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Jacksonville's New Mayor Focuses On Jobs And Small Businesses

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Florida's largest city has elected Alvin Brown as its first Democratic mayor in 20 years. He's also the city's first African American mayor ever. In last week's surprise victory, Brown defeated the Tea Party-backed GOP candidate. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are trying to figure out what this might mean for the 2012 elections. Host Michel Martin speaks with Brown about his victory and whether it may have wider political implications.

MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we look at the power struggle intensifying over the next head of the International Monetary Fund following the resignation of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. The IMF managing director has always been a European, but the emerging economic powers China and Brazil are among the nations pushing for a larger pool of candidates to be considered. We'll have that conversation in a few minutes.

But first, we go to the always interesting world of Florida politics. That state's largest city, Jacksonville, elected a new mayor last week. Without much money or name recognition, Alvin Brown defeated a popular Republican backed by the Tea Party to win a narrow victory. Brown, a former aide in the Clinton White House, is the first Democrat elected in Jacksonville in 20 years. He's also the city's first African-American mayor, no small feat in a city with a long history of racially divided politics.

And since this is Florida, one of the important swing states in presidential elections, Democrats are hoping Brown's victory in that heavily Republican region will help them again deliver Florida to President Obama in 2012.

We wanted to talk with Mayor-elect Brown about his historic victory and what it might mean for Florida politics and politics overall, so he joins us now from his studios at NPR member station WJCT in Jacksonville. Welcome, thank you for joining us and congratulations.

Mayor-elect ALVIN BROWN (Jacksonville, Florida): Hello, thank you.

MARTIN: Now, congrats, of course, on your victory. Are you still kind of having that post-victory flush or something like that? Honeymoon still going on?

BROWN: Well, yeah, you know, it's truly a blessing, and I thank God for this opportunity to allow me to be here at this point in time in our history in our city. This is a beautiful thing to be able to unite everyone to come together to put Jacksonville and take it to the next level.

MARTIN: Now, and much of the coverage of your election around the country has centered on your making history as the first African-American mayor of Jacksonville. But is that important to you?

BROWN: Well, you know, I started off this campaign about it's not about Democrats or Republicans or independents. I made this race about Jacksonville and I focused on the future. I laid out a clear vision that says, you know, we got to focus on taking Jacksonville to the next level, putting Jacksonville back to work, balancing the budget, pinching reform, focusing on public safety, and education and I did that.

And, you know, Michel, I literally campaigned all around this city, did a listening tour for a year and a half to two years. So, it was a really, really bottom-up approach, listening to the voters, understanding the issues. Really, really getting engaged into the community and built a great coalition with Democrats and Republicans and independents and people who love this city, care about this city. And that's how we did it, and that's what I focused on.

MARTIN: One key to your victory is that you received support from some prominent Republicans. Some of them - many of them among the most prominent business leaders in the city - even raised money for you. How were you able to do that?

BROWN: Well, yes, and just to give you a little history about the campaign. We started off and, you know, there were many candidates. And so in the first race, I didn't have that kind of support from Democrats. They were supporting a young lady by the name of Audrey Moran, who's a Republican female. And so, I had to really solidify my base and still reached out.

I had two key Republican leaders supported me from day one, Adam Herbert, who was Governor Bush's - chaired his transition team and worked in his administration, and Charlie Applebee who's a Republican I've known for a long time. And then I worked with interfaith community very hard and just built it from the bottom up. So we won. We took two fish, five loaves of bread to make it to the runoff.

And literally, literally - and I say that because, you know, some people spent $50 a vote, almost $30 a vote, $15 a vote. We spent $3.16 a vote and you can't buy a Happy Meal with that. So, really building a coalition, really working with people and laying out a clear vision. Jobs was number one. That's my number one priority. I also said during the campaign that I would take a 20 percent pay cut. I won't take a pension. I won't raise taxes and fees. So, I think it resonated with voters. They...

MARTIN: Did it resonate with your wife?

BROWN: Absolutely.


BROWN: She said - she understood. I mean, my wife is my best friend, you know, and she led the petition drive to get me on the ballot. My two boys, Joshua and Jordan...

MARTIN: No, I was talking about the pay cut, whole pay cut, no pension piece?

BROWN: Well, absolutely, she's with it. You know, she knows that public service is a noble thing, and that no one runs to make money. You run to serve. And I've said all along, we're in a tough economy, people need jobs. They've lost their jobs at home. Corporations had to downsize and reorganize. Not-for-profit had to reorganize and I think city government has to do the same thing, live within our means.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking to Mayor-elect Alvin Brown. He's the new mayor of Jacksonville, Florida. Alvin Brown will be the first African-American mayor of Jacksonville when he takes office on July 1. He's also the first Democrat to win that office in 20 years. He's with us from the studios of NPR member station WJCT in Jacksonville, Florida.

And Mr. Mayor, one of the reasons obviously that people are interested in - nationally are interested in your victory is that Florida's a very important state for both parties in the presidential contest, but also we're in a time politically, particularly in Washington, where it just feels very polarized. It just seems as though the parties are having a difficult time even, you know, within their own caucuses there are...

BROWN: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...very sharp divisions of opinion. And so, there's a sense that people really have lost the ability to compromise on some of these key issues.

BROWN: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And on the most pressing issues. Even as we are speaking now, they're still sort of trying to figure out how to get the debt ceiling raised. And so, the question I have for you is there some lesson you think national political leaders can draw from what you've been able to accomplish in Jacksonville so far? Just in getting elected.

BROWN: Yeah, I think the key is for national leaders, for members of Congress is, you know, take a step back. Not make it the politics of division, but focus on what matters most. And so, one of the things I said during the campaign is that I'll have the ability to work with Democrats and Republicans, having headed the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund, working - running that fund and working with President Clinton. You know, I know the importance of working with Democrats and Republicans.

So, I would say to them is look, make it about - you want to focus on the budget, streamline the budget absolutely, reduce the debt. But you can't cut your way out of this situation, so focus on jobs, putting people back to work. When people are working, it'll increase the tax base, increase revenues, and improve the quality of life, then you can pay for things that matters.

But that's the key, you know, no one wakes up every day and says, oh, you know, I'm going to focus on politics. I got you, you get me. People care about whether or not they can pay their mortgage, whether or not they can send their kids to school. Whether or not they can, you know, meet their financial obligation.

You know, I think it's important for national leaders to focus on what matters. We got to have a vision for people when they don't have it for themselves. I laid out a vision for the community that says, here's what we need to do. We all need to work together. Let's take the partisan divisive politics out of it, and let's focus on how we can make things better for everyone.

MARTIN: Let's talk a little bit in the minute we have left about how you plan to actually do those things. You said that the primary focus here needs to be jobs and economic growth and you have an ambitious growth strategy. You want to form a downtown development authority. You want to build a new convention center. Of course, these are, you know, staples of sort of growing urban environments, but the economy is still very difficult, in a very difficult space.

As we understand it that, you know, Florida particularly the housing, you know, bubble there has long since burst and that capital is not flowing as smoothly as many people would like. What are you going to do first? Like what's the first 100 days to get things started off?

BROWN: Well, the first thing is I got to appoint - I'm going to need, you know, in the coming days I'll have a transition team. Second, I will recruit the best and the brightest to lead our government. As you know, we have a strong form of government, mayor government. I don't have a city manager. I get to appoint the Cabinet, you know. So it's a very strong mayoral government. I will focus on jobs and what I'm going to do is focus on the port in Jacksonville because it's a $19 billion economic engine here. It's already created 65,000 jobs. And the average salary is $44,000 a year.

So one of the things I would say to members of Congress is, look, if you want to put people back to work, I need some help on Jacksonville Port. Because if we work together and secure at least $1.5 billion from the public and private sector, that will create an additional 35,000 jobs for Jacksonville. So that's one - focusing on the port.

The other thing is small business. Small business is the backbone of our economy, making sure they have access to capital and credit so they can continue to grow their business and expand their business. And then focusing on those existing businesses that are here that need to expand and do well. So, I think that's important.

Then downtown development. Really setting up a development of downtown community - empowerment development that would focus on the assets that we already have. The city has already invested $1.2 billion in downtown. I want to focus on public-private partnerships to leverage our assets, to take advantage of the new market's tax credits, employees' wage tax credits. So that it will attract businesses downtown, they can thrive and grow and there's a way to do that.

Downtown used to generate 17 percent of our revenue. Now it only generates 3 percent. So we can change that by literally focusing on downtown, leveraging our assets, creating it - a place for a destination. And so people can - want to work, live and visit. And we can do all those things without raising taxes and fees.

MARTIN: All right, before we let you go, Florida is about to begin the process of redrawing congressional districts as is every, you know, state around the country. And I wanted to ask whether this might be an early test of your commitment to bipartisanship. The third congressional district representative, Corrine Brown, who represents Jacksonville, is suing the state to prevent her district from being redrawn. And I wanted to ask, do you support her or not?

BROWN: Well, I clearly, you know, Congresswoman Brown is a fierce fighter. She is someone who's delivered for Jacksonville and she wants a fair congressional district. And I think that she has a right to have a fair congressional district. No question about it. And, you know, while I'm not going to get involved in the partisan politics, and I'm not going to do that. I'm going to - you know, and that's a local race. So it's in our congressional district and I support her in her effort to make sure that it's fair. But I'm not going to get bogged down in lawsuits and protests. I'm not going to do that. But I do think that we got to have congressional districts that are fair. It's so important not just in Florida but around the country.

MARTIN: All right, well, we do hope we'll speak again. As we said, so many things to talk about. Congratulations once again.

BROWN: Thank you.

MARTIN: Jacksonville, Florida's Mayor-elect Alvin Brown is the first Democrat to be voted into that office in 20 years. He's also the first African-American mayor of Jacksonville, which is the state's largest city. And he will take office on July 1st. He was kind enough to join us from NPR member station WCJT in Jacksonville. Mr. Mayor-elect, thank you so much for joining us.

BROWN: Thank you for having me.

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