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Brown Fights Lawson, Prosecutors In Re-Election Bid

Brown at lectern
Office of Corrine Brown

She has a way of leaning into a question --- literally and sometimes figuratively --- that can make a press conference with Congresswoman Corrine Brown resemble a form of combat. And on a recent night, going back and forth with a reporter after a debate with her two primary opponents, Brown finally had it with a series of questions about a criminal indictment that threatens her decades-long political career.

"Are you a pedophile?" she demanded of the reporter. "No."

It was the third time she used something like that phrase in one night. It's a metaphor, a way of illustrating her point about the right of a person to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. But it is also quintessential Corrine Brown, an illustration of the parts of her personality that have brought her this far, and that might either save her once again or finally undo her.

Even with federal prosecutors and an experienced opponent closing in, Brown has remained true to form: unplugged, unbowed and unpredictable. Brown's defiant about the 22-count indictment that says she and others used the "One Door for Education" charity as a slush fund. She continues to point to her accomplishments in the district. And she blames the media for focusing on one while, in Brown's telling, they minimize the other.

"You all need to do your job," she said during the debate. "You should not just let someone give you a slip of paper and say, 'This is the case,' and you don't do your fact checks. My work speaks for itself."

But the indictment is not Brown's only problem. She is running in a seat dramatically different than the one she's held for 24 years, in a district that no longer combines her power bases in Jacksonville and Central Florida. That north-south configuration is gone, replaced by a 5th Congressional District that runs from Jacksonville in the east to Gadsden County in the west, and cuts through Tallahassee along the way.

That has drawn her into a contested Democratic primary against former state Sen. Al Lawson, a longtime legislator from Tallahassee who has deep roots and a high profile in the area. He was born in Midway, just west of Tallahassee, played basketball at Florida A&M University and was an assistant coach at Florida State. He spent almost three decades in the Legislature before term limits finally forced him out.

Lawson decided to run before the indictment was handed down, in part because of Brown's fight against the redrawing of her district and questions about whether she would run for re-election to the seat. But he has also seized on the criminal charges to say that Brown would not be effective if she were returned to Congress.

"I don't really think that you ought to vote for a person who's been indicted, especially with 22 counts against them," he said.

Like Brown and a third candidate in the race --- LaShonda "LJ" Holloway --- Lawson is African-American. But he stresses that while the district was created to help black voters elect a candidate of their choice, African-Americans don't make up a majority of his would-be constituents. And Lawson said he's heard that Brown's style has left some other voters feeling like they're not her top concern.

"But I think, to a large extent, they've felt like they have been left out, do not have representation," Lawson said. "And I've always been a person that has been very inclusive and (one) to make sure that when you represent an area that you get everybody involved."

How well that line of attack or any other has worked is unclear. There have been no high-profile public polls released in the race since one by the University of North Florida in late June --- before the indictment --- that essentially showed Brown and Lawson in a dead heat.

Rick Mullaney, director of the Jacksonville University Public Policy Institute, said Brown is not the only incumbent in the area who's in danger. Races for state attorney and public defender are hotly contested. And Brown, of course, faces the complications of a new district, the indictment and Lawson's candidacy.

"I think the combination of all three has made it very difficult for her," Mullaney said.

In some ways, Lawson's experience running in districts that have large but not controlling numbers of African-American voters makes Lawson a dangerous opponent for Brown. But as a self-described moderate who had a history of working with Republicans in the Legislature, Lawson can also be a target.

"I work across party lines all the time," Brown said during the debate. "But Mr. Lawson has a history of going further than working across lines."

She followed that up with full-throated support for President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the party's current presidential nominee, and a proud declaration of being a "yellow dog Democrat."

In response, Lawson pointed out that he was elected leader of the Senate Democrats during his time in the Legislature and often worked with fellow party members on their priorities.

"There's no problem about whether I'm a Democrat or not," Lawson said in a post-debate press conference. "But I am for the people. And I work with people whether they're Republican, independent --- it doesn't make any difference."

Holloway, who once worked as a fellow in the office of former Congresswoman Carrie Meek, is a wild card in the race, running in part on a self-imposed 12-year term limit clearly meant to draw a contrast with Brown. But Holloway has also found a line that distinguishes herself from both opponents.

"I am running because not only am I capable, but I am tired of the status quo," she said. "I am tired of career politicians, and I am tired of recycled politicians."

But Holloway had raised just less than $16,100 and had less than $1,200 on hand. Brown, by contrast, had raised almost $484,000, though she had just $24,600 left, while Lawson had raked in almost $255,700 and reported more than $135,000 cash on hand as of Aug. 10.

Brown conceded this is the toughest challenge she has faced, and while she vows that she will win, at times she seems almost reflective. As she stressed her work for constituents --- the basis of her "Corrine Delivers" slogan --- Brown underscored her work with other big-state members of Congress to make sure that states like Florida get a larger share of their federal tax dollars back in government spending.

"If I don't ever do anything else for my state, that was wonderful," she said.