How the week off from D.C. went wrong for our Congressmen


Reps. John Rutherford and Al Lawson are back in Washington, D.C., the recess week concluded.

They're probably happy that's the case. Both Rutherford and Lawson lost control of their respective news cycles this week, and the people of Jacksonville are the poorer for it.

In deference to the tilt of the readership, let's go with Rutherford first. His issue was simple enough: As has been the case in GOP districts throughout the nation, local activists sought to get a "town hall" meeting with him, so they could express their disquiet with myriad Trump administration policies.

Rutherford couldn't do it. There is divergence on the narrative. Activists claim they were told he was too ill to do a town hall. His staff says that's bullshit, that he was meeting with constituent groups, et cetera, just not in a town hall format.

Rutherford was busy when he was in town; he caught up with the state attorney and the sheriff, he spent a day at NAS Jax, and he spent an evening with a group of young Catholic professionals.

I was at that second event; Rutherford talked about his faith journey, how his understanding of God carried him through his law enforcement career, and how praying the rosary leveled his breathing during his January medical episode in the House of Representatives cloakroom.

It wasn't a political event, it was a faith event, even though politics came in, such as an asynchronous contention that the Pulse attack in Orlando last June somehow influenced Rutherford's decision to launch his congressional campaign the previous April ... two days after Ander Crenshaw stepped down and much of the donor class coalesced behind Rutherford.

Rutherford took a few questions. The most spirited was from a woman who wanted to know where he stood on the Affordable Care Act. The answer seemed to be ‘repeal and replace,' not just repeal, though the likelihood that he will be a leader on that issue is nil.

They wanted a town hall with Rutherford. Instead, they conducted one in absentia, shouting questions, comments and concerns to an empty chair. They did get a staff meeting, though.

Should he have done a town hall? Probably not. It's as safe a one-party seat as it's been since Tillie Fowler took it from Charles Bennett. Still, it was a bad look, however transitory it might be.


Al Lawson, meanwhile, has more serious issues.

For one, he may face a primary challenge from Alvin Brown, assuming he doesn't try to become mayor again if Mayor Curry becomes state CFO, has told friends he is interested in running in Congressional District 5. State Sen. Audrey Gibson, chair of the local Democratic Party with deep local connections, shouldn't be ruled out either.

That said, Lawson is an incumbent the House leadership likes. And west of Macclenny, he's strong. East of Macclenny, though, he needs help. And he didn't help himself in Jacksonville last week.

For starters, Lawson decided to drop in at Eureka Garden Apartments on Monday, Feb. 20, President's Day ... rather than Tuesday, as his itinerary had indicated. Media scrambled to the Westside complex to hear his remarks, and find out why Lawson deviated from a schedule distributed to the press for planning purposes.

Whereas Mayor Curry and Councilman Garrett Dennis were listed as being with Lawson on Tuesday, Dennis had no clue that he was advertised, and was even more thrown when he found out that Lawson went to Eureka without him.

Curry, meanwhile, was away, camping with his family. He was in no position to come back. So Lawson worked Eureka alone. But there was still a chance for him to appear with the mayor.

Curry and Lawson had set up a neighborhood walk in Arlington for Tuesday afternoon. At the last minute, Lawson changed plans. Nobody knew why. For the second day in a row, Jacksonville politicians had to answer questions about Lawson's inability to keep a schedule.

Curry noted that he'd offered to show Lawson around town, introduce him to the business community, essentially helping him acclimate to the local political culture that's different from Tallahassee.

Lawson was too dense to take the help.

Curry has that capital-R Republican gear when it comes to state and national politics. But when it comes to people on the city council, and people representing Jacksonville in Tallahassee or Washington, it is very much in the mayor's interest to build a meaningful, productive relationship.

Lawson, a politician for decades, played himself. And missed a golden opportunity to look like something besides an outsider to Jacksonville area voters.

Who had it worse last week?

Definitely, Lawson.

For both Lawson and Rutherford, attention needs to be paid to what went wrong last week, and how to improve the process for the next recess week.

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