The Rise and Fall of Corrine Brown
The brash Florida congresswoman’s career begs the question: Do “majority-minority” districts empower voters of color… or ghettoize them to benefit conservatives?
Florida’s first black congressman, a freed slave named Josiah Wells, was forced out of the House of Representatives by whites in 1876. More than a century passed before the state saw a second. The 1992 elections catapulted three African-Americans, two of them women, from the Sunshine State to the House. “New representation provides new hope,” the St. Peterburg Times proclaimed.
One of the winners was Corrine Brown, then a 45-year old state legislator from Jacksonville with a master’s degree in education. "Our delegation is going to be changed," Brown told the Palm Beach Post during her campaign. "Florida's government isn't just for the rich and famous and well connected.” Brown didn’t mention that, as a Democratic state representative in Tallahassee, she had worked with Republicans to draw up the congressional district she ultimately won.
Twenty-four years later, Brown -- who did not respond to requests for comment for this story -- had undeniably become one of those famous and well-connected career politicians, except she was on the way down. An outspoken liberal in Congress, she allied with Republicans to fight unsuccessfully against Florida voters who demanded less-gerrymandered districts. In July, she was indicted on 24 federal counts for allegedly using a charity as a personal slush fund. In August, she lost her reelection primary to another African-American Democrat from Tallahassee -- a city that had just been swallowed by her new district boundaries. Redistricting had given her a seat in Congress; it had also, finally, taken her seat away.
Brown’s dramatic rise and fall highlights the dilemmas of “majority-minority” congressional districts -- political boundaries drawn to group voters of color together. On one hand, such districts have increased opportunities for minority representation in the House. On the other hand, they’ve been used by white majorities, primarily Republicans, to increase power in surrounding districts, effectively sidelining minorities so that the GOP can maintain control of Congress.
The recent push to broaden her district’s demographics, Brown said, amounted to racial discrimination. “It is clear that you all think that slavery still exists, and we can just take those slaves and put them in one area and forget about the people who didn’t have representation for 129 years,” she told reporters during the redistricting fight in 2015 -- even though putting African Americans in one area was precisely what Brown had helped do in the 90s, and precisely what the new redistricting sought to correct.
But Brown’s power -- and by extension, that of her African-American constituents -- had always been limited by House Republicans; the majority-minority districting that had boosted her for a quarter-century also gave the GOP a lasting majority. Although Florida’s voters were split about 50/50 between Republicans and Democrats in 1992, the GOP took 13 of the 23 House seats in the 1992 cycle, leaving just 10 for Democrats.
Today, the disparity is even starker: There are 17 Florida Republican reps in the House, and still just 10 Democrats. This was very much by design.
‘Your community is being shafted’
The 1990 census showed that Florida’s population had boomed since a decade prior. The state got to add four congressional districts to its representation in Washington. Democrats controlled both chambers of Florida’s state legislature, which was in charge of the redistricting process, but couldn’t agree how to divvy up voters into new districts.
Miguel DeGrandy, a Miami attorney, was a GOP state representative back in 1992. He remembers how his Cuban American caucus of seven Republicans reached out to the black caucus with a very clear message -- and an overture to join forces: “Your community is being shafted. Our community is being shafted."
DeGrandy says that in drawing maps that laid out boundaries of Congressional districts, Democrats -- who had been in power in Tallahassee since Reconstruction -- used black communities by breaking them up into multiple districts and using them to boost electoral chances for white Democratic candidates, a practice known as “cracking.”
“The Democrats had had a patronizing approach,” he says. They assumed blacks would vote Democratic, essentially telling them, “Trust us – we’ll take care of you.“
Working with the NAACP, DeGrandy became a plaintiff in a lawsuit against Florida, citing the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, which required that minorities have the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice. They argued that the state had an obligation to link together minority communities in districts to harness their collective power.
Federal judges ultimately agreed and created three heavily black “majority-minority” districts -- two in South Florida, plus District 3: a sprawling, horseshoe-shaped zone that stretched hundreds of miles to include historically black neighborhoods in 14 counties, from Jacksonville to Orlando to Gainesville. That one went to Corrine Brown.
The GOP came out looking generous. Jet magazine wrote that the “amazing breakthrough resulted not from any design of liberal Democratic leaders who control more than 90% of the U.S. Black vote, but from the late GOP chairman Lee Atwater, a White South Carolinian, who quarterbacked the new congressional redistricting effort in the South to atone for his past actions.”
Democrats “were caught flat-footed,” DeGrandy says. “They thought it was going to be business as usual. They underestimated our legal resources, our legal strategies. They also underestimated public opinion.”
‘The bubba I beat couldn’t win at the ballot box’
Political scientists say you can draw a straight line from the growth of “majority-minority” districts to the nearly unbroken Republican stranglehold on Congress. “When a majority-minority district is created, the additional minority voters must be taken from somewhere, and that somewhere is the surrounding districts,” Grant M. Hayden, a voting-rights professor at Southern Methodist University’s law school, wrote in 2004.
This “packing” of minority voters leads to a phenomenon in the outside districts that redistricting experts have called “bleaching”[a]: those polities become whiter and more consistently conservative, or at least competitive for Republicans.
These developments stick progressives with a dilemma, Hayden writes, “by forcing them to choose between additional minority officeholders and additional Democrats, between descriptive representation and substantive representation.”
At the same time, researchers have found, minority voter turnout in districts where they’re the majority is significantly higher. In that sense, majority-minority districts have succeeded: They increase the franchise for people of color in America. But does that voting power translate to any significant control over public policy?
Corrine Brown’s tenure in Congress typified that dilemma. She has long been a strong voice for veterans and for women’s reproductive rights. She served on the Veterans Affairs and Transportation and Infrastructure committees. Political strategists said she was so entrenched, and brought home so much federal money to her district, that it was almost pointless for anyone to run against her. Her slogan was “Corrine Delivers.”
But she also developed a reputation for cantankerousness. When she won in 1992, her white Democratic primary challenger, Andy Johnson, sued to fight District 3’s winding boundaries. “The bubba I beat couldn’t win at the ballot box, [so] he took it to court,” a defiant Brown told The New Republic. (Brown kept her seat, but courts redrew her district to snake a slightly shorter distance: along the St. Johns River, through eight different counties, encompassing black neighborhoods from Jacksonville to Orlando.)
Worse, she was also dogged by ethics problems: In the 1990s, she was said to have taken $10,000 in laundered money from a powerful Baptist preacher, and her daughter received a $50,000 car from an African millionaire whom Brown had tried to help keep out of prison. In the 2000s, she was said to have funneled public money toward a college that employed her daughter, she used city workers to protect her house from flooding.
In 2004, on the House floor, Brown called President George W. Bush’s 2000 victory a “coup d’etat” and added that Republicans “stole the election.” Her House colleagues immediately censured her and had her comments stricken from the record.
As Brown grew bolder, Republicans’ strength skyrocketed. Thanks in part to more local majority-minority redistricting, the GOP gained control of Florida’s statehouse by 1996 and has never been in danger of losing it. These wins put Republicans in control of the state’s congressional redistricting process, and they used new data technology and mapmaking software to increase their advantage. “In the 2000s, we seriously outmaneuvered the Democratic party in technology and resources,” DeGrandy says.
The push for ‘fair districts’
By 2010, Florida activists and Democratic leaders began calling for districts that were more colorblind and less likely to be used by Republicans to engineer outcomes. The so-called Fair Districts movement argued that districts should stay more compact, and cities and and counties should stay whole.
Even the U.S. Supreme Court had issued rulings against electoral districts that were "bizarre" or "irrational" in shape. In a 1993 decision, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote that “Racial gerrymandering, even for remedial purposes, may balkanize us into competing racial factions.”
But redistricting reform could never pass through a safe Republican majority in the state Legislature. So the Fair Districts team put the issue directly in front of Florida voters. In 2010, as the Tea Party wave swept America and Floridians voted in historic numbers for Republicans, they also overwhelmingly -- and a little ironically -- approved two state constitutional amendments barring legislators from drawing up new districts to favor a political party or an incumbent.
Republican critics like DeGrandy argue the hugely popular Fair Districts amendments were a “Democrat-sponsored” agenda, but “they were very intelligent in how they how went through the process.”
Corrine Brown, though, saw the move as a threat to the political livelihood she had built over two and a half decades. From 2011 to 2016, while still in Congress, she fought the Fair Districts plan tooth and nail -- in concert with Republicans and conservative corporate donors, and against the ACLU and civil rights groups. Changing her district would represent a “giant step backward to our state's Jim Crow days,” she argued.
African American rights leaders disagreed. "I like Corrine," Leon Russell, an NAACP leader, told the St. Petersburg Times in 2011, "but I wish she hadn't done this. I don't think you should frustrate the process purely on basis of your self-interest, no matter who you are."
‘You know they’ve been after me for years’
Brown’s legal challenges ultimately came to nothing. In July 2015, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that her gerrymandered district violated the Fair Districts amendments and demanded that it be redrawn. It was converted to a more compact east-west shape that runs from Jacksonville to Tallahassee.
Congressional district before-and-after
She vowed to soldier on, but ended up dropping the case. This summer, she was faced with a more pressing legal fight: She and her chief of staff were indicted on 24 federal charges of mail and wire fraud.
They set up a nonprofit called One Door for Education, encouraging campaign donors and political allies to contribute money for scholarships. Prosecutors say One Door was never registered as a tax-exempt charity with the IRS; rather, Brown and her chief of staff used it “to enrich themselves by fraudulently soliciting and receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions,” which bankrolled luxury box seats for a Beyonce concert and a Jacksonvile Jaguars game, as well as “luxury vacations in the Bahamas, Los Angeles, California, and Miami Beach, Florida.” Thousands of charity dollars were deposited straight into Brown’s personal bank account, according to the indictment.
Despite raising more than $800,000, One Door for Education only awarded two scholarships, totaling $1,200. Brown, now 69, faces a maximum sentence of 357 years in prison and a $4.8 million fine if convicted. She did not respond to repeated requests for comment sent through her communications director. "I’m not the first black elected official to be persecuted and, sad to say, I won’t be the last,” she wrote on her campaign website after the indictment was handed down. She has since begun soliciting online donations for her legal defense fund.
DeGrandy says he’s not close to Brown, but believes that there was a net positive effect for her constituents from her tenure. “I think the black community got a lot more attention and federal resources having and African-American represent them.”
The question is whether that trend will continue in November’s general election. In August’s Democratic election, Brown was bested by Al Lawson, a former colleague of hers in the state Legislature’s black caucus. He will face a Republican in new territory, shaped by the Fair Districts amendments. DeGrandy predicts that the new map will “equalize more the Republican and Democrat numbers in the legislature, though the Republicans will still, I believe, have the majority in both chambers.”
On her blog, Brown conceded her loss with characteristic feistiness. “We fought a battle with one arm tied behind our backs. You know they’ve been after me for years,” she wrote. “We are a strong people. We’re descendants of people who survived the Middle Passage. We have survived centuries of abuse. We are strong. We are still standing.”