All Up In It: Notes on Mayor Brown’s self-promotional streak

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“Hey, how’s 2015 lookin’ for ya, sir?”

As Mayor of Jacksonville, Alvin Brown has gone a long way to get himself over as a Man Of the People. He’s so gracious, in fact, that he routinely gives ammunition to his political enemies, who would have very little to work with otherwise. Case in point: A front-page article in the Florida Times-Union’s May 31 edition, centered around concerns expressed by members of the City Council that Mayor Brown’s gone too far with his trademark self-promotional tactics. Specifically, they claim that he’s monopolizing the services of the official city photographer, and that his name features too prominently on the City of Jacksonville (COJ) website. Slow news day? Yep.

Spoiler alert: Our city council is ridiculous. Are they actual people, or cardboard cut-outs whose public utterances are generated by computer algorithms? Of course the mayor is a self-promoting freakazoid; he was trained by Bill Clinton. The real question, though, is why does the general public never see or hear anything from council members unless they’re trying to block something or shut something down? Brown goes a bit far in trying to generate buzz for the city, sure, but maybe that’s because he’s surrounded by bland, uncharismatic people exuding negativity, always looking for new ways to throw the city under the bus to service their political/business agendas. (Hemming Plaza, Metro Park, etc.)

The City Council has been the weak link in local politics since the Peyton years. They blatantly go into business for themselves, thinking up ridiculous, counter-productive legislation while assiduously blocking the important things. The weakness they showed with the whole Occupy thing (esp. the Dems) was an obvious example. So, in terms of the city’s public image, the choice is between one guy who does way too much and 19 people who do nothing at all. Now, I’m no Democrat, but these people actually made me into an Alvin Brown fan. How the hell?

Fact is, Brown isn’t doing anything that any councilperson, or any politician in general, couldn’t be doing right now. My city council campaign started fairly late and was vastly underfunded, but I was able to be pretty competitive in a tight, seven-person race while pushing an agenda that deviated significantly from the mainstream. That was only possible because of the web, social media specifically. Brown was on that track already, as a candidate, and he’s taken that to a whole new level as mayor. While the techniques may be fairly new, critics who claim that his self-promotional tendencies are somehow unusual are flatly disengaged not only from the history of this city, but from political science in general.

The future mayor as candidate, 2011. Whatever he was reaching for, he got it…

One needs not cite national examples of people like Michael Bloomberg, Ed Koch, Richard Daley, Willie Brown, Maynard Jackson or Adrian Fenty, all of whom used their personal brand to enhance that of their city (and vice-versa); local examples abound, including virtually every mayor Jacksonville has ever had. Are Brown’s critics seriously suggesting that he’s acting inconsistently from his predecessors? Imagine what Tommy Hazouri’s Twitter feed would’ve looked like, or Hans “let’s pose at the city limits with a beautiful actress to promote Consolidation” Tanzler’s Instagram. And one can easily visualize the front-page of the COJ website, had the Internet existed in the Jake Godbold era.

Former mayor Hans Tanzler, doing what politicians do, 1968

The website is centered on Brown because Brown is the only person making an effort to promote positive initiatives in the public sphere. Everyone complains about him putting his name on the jazz festival, but it’s not like the councilfolk were out there mingling with the voters. Why are they complaining about the city photographer when they all have camera-phones, not to mention skilled photographers in each of their districts who’d work for free, just to have COJ work on their resumes? This is simply about people wanting to weaken Brown before the next election, so they can pick one of these malleable stuffed-shirt councilmen to challenge him in 2015. If every local politician made a fraction of the effort to engage their constituents using the power of the web, this city would be cooking with gas.

At the same time, from a political standpoint Brown is doing the right thing. He came into office only because the power structure couldn’t get along with each other; he exploited those divisions to squeak through, then immediately alienated a lot of his base. He needed to take control of his public image before conservatives tarred him with the same brush they’ve used on Obama, and begin constructing a persona that could resonate with people outside the city–in part for politics, and also to help attract business. All this hype about his self-promotion just keeps the focus on him; it’s not like any of his opponents have any vision for the city’s future, or else they’d be talking about that instead of whining because Brown does his job better than they do theirs. There is plenty of room on the internet for anyone who wants to make an impact.

I’d heard rumor that Rutherford might challenge him, which would be an interesting contest. I’m always hearing about this-or-that councilperson who might jump into the race, but that would seem like a step backward. Audrey Moran is his biggest threat; the only reason she’s not mayor now is because local Republicans hate women more than they hate black people (LOL!), plus she has a personal issue with the way Brown dealt with a lot of Moran supporters at city (i.e., eliminating them so she’d have no internal support if she did decide to go after him). But if she ran again, she’d be in a similar position as Hillary Clinton would be if she runs in 2016–namely, of having to spend a year or more kissing the asses of people who already threw her under the bus in 2011. One could understand why she might be inclined to leave the city to its fate. So, unless she runs, Brown walks.

Now, there were a couple points raised in the story and subsequent discussion that do need to be addressed. The first involves the city photographers, whom councilmembers claim are prohibited from photographing anything that the mayor is not actually part of. I’ve not been able to confirm the veracity of that allegation, but it’s entirely possible. Mayor Brown is disproportionately featured on the COJ website, but it’s unclear if that content features so prominently to the exclusion of content generated by the rest of local government. Certainly, Brown superimposes himself in places where his presence may not be exactly logical or holistic, but no one knows if that is true political avarice, or just a misguided need to be seen “making a difference”. Should he do less of this, or should the council do more. This debate has only begun.

And then, there’s the jazz festival. His having added the phrase “Mayor Brown Presents” to the festival’s promotional materials is widely-cited as the most common example of Brown’s perceived tendency to self-promote to the detriment of the city at-large, and it’s hard to see it as anything other than piggybacking an initiative that was not only successful long before he hit the scene, but whose success has virtually nothing to do with him. Of course, the mayor plays a key role in the process: His budgets fund the Office of Special Events, which organizes the festival. But for Brown to append his own name rankles old-school observers who can recall the real and critical work done for the festival by “Big Jake” and, a generation later, John Peyton. They had more cause to append their names, but neither did; they didn’t have to, because their impact was so obvious, it would’ve been like saying “Shad Khan Presents the Jacksonville Jaguars”. Now, would they have done so if they’d known it was possible? Probably not. All previous mayors have happily taken credit, when offered, for the historical success of the festival, but Brown is the first to actively seek that credit, in a vacuum. It’s not what I would have done, but I can totally appreciate why he did. After all, 2015 is just around the corner…

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