In September, as the Jacksonville City Council deliberated on his budget, Alvin Brown was elsewhere — in New York City, at a fundraiser with luminaries like former NYC Mayor David Dinkins and entertainers like beloved comedian, actor and Jell-O pudding pitchman Bill Cosby. (At least, beloved until recently.) By the time the budget was ratified, Brown was back in Duval. But the optics were bad: At the 11th hour, when the city needed his leadership, the mayor was hobnobbing in the Big Apple.
At the time, no one around here had an issue with Brown appearing with the Cos, who, as one insider points out, had helped the city a few times during the current term. But that was then. This is now. Cosby has been caught up in a shitstorm of sexual assault allegations in recent weeks, which led to the cancellation of his new NBC pilot and Netflix stand-up special. Last week, that storm trickled down to Jacksonville, when Brown’s newly controversial — toxic, even — excursion re-entered the news cycle, with calls on blogs and Twitter for Brown to return the $19,000 or so Cosby had helped him raise.
The pressure originated from seemingly disparate sources. Cindy Graves, local talk show host and long-time, connected GOP operative, hit me up on Twitter to remind me of the Brown/Cosby connection. Around the same time, Peter Schorsch, the impresario of SaintPetersBlog who has carved out a unique role as a leading commentator on Florida politics, lobbed a bomb across the bow of the Brown campaign with a post calling on Brown to return the supposedly tainted contributions.
By the end of the day — just a few hours later, in fact — numerous outlets were reporting that Brown had acquiesced. The funds would be returned. But there was no comment from the Brown camp about the logistics of the return, or about Cosby’s sudden status as a political liability. The message conveyed to many observers across the spectrum: Team Alvin intended to duck and cover and wait for the story to recede from public consciousness, except for that odd picture of the mayor and a disgruntled-looking Cosby, in a red crewneck sweatshirt.
Brown’s camp didn’t want to go on record, but on background, a well-connected source in the mayor’s orbit speculated that there was a connection between Schorsch and mayoral aspirant Lenny Curry, insinuating that Curry’s people had planted the idea for the post. (Worth noting: Folio Weekly has heard that Team Curry unsuccessfully floated this angle to at least one news outlet around town.) The source also threw shade at Schorsch’s credibility, pointing out that Schorsch has donated to Curry’s campaign, and reminded me that the fundraiser was conducted not by Brown’s campaign directly, but by his Taking Jacksonville to the Next Level political action committee, helmed by long-time consultant David Beattie. (Beattie told me in an email that “returning the money was the right thing to do,” and said the decision was made “once the mayor became aware of the multiple allegations.”)
I asked Schorsch and Curry about their supposed connection. They both denied one existed. Curry, one of Rick Scott’s chief allies, described Schorsch as an “antagonistic blogger” and “ardent [Charlie] Crist supporter” who has “written more negative than positive things” about him in the past. Schorsch wrote in an email that “Yes, I indeed contributed to Curry’s campaign, but that was more of a political stunt, which I am known to do. Heck, I contributed to Rick Scott even though I was a devoted supporter of Charlie Crist.”
So here’s the question: Will this pseudo-scandal ding Brown, or is it just another tempest in a teapot, an election-season gotcha game that will quickly dissipate into the ether? Curry says he’ll leave it to others to “question the integrity of [Brown’s] donors. What’s important to me is that this reminds people he was hanging out with movie stars in New York while budget priorities like police, libraries and services most important to Jacksonville were being decided on.”
Brown looks like he’ll refuse comment, and so for now, that’s where the story stands. Score one for the mayor’s haters.