Editor’s note: An earlier version of this blog post has been updated to include new information.
The Jacksonville Brotherhood of Firefighters, a powerful and historic black professional association, has so far declined to endorse Jacksonville’s first black mayor, Alvin Brown, for reelection, as it did in 2011. And after Brown was a no-show at a meeting last Monday that he had requested with the Brotherhood’s membership — a meeting where more than 100 black firefighters and police turned out to talk — the Brotherhood invited Brown’s white Republican rival, Lenny Curry, to come court their endorsement instead.
While it seems absurd to think the Brotherhood would endorse such a hyper-conservative, the group says its members are looking for a candidate whose agenda aligns with theirs — and many question if that candidate is really Alvin Brown.
“It was the first time [Brown’s] tried to talk to us since he was elected mayor,” says Brotherhood president James Edwards. His members were already wavering because of that silence, he says. They thought that last Monday’s meeting was a chance to talk about their concerns. Instead, however, Brown sent two top administrators, deputy chief of staff Cleveland Ferguson and Jacksonville Fire & Rescue Department Chief Ivan Mote, in his place.
“He stood us up,” Edwards says of Brown. “And it went sideways quick.”
The firefighters told Ferguson they wouldn’t vote for his boss. Some said they were going to campaign against him. Others asked Edwards to schedule a meeting with Curry. (The mayor’s office later pointed out that this meeting was not a campaign event, and referred election-related questions to Brown’s campaign team.)
“There was a lot of anger in the room. It was the first time Mayor Brown reached out to us since he’s been in office, and then he didn’t show up,” Edwards says.
The Brotherhood had already talked about making sure all mayoral candidates had the chance to make their case for the group’s endorsement. Brown’s perceived snub, he says, made the importance of that goal all the more apparent.
For Curry (or long-shot Republican Bill Bishop) to win the endorsement of the black firefighters would be a major coup. Not only would he be stealing support from one of Brown’s key demos, he’d also be gaining an active cadre of well-respected, good-neighbor, working-class homeowner types — cops and firefighters known for their organization and for risking their lives for others. (Curry did not respond to phone calls or emails.)
Brown’s misstep — or perhaps his misunderstanding of how important the meeting was to the Brotherhood — was compounded soon afterward. The next morning, after Brown learned how upset the black firefighters were, he called Edwards to ask for a do-over on Friday, Edwards says. Edwards suggested January instead. With the holidays, and given that they’d already had a meeting that week, he didn’t think he could marshal the membership.
But then, on Wednesday, invitations — which looked like formal wedding invitations, albeit in PDF form — began appearing in the email inboxes of black firefighters, cordially inviting them to a conversation with Mayor Brown at 6 p.m. on Friday at St. Joseph Missionary Baptist Church, a predominantly black church in Springfield. Dinner would be served.
Edwards didn’t attend. (He had to work.) “Now he’s reaching out, trying to circumvent the organization leadership, reaching out to our members,” he told Folio Weekly before that event. “None of our leadership is going, none of the executive board, and I doubt many of our members will be going, either. It is showing disrespect to our leadership and our organization.”
About 15 people did show, joining Brown at round meeting tables. At the sight of a reporter entering the room, Brown jumped up and said, “We requested that this be a private meeting.” A friendly man then escorted the reporter to the parking lot. Because it was a meeting between city employees and the mayor at a private location, it can be closed to the public (and thus also the press).
“Because the Mayor was not able to attend on Monday evening, he wanted to meet with Brotherhood of Firefighters members and will be doing so this evening,” Brown chief of staff Chris Hand told Folio Weekly in an email earlier on Friday. “According to staff involved in planning the meeting, the invitation was sent to Brotherhood of Firefighters members. Again, this is an opportunity for discussion and questions on City of Jacksonville-related matters. It is not campaign-related.”
Brotherhood vice president Terrance Jones, a Brown supporter, is more conciliatory than Edwards. He thinks the mayor may have gotten some bad advice.
With all of the racial discrimination lawsuits the city is currently facing in federal court — the Brotherhood is a plaintiff in one — maybe Brown’s legal advisors told him to stay away from the Brotherhood, Jones speculates. Maybe that’s why he’s never met with them during his first term as mayor.
Jones complimented Cleveland Ferguson on making an appearance last Monday. Ferguson told the crowd that Brown had made an offer to settle the lawsuit. He was working on it. He wanted to resolve it. If Brown had shown up and said those words, Jones says, the outcome would have been completely different.
“We as an organization supported Mayor Brown when he was elected,” Jones says. “We were the ones crying. He only won by a little over 1,600 votes. We were the ones driving the vans taking people to the polls. As individuals we were so committed and so wanted to be a part of history. We were proud.
“Now we understand he is not the black mayor. He is the mayor of the entire city, and we want him to be the mayor of the entire city. But we have issues in the fire department that we want the mayor to address. He may not be able to do anything about it legally, but we want to communicate those concerns to him. We think we deserved that and we think we earned it.
“I’m a Mayor Alvin Brown supporter,” Jones says. “But he’s making it difficult for me to sell it.”