Mario, as the city's lobbyist. And when Scott, then the Florida governor, faced a re-election bid in 2014, Brown refused to endorse Democratic challenger Charlie Crist. Instead, Brown repeatedly praised Scott as an ally.
Scott pledged $36 million to a port-deepening project that was a priority for both Scott and Brown, and Brown successfully lobbied Congress to authorize the dredging in 2014, a required step in order to make the project eligible for federal dollars.
Brown didn't return requests for comment, nor did Biden's transition team.
When he left office, he told The Times-Union, “When you really think about it, I had an opportunity to do something. A lot of people said it couldn’t happen and it happened. I got to do something I really believed in. Worked hard for it; kept all my promises. All of them.”
Brown's 2011 campaign came in a perfect storm in Jacksonville's top-two election system. A moderate and a progressive Republican competed for each other's votes from the establishment, but neither made it to the run-off.
Local Republican big donors shocked many when they threw their support — and money — behind Brown.
Brown campaigned largely on a series of catchphrases — a "laser focus" on "taking Jacksonville to the next level" by using "public-private partnerships" — and Republican donors banded together to support Brown's election. Brown won by less than a percentage point.
Yet Brown, who had promised no new taxes or fees, soon began losing support when he refused to push for more funding once in office, despite rising pension costs and a recession choking the budget.
Instead, Brown proposed privatizing parts of the government. He hired a management-side labor attorney as his chief administrative officer and laid off hundreds of staffers. Instead of public financing, he solicited private donations to fund positions and programs.
One of his early actions as mayor was fulfilling a promise to leave Michael Bloomberg's Mayors Against Illegal Guns, reversing a decision made by Brown's Republican predecessor.
Yet Brown also worked to push Jacksonville's image around the nation. He was criticized by opponents for how much he traveled, but he preached Jacksonville's success in hopes of attracting top sports and music events to the city. He became a trustee in the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and he used connections with similar organizations to bring conferences to town.
One reason cited for Brown's potential appointment as HUD secretary, which was also considered a possibility during the 2016 campaign if Hillary Clinton had won, is his past experience at the department, though it's hard to know what exactly Brown did there.
During the 1990s, he served as a top aide in Bill Clinton's departments of Commerce, Agriculture and Housing and Urban Development. He's never answered questions from the Times-Union about those jobs.
His technical title at the Department of Housing and Urban Development was "director of special actions," but what that means is unclear. The title is no longer in use.
He also served as then-Vice President Al Gore's senior adviser on urban policy and as executive director of the Community Empowerment Board, a Clinton-created organization that oversaw the development of high-poverty "empowerment zones" in urban and rural communities.
After that, Brown led the National Black MBA Association, and he led the Bush/Clinton Katrina Interfaith Fund, distributing money to churches.
As mayor, he espoused the values of public-private partnerships, particularly those with faith groups.
One scandal involved his decision to approve a Christian nonprofit to use sketchy loans to purchase federally subsidized apartments in Jacksonville.
That nonprofit, Global Ministries Foundation, would become the center of federal investigations and scorn from Republicans and Democrats alike for how it ran Eureka Garden and other apartments in Jacksonville.
Global Ministries sparked federal investigations and widespread condemnation from Republicans and Democrats alike when, in 2015, shortly after Mayor Lenny Curry's inauguration, city inspectors found hundreds of violations, including rampant mold, rusted stairs and gas leaks.
During his time as mayor, Brown also refused to endorse adding sexual orientation or gender identity to the city's anti-discrimination laws, to the chagrin of LGBT activists like Jimmy Midyette.
Brown later told Midyette, according to Midyette, that he supported the anti-discrimination ordinance but wanted to delay its passage for political reasons. Midyette, however, doubts that is true.
"He was conservative, very much steeped in the church," Midyette said.
Still, Midyette said he believes Brown would make a good HUD secretary.
"This is where the realpolitik comes into play," Midyette said. "I think he loves Jacksonville. I think he loves public service. I think he does it for the right reasons. We don’t agree on everything, but there are a lot of people in this city who I can say that about."
Jacksonville Area Legal Aid Executive Director Jim Kowalski, who served in that role for the final two years of Brown's administration, said Brown sought out the nonprofit law firm's opinion on how to respond to housing issues, and Brown fought to offer city funding to the firm, but City Council was unwilling to agree.
"He tried to build a number of coalitions here in Jacksonville when he was mayor," Kowalski said. "I think it’s fair to say their broader plans were stymied probably in the way that some are thinking Biden’s plans would be stymied by Mitch McConnell."
During Brown's administration, the Republican super-majority City Council passed a tax increase over his objections, a contrast to his predecessor Mayor John Peyton who raised city fees when property-tax reforms and the recession threatened to close city libraries.
Former City Councilman Warren Jones, a fellow Democrat, albeit a more liberal one who fought Brown to expand the anti-discrimination ordinance, said after the tax increase, Brown and City Council remained at loggerheads, and part of it was partisanship. "There were those who opposed anything he did simply because he was a Democratic mayor."
Since consolidation in 1968, Jacksonville's City Council has often submitted to mayors' wills, but under Brown, City Council took a more assertive role, rejecting his budgets and proposals.
"I hope he learned from his experience," said former City Council President Bill Gulliford, a vocal opponent of Brown's during his time as mayor. "When you’re mayor, you’re not king. You still have to answer to people like council. Maybe as a result of that experience if he did get into this position, he’d be a little easier in his dealings with the legislative body."
Brown did score some legislative accomplishments. He created the Downtown Investment Authority devoted to bringing private investment into the core. He pushed through $43 million in taxpayer dollars to build giant video screens and new pools at the Jaguars' city-owned stadium. He also established a veterans resource center where veterans could find help getting social services, including housing.
Brown also used financial incentives to attract developers to Jacksonville's Brooklyn neighborhood, which was mostly filled with empty lots after failed starts during his predecessor's administration.
The neighborhood, once about 6,000 people, had fallen to just about 60 remaining residents by 2010, after interstates and bridges divided the neighborhood from Riverside to the south, Downtown to the northeast and Mixon Town to the northwest.
Brown brought millions in tax incentives to bring in apartments, a Fresh Market and restaurants to a strip mall along a widened road. The new development, he and his staffers said frequently, would bring a "renaissance" to Downtown.
Eventually, chef-owned restaurants gave way for chains, and the new apartments did little to revitalize the city's still-sleepy Downtown.
Today, the neighborhood is one of the only parts of the city with large-scale construction projects, including hundreds of new apartments and a new corporate headquarters being built.
Brown, who tried to appeal to conservative Republicans, ended up challenged in his 2015 re-election campaign from his left.
Republican City Councilman Bill Bishop advocated a tax increase and the inclusion of sexual orientation in the city's anti-discrimination laws. When Bishop failed to make the run-off, many of Brown's 2011 donors — and even his ally, Gov. Scott — decamped for Curry, a former Republican Party of Florida chairman.
Brown, in the final weeks of the election, made a sudden pivot to the left, calling on the state to expand Medicaid and raise the minimum wage. Still, Brown lost re-election by about two-and-a-half percentage points.
In 2018 he ran for congress but lost in a Democratic primary. During that election, he continued his pivot toward progressive politics. He expressed regret for leaving the Mayors Against Illegal Guns group, said he wanted to see a living wage and talked about reforming, if not abolishing, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
According to his donations to Joe Biden this year, he recently worked for a lobbying firm, Gray Global Advisors, that has been a donor to his past campaigns.
In August, Brown took a role as an adviser to Biden's campaign.
"I think some of the lessons he learned in Washington didn’t serve him well in local government," said Jones, the former councilman. "But I think he learned. You have to be very careful about the promises you make. He made some promises, unrealistic promises, that he just couldn’t keep.