I’m looking forward to my day in court to vindicate myself,” said Congresswoman Corrine Brown in front of Jacksonville’s Federal Courthouse that she helped provide funding for.
The statement was made to news media and supporters who had gathered en masse for a first glimpse of the long term congresswoman after she heard a 22 count indictment from the FBI to which she pled not guilty.
The criminal counts including conspiracy, mail and wire fraud and violations of tax laws. Federal prosecutors say Brown, 69, and her chief of staff Elias “Ronnie” Simmons worked with Carla Wiley, a Virginia woman who reached a plea deal with the government in March, to set up a sham charity used to pay for personal expenses and joy trips. Over the past three years, out of $800k collected by the fake non profit, only $1,200 went to students.
Throughout her 23 years in Congress, the representative has faced challenges before, but she has emerged time and again, winning 12 elections, with nearly all of them being blowouts.
Now, though, Brown is facing a pair of challenges that have combined to make the Aug. 30 Democratic primary in the 5th Congressional District the biggest test yet of her staying power.
She is also dealing with the new reshaping of her district which means the longtime congresswoman will face thousands of voters who have never seen her name on a ballot.
Her stronghold in Congress included a north-south gerrymandered district that wound its way from Jacksonville to Orlando. But now the courts have ruled that district illegal following a legal battle and it now runs from Jacksonville in the east to Gadsden County in the west, searing through Tallahassee along the way.
In August she will be challenged by two candidates including former state Sen. Al Lawson from Tallahassee and entrepreneur LaShonda Holloway of Jacksonville.
So far, Lawson has only termed the charges “unfortunate,” but Brown has come out against the allegations. While she said that she would “let the work I’ve done speak for me,” one of her lawyers lambasted the federal government for the way it conducted the investigation.
“It is ironic that we are speaking in front of the Bryan Simpson Federal Courthouse, for which Congresswoman Brown was instrumental in securing funding for,” attorney Betsy White said. “The construction of this very courthouse is but one of the many, many projects which have been completed in this community because of the efforts of the congresswoman.”
In a blog post over the weekend, Brown suggested that race played a factor in the charges against her, while also trying to remind voters of what she’s done for them.
“Yet my conscience is clear because I’m innocent. I’m not the first black elected official to be persecuted and, sad to say, I won’t be the last. … Despite all the heartache my family and I have experienced, I want you to know that I’m still in the fight to provide the representation you deserve in Washington,” Brown wrote.
For now, Brown’s local support seems to be holding. State Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat who has been mentioned as a possible successor to Brown, issued a statement Friday standing behind the incumbent.
“Congresswoman Brown has devoted countless hours to her constituents while balancing legislative and personal life, in a district that had suffered from institutional neglect for years,” Gibson said.
Even before the indictment, the geography factor of the district were clear. In a poll conducted June 27 and June 28 by the University of North Florida’s Public Opinion Research Laboratory, Brown held a three-point lead over Lawson among likely Democratic primary voters, well within the survey’s margin of error.
In the Duval County portion of the district, she led with 52 percent of the vote to Lawson’s 8 percent, with Holloway at 5 percent. But in the counties to the west of Jacksonville, Brown trailed Lawson by 26 points: 40-14, with Holloway at 3 percent.
There are all kinds of scenarios that could take place. What if she wins the election but still loses the trial? That would eventually lead to a special election. In addition to her past contenders, you would probably see local political veterans, such as Rep. Mia Jones, Sen. Audrey Gibson, and former Sen. Tony Hill, throwing their name in the hat.
In the meantime, Rep. Brown says she’s temporarily stepping down as ranking member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs as she defends herself against federal fraud charges. Brown recently released a statement saying that she was stepping down in accordance with House rules.
One things for sure, given the validity of history, no one is counting Congresswoman Corrine Brown out.