Florida: Third District|
Rep. Corrine Brown (D)
Last Updated June 10, 1999
Before the Civil War, most of Florida was still an unchartered watery wilderness, festooned with exotic greenery, inhabited by unusual animals: a part of the United States so far out of the experience of most Americans as to seem foreign. As late as 1940, Florida had the smallest population of all the southern states, and most of the people here lived in classic Dixie rural counties with small courthouse towns, where civic affairs were run by the richest white men; blacks lived in poorly-constructed, unpainted shotgun houses propped up on blocks, with little money and no vote. This was a land of swamps and lakes and orange groves, of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings's Cross Creek, where she wrote the great children's classic The Yearling, and the Florida of the broad St. Johns River, one of the few rivers in North America that flows (if only sluggishly) north, through the orange grove country to the port of Jacksonville, for many years Florida's largest city.
The 3d Congressional District occupies much of this old Florida terrain. The district was created in 1992 to be north Florida's black majority seat, and was modified for 1996, by an almost unanimous vote of the legislature, when it was overturned by a court order; it is now about 47% black. The district as drawn in 1992 collected the descendants of the slaves who worked on the plantations and farms of northern Florida over a century ago, plus blacks who have settled in the state since then. As redrawn in 1996, it no longer has a tentacle reaching out to Gainesville and Ocala, but extends more or less straight north and south, from Jacksonville to Orlando. Almost half of the district's population lives in Jacksonville, almost one quarter in and near Orlando (including all-black Eatontown, home of author Zora Neale Hurston). Much of it follows Florida watercourses: it touches on Cross Creek as well as the St. Johns River and numerous swamps.
The congresswoman from the 3d District is Corrine Brown, a Democrat elected in 1992. She grew up in Jacksonville, taught at the community college, was a guidance counselor and in 1982 was elected to the Florida House. With her Jacksonville base, she was the obvious favorite in 1992. In the Democratic primary she faced white talk radio host Andy Johnson who called himself ''the blackest candidate in the race.'' Brown led 43%-31% in the primary and 64%-36% in the runoff; she won the general 59%-41%. Johnson brought the case challenging the district boundaries, but was not pleased with the results.
Brown has compiled a liberal record on most issues, though she supports more defense spending than many on the left; she stresses that the military can be a source of opportunity, a lesson many black Americans have learned from personal experience. She worked very hard and used her seats on Transportation and Veterans' Affairs to bring economic development to her district, working to secure an $86 million federal courthouse for Jacksonville and to promote LYNX in Orlando and cross-Florida high-speed rail. On the Transportation Committee she was a rock solid vote in 1998 for the new Step-21 formula which gives all states at least 95% of their gas tax revenues (Florida used to get 74%). As the only woman on the Veterans' Committee until 1997, she spearheaded a law to provide better health care for women in veterans' hospitals and clinics; in 1998 she helped pass the VERA (Veterans Equitable Resource Allocation) formula that gives Florida reimbursement for veterans who move there or use health facilities while visiting. She fought to preserve the Medicaid payments for disproportionate share hospitals (those with lots of low-income patients). On a trip to Ecuador she was appalled by its justice system and worked to help two Floridians imprisoned there; one was released in October 1997.
Brown has had spirited opposition, which is unusual for Florida incumbents; though she opposed the redistricting lawsuit, she embraced the legislature's new lines with enthusiasm and won 61%-39% in 1996. She faced her most difficult contest in 1998. That April the St. Petersburg Times reported that she received $10,000 from Baptist minister Henry Lyons, who since had been indicted on theft charges; she said the money was for his help in a rally protesting the redistricting case. In June the same paper reported that her daughter, attorney and EPA employee Shantrel Brown, was given a $50,000 Lexus by agents of African millionaire Foutanga Sissoko; he had been imprisoned in Miami on federal charges, and Corinne Brown had been working furiously to get him released, lobbying Attorney General Janet Reno to have him deported to Africa to continue his humanitarian work. A third charge came out: that she kept a jazz singer on her payroll as a ''congressional outreach specialist''--though why that should be wrongful is unclear. Brown reacted with fury: she filed a criminal contempt charge against the Times reporters with the Capitol Police, claiming they ''accosted'' her and their questions made her cry. A federal prosecutor said there was not enough to indict them for impeding a member of Congress.
These charges attracted national Republican attention. They had a presentable candidate: Bill Randall, also black, a former General Motors management employee who had become a minister and worked as a sales manager for a cable company; he opposed abortion, favored local control of schools and school vouchers. As Randall admitted,''I think this race has gotten on the radar screen based on what this candidate has done to herself. It's not so much that I'm all that great a candidate or anything.'' But starting in June Randall outraised Brown, and was able to bring in Newt Gingrich, Christie Whitman and Alan Keyes. Democrats responded: in came Hillary Rodham Clinton, Jesse Jackson, Maxine Waters.
There were further wrinkles. Gingrich visited Monday, October 19. But on Sunday, October 18, the Daytona News-Journal reported two allegations against Randall. One was that he bounced a check for $1,300 in 1988 when the IRS froze his bank account because of failure to pay $30,000 in taxes. Randall said he was paying off the arrears and that one reason he was running was his mistreatment by the IRS. The paper also charged that Randall fathered a child with an unmarried woman in 1980. ''An absolute lie,'' he said on October 19. But two days later, surrounded by his wife, daughter and grandchildren, he acknowledged the charge, and said it was the catalyst that got him to attend the seminary. This must have undercut the ad the Republicans were running: ''We need public officials to be honest and preserve the rule of law. But look at Corinne Brown's record.''
What did voters make of these charges, all of which analyzed with a bit of sympathy look like mistakes made at least partly out of good motives? They mostly reverted, as members of Congress mostly did to the charges against Bill Clinton, to partisan hype. They did cost Brown something: she won by 55%-45%, 6% down from 1996 though most incumbents of both parties saw their percentages rise. Brown won 60% in Jacksonville and 66% in the Orlando and Orange County parts of the district, both with black majorities; Randall made inroads among white Democrats in Putnam, Flagler and St. Johns counties and got 77% in very heavily Republican Clay County.
Brown promises to continue working for her constituency. The Congressional Accountability Project requested that the House ethics committee investigate the $10,000 contribution and the Lexus gift. But as of May 1999 no action had been taken.
Safe. In 1998, Republicans had their best chance to knock the scandal-tainted Brown from this overwhelmingly-Democratic, majority-black district. Now that Brown has weathered her ethical storm, it's unlikely that Republicans will be able to replicate the situation with a better candidate; Brown is likely to remain comfortably in office, if a bit chastened.
- Pop. 1990: 562,080
- 15.7% rural;
13.3% age 65+;
- 50.4% White,
0.3% Amer. Indian,
3.4% Hispanic origin;
44.8% married couple families;
21.3% married couple fams. w. children;
33.1% college educ.;
median household income: $21,306;
per capita income: $10,047;
median gross rent: $309;
median house value: $50,500.
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