Veteran politician, moderate Democrat and self-described “country boy” Al Lawson cuts a striking figure. Folio Weekly Magazine caught up with Lawson on one of his recent campaign stops in Northeast Florida where, in an effort to introduce himself to voters, he’s been pounding pavement and pressing flesh in a whirlwind of meet-and-greets, events and interviews.
Lanky, eloquent and knowledgeable about state and national political machinations and issues, the former Florida state senator and house representative with nearly 30 years’ experience in politics was careful not to say anything particularly critical of his beleaguered opponent, 12-term Congresswoman Corrine Brown.
Well-known to voters further west, but a relative newcomer to Northeast Florida, Lawson’s will be an uphill battle to win over local voters who are already familiar with his opponent in time for the Aug. 30 Democratic primary in Florida’s newly drawn Fifth Congressional District. But to hear him tell it, in this case familiarity might breed just the right amount of contempt.
Folio Weekly Magazine: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Al Lawson:I grew up in the country hunting and fishing, you know, so really close to environmental issues. Had the opportunity to chair the environment committee in the [state] house and I wrote Preservation 2000. And then I had the opportunity to chair the environment committee in the [state] senate and I did Everglade Restoration and Apalachicola Bay Protection Act and I created environmental education for kids … I was a Democratic leader in the senate and the dean of the legislature. I didn’t think I’d be there that long but I served 18 years [before I was] term-limited out.
I basically chaired a lot of major committees in the legislature — from banking and finance to insurance and employee benefit. So I’m pretty much the person who fought for state employees, made sure they got raises, kept their health insurance benefit [costs] down and protected their pension plan.
What do you think about the way environmental issues are handled in Florida?
I think we have a long ways to go. It’s been hard to get new legislators coming in to understand how important it is for us to protect our beaches, to put beach restoration money in there, which attracts tourists, and also to protect our springs and our rivers. So it takes them a while to come up to par because that is not as glamorous sometimes as the other issues that affect the state. So as a result there’s a lot of work to be done in there … we have a ways to go. We need a recommitment from the governor’s office and some of the key legislators about the importance of protecting our water supply.
What convinced you to run for Congress?
I love North Florida and I have not been totally satisfied with the leadership that we’ve had in congress. I know some people asked, ‘Why do you wanna run for Congress?’ Because I know that one person can make a difference because I’ve seen that happen. The legislature over the last 16, 18 years was controlled by the Republicans and I had no problem in working across the aisle to make things really work.
How do you plan to introduce yourself to voters from Northeast Florida?
I plan to be over in here almost every other week for them to get a chance to know me. A lot of them are aware of me because I’ve done some things on the St. Johns River and other areas. I will tell you that I’ve run in three of the counties, well, really, four of the counties: Gaston, Leon, Jefferson and Madison, and benefited for me with Hamilton over the last couple of years. I had to get more familiar with Baker, you know, and do some work in Duval. I think once people get to know me better and better in Duval, they’ll feel that I bring honesty and integrity to the process which I think is very much needed in Washington and in this particular area.
What about those die-hard Corrine Brown supporters who may feel that running against her is an affront to her?
This is a new seat and Corrine was in a district that was very gerrymandered from Jacksonville down 95 to Orlando where she’s been the last 20 years plus. I know that she would have some voters here that’s gonna stand by her and that’s the way politics is. But there’s a lot of other voters, maybe 25 or 30 percent of them, that may not have been supporting her. I hope to make inroads with them …
Rubio was in town touring some of the government housing … just complaining about how bad they were, dilapidated. Those are housing issues and you have to put pressure on the federal government to make sure when they give those grants and so forth to the people who build those complexes that they keep them up and they use the dollars the way they should. So you have to determine, I mean, you can like a person, but I tell people in my district, ‘Are you better off?’ … The people in Duval have to ask themselves the same question: Are we better off?
What will be your priorities if you win?
Economic development, the environment, especially the environment. If you don’t have a sustainable environment, you can’t attract economic development. You can’t prepare for future generations. And education, to try to make a college education more affordable for students because the federal government is not doing as much as they should be doing to provide aid. I’ve got students that come by all the time, they’ve been out of school 20 years and they’re still paying back student loans. There’s [an] opportunity to make that kind of change working with the right people.
I am more of a moderate kind of person and I like to work between, after the election is over, working with my colleagues on different sides of the aisles to make things happen. That’s the only way that I’ve been able to do it, that’s the only way I know how to do it. So even when I was a Democratic leader… I know how to work in a rural area, I know how to work in an urban area … I bring a different kind of leadership to this community that they’ve never had.
The leadership has been, from what I understand, in the past that you either take it or leave it. My thing is to bring the leadership to the community where everybody feels that they are important and that I understand their issues and am willing to work with them.
What do you think are some of the greatest challenges we are facing as a nation right now?
The greatest challenge we face as a nation is our respect [around] the world. Ever since 9/11, America hasn’t been shown as much respect as we should have simply because of all the things happening around the world. Our leadership has been drifting in terms of how we were the financial guru of the world and we always get involved in helping other people out and sometimes that is not really much appreciated. We have to protect our borders and we have to provide the security that America really needs. But at the same time, I think that respect would come when you have a legislature and a Congress that work more together with the president and to make sure we have that kind of unity among themselves.
Do you think the political climate is toxic in Congress at the moment?
There’s no question about it. That’s one of the things that has to change and you have some members of congress who are already starting to say, ‘We’re going in the wrong direction.’ I’ve been a person who’s always been even in favor of term limits in Congress if you can’t get along and that’s not a popular position to have … The older you get in Congress the less you want to work with each other, you want to do your own thing so as a result, I’ve always felt that you need new blood coming in, people who are really committed to the process. Not people who are looking for a job. But people who are committed to providing resources for people who send them there and are willing to work hard and that’s what it’s all about. I wouldn’t go to stay forever. I would like to go to make a difference.
Do you see a need for criminal justice reform?
Oh, absolutely. We can’t pay our way out of this thing. And even in Florida, the most incarcerat[ing] state in America, a lot of those things were done because now they clearly understand we can’t keep qualified corrections officers, we have people serving sentences that they shouldn’t be … There’s a lot of people in there who need mental health treatment and so forth where they can change their lives.
And people, once they have served their time, they need to be able to participate in the process again. It doesn’t do any good if you leave them out in the street and they can’t participate in the process, the more they might go back to a criminal life. I think if you notice, more and more judges that we have taken discretion from in the sentencing guidelines, it’s caused a lot of problems in the state.
Any time when you have the criminal justice system that we are putting more money in there than we are putting in education, then there’s a problem… That’s the reason why Jacksonville has about 16 ‘F’ schools. Something has got to be done about that … We are basically talking about our future.