BROWN, Corrine

Image Courtesy of the Member
BROWN, Corrine
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
1946–

Biography

In 1992, Corrine Brown became part of the first class of African-American lawmakers elected to the U.S. House from Florida since 1877. During her congressional career, Brown regularly brought federal programs into her Jacksonville district using her seats on the Transportation and Infrastructure and the Veterans’ Affairs Committees. She also earned a reputation as a tireless advocate of civil rights both at home in Jacksonville and abroad. Although dogged by ethical controversies, Brown embraced her admittedly outspoken legislative style and believed her mission in the House went beyond her history-making election in 1992. “It means a lot more than the glamor of being elected,” she once remarked. “Once you’re elected it means getting things done. It means representing people that have not been part of the process.”1

Corrine Brown was born in Jacksonville, Florida, on November 11, 1946, and grew up in the city’s Northside neighborhood, graduating from Stanton High School.2  As a single mother, she raised a daughter, Shantrel. Brown earned a bachelor of science degree at Florida Agriculture and Mechanical University in 1969, and an MA from the same institution in 1971. In 1972, Brown graduated with an educational specialist degree from the University of Florida. She taught at the University of Florida and Edward Waters College before settling at Florida Community College in Jacksonville, where she taught and served as a guidance counselor from 1977 to 1992. She also opened her own travel agency in Jacksonville.

Her close friend, college sorority sister, and political mentor, Gwen Cherry, was the first African-American woman elected to the Florida house of representatives. Cherry’s death in a 1979 car crash pushed Brown toward politics. In 1980, she was a delegate for presidential candidate Senator Edward Kennedy at the Democratic National Convention. Two years later, Brown won a seat in the Florida legislature and served for a decade.

No African-American candidate had won election to the U.S. House from Florida since Representative Josiah Walls had served during Reconstruction in the 1870s. But leading up to the 1992 election, Brown was among several minority Florida lawmakers who called for more districts with Hispanic and black majorities as the state embarked on its latest redistricting attempt. One of the new districts covered northeastern Florida and encompassed Brown’s hometown. Resembling a “wishbone or horseshoe,” the new district snaked from Jacksonville to Orlando and west over through Gainesville and Ocala.3  Brown officially filed after a federal court approved the new Florida district map.4

Brown faced stiff competition in the Democratic primary. Her three challengers included Arnett Girardeau, a black state senator with 16 years’ experience; Orlando-based school guidance counselor Glennie Mills; and the only white candidate, talk show host Andy Johnson. Looking to build a grassroots campaign, Brown branched out from Jacksonville and crisscrossed the district. “I have really learned the back roads,” Brown noted. “I’ve learned how to get from Daytona Beach to Palatka to Hawthorne.”5  Brown won 43 percent of the vote in the September primary election. Since no candidate took a majority in the first round of voting, Brown went to a runoff where she defeated Johnson on October 1 with 64 percent of the vote.6

Brown faced Don Weidner, general counsel for the Florida Physicians Association, in the general election. Her campaign promised to pump federal resources into the district: fixing the school system, bringing more jobs to the area, and protecting Social Security and Medicare for the elderly. “If America has a cold, [then] my community has pneumonia,” she observed. “So if you can fix the situation and make things better, it will benefit my community.” Winning by 18 percentage points, Brown made history that fall as one of three African-American candidates elected from Florida for the first time since Reconstruction (Alcee Hastings and Carrie Meek were the other two).7

Florida’s redistricting process was a constant hurdle during Brown’s career in the House.8  In 1996, a federal court ordered Florida to redraw Brown’s seat after finding that the state did not have a compelling reason to draw a majority-black district. The new borders eliminated portions of Gainesville and Ocala and changed its racial composition, making it slightly majority white.9  Brown went on to win re-election with 61 percent of the vote by appealing to the working class, union members, veterans, and the elderly in her district. Facing possible ethics violations, Brown’s narrowest margin of victory came in 1998, when she took 55 percent of the vote against African-American Republican Bill Randall, a former manager at General Motors. Following a later reapportionment that placed the heart of her district along the St. John’s River and changed the demographics so that the number of white and black residents was just about even, she went either unchallenged or won with margins of 60 percent or greater throughout the early 2000s.10

In November 2010, as Florida prepared for another round of redistricting following the federal census, Brown teamed with Florida Republican lawmaker Mario Diaz-Balart to challenge the state constitution’s new “fair district” amendment, approved by voters in the 2010 election. The amendment required Florida’s federal congressional districts to have a “more compact” shape without blatantly favoring one political party. Both Brown and Diaz-Balart argued that these restrictions would hurt minority voters. But a U.S. District court and a later appeal ruled against Brown and Diaz-Balart.11  Even with the amendment in place, the GOP legislature made few changes to Brown’s district and she easily won re-election in 2012 and 2014.12

When Representative Brown took her seat in the 103rd Congress (1993–1995), she received assignments on the Government Operations Committee, the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and the Public Works and Transportation Committee. In the 104th Congress (1995–1997), she resigned from Government Operations and in the 113th Congress (2013–2015) she left the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. She held a seat on the Public Works and Transportation Committee (later named Transportation and Infrastructure) for her entire career. Brown eventually chaired the Transportation Committee’s Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials during the 110th and 111th Congresses (2007–2011).

Brown was active in her role as one of the first black women elected from Florida. In 1992, she was part of a wave of black freshmen lawmakers which increased the roster of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) from 26 to 40. That election year also saw huge growth in the number of women in Congress. She served in the CBC—and was elected the CBC’s first vice chair in the 109th Congress (2005–2007)—and was a member of the Women’s Caucus.13

Brown’s top priority in Congress was to improve the economy in north Florida by steering federal aid to her district.14  Unafraid to use earmarks, Brown led the effort to construct an $86 million federal courthouse in Jacksonville. She also secured federal dollars to repair the Fuller Warren Bridge in Jacksonville, where Interstate 95 crossed the St. John’s River. She later funneled money to create a mental health and rehabilitation center in Jacksonville and funded a biofuel conversion project.15

Brown’s commitment to the district won her allies among the GOP, including Jacksonville’s Republican Mayor John Delaney. “If she tells you yes, she fights to the death,” Delaney observed. “On what I call national issues, she and I disagree on everything. But a local issue, a city issue, she wants to know what she can do.” When Congress adopted a self-imposed moratorium on earmarks in the 112th Congress (2011–2013), Brown did not alter course. She vowed “to continue what I have been doing every single day since my first election in 1992, specifically bring home a fair share of the federal dollars.”16

From her perch on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Brown fought to initiate Florida rail projects and meet the state’s booming transportation needs. In 1998, she orchestrated a nearly 60-percent increase in funding for federal transportation programs in Florida.17  She was especially mindful of Amtrak’s budget, cosponsoring and arguing in favor of more funding for the rail carrier throughout her career. Brown also frequently defended the CSX Corporation, a railway freight company based in her district. Rail safety was a key issue for Brown and she supported multiple bills funneling funding to railroad security—especially during her time leading the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials. “We can’t keep treating our rail infrastructure as second class citizens,” she told colleagues. “We have dedicated billions of dollars to the airline industry and created a grants program for ports. But we have done little to invest in the security upgrade of our rail infrastructure needs.”18

With a large military presence in her district, most notably the Jacksonville Naval Air Station, Brown was quick to support defense funding. Brown described the military as a place where working-class Americans could find opportunities unavailable elsewhere, and she wanted more money spent on personnel training. From her seat on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, she was also attentive to the needs of women veterans in particular and veteran’s health care in general. Brown regularly sponsored bills strengthening infant and maternal care, as well as legislation opening access to breast cancer treatment.

At times, Brown addressed issues far outside her district. In 1993, shortly after arriving on Capitol Hill, she working with other Floridians and members of the CBC to push the William J. (Bill) Clinton administration to put economic pressure on Haiti to restore its democratic government by re-installing deposed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.19  Brown saw military force in Haiti as an option of last resort, preferring to use foreign aid as a means to leverage change.20  And she urged U.S. officials to offer political asylum to thousands of Haitians who arrived in the U.S. looking for help.21

Brown also took up the cause of Liberians, pushing to extend temporary visa status for thousands who came to America after a civil war in the African country during the early 1990s. She hosted a candlelight vigil in front of the White House in September 1999. “Any other group after a couple of years, they get permanent status,” she observed. “But the Liberians, because they were people of color, don’t. We have an immigration policy that is not colorblind.”22  In 2000, she gave an impassioned, emotional speech on the House Floor imploring Congress to budget more money for fighting the AIDS epidemic in Africa. “AIDS in Africa is a direct threat to our country, especially in today’s interconnected word,” she implored.23  The next day, by a narrow 216 to 211 vote, the House approved an increase in the foreign operations budget to combat the disease.24

Brown had an outspoken legislative style that often made headlines and occasionally drew the ire of colleagues and political observers. One reporter summarized her politics as a mix of “one part partisan politics with two parts moral indignation.”25  Brown briefly lost her speaking privileges on the House Floor in 2004 when she accused Indiana Republican Steve Buyer and other Republican colleagues of using a “coup d’état” to steal the 2000 presidential contest in Florida. The House had her “words taken down,” a parliamentary procedure invoked when a Member has violated House decorum—in this case, accusing another Member of a crime.26  And the House voted to have her words stricken from the Congressional Record.27  Brown remained unapologetic about the incident. “If they’re going to take down my words for telling the truth, that’s OK,” she responded. “We had a coup d’état. Straight out, they stole the election.”28

Brown frequently ran into ethical and legal trouble during her career.29  In her first election in 1992, a primary opponent accused her of accepting illegal campaign donations and forcing an employee in her state representative’s office to work in her private travel agency business. She eventually settled the complaint with the Florida Commission on Ethics and paid a $5,000 fine.30  Following the 1992 election, Brown’s campaign treasurer resigned in protest after her campaign manager—also her chief of staff—was caught forging the treasurer’s signature on campaign finance reports submitted to the Federal Elections Commission (FEC).31  Brown hired a certified public accountant to review her financial documents and relieved her chief of staff from campaign duties, but a 1994 FEC audit claimed that many errors from her 1992 campaign had not been corrected.32

In 1998, the St. Petersburg Times published a story alleging Brown had received a $10,000 donation from a secret fund kept by a Baptist minister who was eventually charged with extortion and bribery at both the federal and state level.33  Later in 1998, the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct investigated Brown’s financial ties to a West African businessman, Foutanga Dit Babani Sissoko, who allegedly provided Brown lodging in his Miami condominium and gave her daughter a luxury automobile. The gift coincided with Brown’s aggressive lobbying of the Clinton administration to release Sissoko from a federal prison where he was serving time for bribery. In 2000, the ethics panel ruled that she had demonstrated “poor judgement” but did not pursue the investigation further.34  And in 2008, when Tropical Storm Fay hit Jacksonville, local government officials criticized Brown for using government resources to place protective sandbags around her river-front home in Jacksonville. Brown eventually repaid the city for the material and labor.35

Despite Brown’s controversies, her constituents continued to return her to office. As she approached her primary election in 2016, however, she faced two challenges. A state court ordered Florida to redraw its districts after it found that the existing borders purposefully segregated minority voters into a single district. Brown’s new district stretched east-to-west along the Georgia border from Jacksonville to Tallahassee, and though it remained 63-percent African American, Brown lost much of her traditional constituency along the St. John’s River.36  Secondly, in July 2016, a grand jury charged Brown and her chief of staff with 24 counts of mail and wire fraud, conspiracy, obstruction, and filing false tax returns. The charges stemmed from Brown’s tie with the charity, One Door for Education Foundation, Inc. The stated beneficiaries of the charity were low income students who received scholarships, but the lawsuit alleged that Brown and several associates siphoned off money to pay for personal expenses.37

The indictment effectively torpedoed Brown’s re-election campaign. Just a few weeks later, she lost a three-way race in the Democratic primary.38  After a month-long trial, Brown was convicted on 18 counts on May 11, 2017.39  On December 4, 2017, Brown was sentenced to five years in prison.40  She reported to Coleman Federal Correctional Institute in Sumter County, Florida, on January 29, 2018.41

Footnotes

1Bruce I. Friedland, “Jacksonville’s Pragmatic Liberal U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown Passionately Pushes Her Causes and Delivers Bacon Back to City,” 19 July 2000, Florida Times-Union: A1; Bill Moss, “This Election is Black History in the Making,” 30 August 1992, St. Petersburg Times (FL): 1B.

2The names of Brown’s parents are not public record.

3Congressional Quarterly Inc., CQ’s Guide to 1990 Congressional Redistricting, vol. 2 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1993): 81–84; 86.

4John D. McKinnon, “Uncertain Candidate Gains Certainty,” 13 May 1992, St. Petersburg Times (FL): 4B.

5Bill Moss, “This Election is Black History in the Making,” 30 August 1992, St. Petersburg Times (FL): 1B.

6Florida Department of State Elections, “October 1, 1992, Runoff Election Democratic Primary: United States Representative,” accessed 26 April 2017, https://enight.elections.myflorida.com/; Florida Department of State Elections, “September 1, 1992 Primary Election Democratic Primary: United States Representative,” accessed 26 April 2017, https://enight.elections.myflorida.com/.

7Friedland, “Jacksonville’s Pragmatic Liberal.”

8See, for example, Lucy Morgan, “U.S. Representatives Lobby Over Districts,” 12 March 2002, St. Petersburg Times (FL): 1B; Garth C. Reeves, “Keep Black Votes Relevant,” 1 July 2009, Miami Times: 2A.

9Almanac of American Politics, 2000 (Washington, DC: National Journal Group, 1999): 399; Redistricting Task Force for the National Conference of State Legislatures, “Florida Redistricting Cases: the 1990s,” accessed 6 March 2017, https://www.senate.mn/departments/scr/REDIST/Redsum/flsum.htm; Friedland, “Jacksonville’s Pragmatic Liberal”; Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

10Almanac of American Politics, 2000: 400.

11Susan A. MacManus et al., “Redistricting in Florida: Loud Voices from the Grassroots,” in Jigsaw Puzzle Politics in the Sunshine State, ed. Seth C. McKee (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2015): 142–144; Corrine Brown, et al v. State of Florida, et al., 668 F.3d 1271 (11th Cir. 2012).

12Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present”; Almanac of American Politics, 2014 (Washington, DC: National Journal Group, 2013): 393.

13Larry Still, “New CBC Members May Change Black Agenda,” 21 November 2002, Afro-American Red Star (Washington, DC): A1.

14Politics in America, 2010 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 2009): 226.

15Sean Holton, “Projects Have Same Pork Taste,” 24 May 1994, Orlando Sentinel: 3A; “The Buzz,” 14 December 2010, St. Petersburg Times (FL): n.p.

16Politics in America, 2012 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 2011): 219.

17Politics in America, 2002 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2001): 215–216.

18Congressional Record, House, 109th Cong., 2nd sess. (12 July 2006): H5098; Politics in America, 2002: 215–216.

19“Clinton's Haiti Gamble Pays Off,” CQ Almanac 1994, 50th ed. (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 1995): 449–451, https://library.cqpress.com.

20See, for example, H.R. 4301, 103rd Cong. (1994); Congressional Record, House, 105th Cong., 1st sess. (28 June 1995): H6469.

21Hearings before the House Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on International Law, Immigration, and Refugees, Haitian Asylum-Seekers, 103rd Cong., 2nd sess. (1994): 66–67.

22Friedland, “Jacksonville’s Pragmatic Liberal.”

23Congressional Record, House, 106th Cong., 2nd sess. (12 July 2000): 14039.

24Friedland, “Jacksonville’s Pragmatic Liberal.”

25Ibid.

26Charles W. Johnson, Constitution, Jefferson’s Manual, and Rules of the House of Representatives of the 108th Congress (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2003): 719–721.

27Congressional Record, House, 108th Cong., 2nd sess. (15 July 2004): H5865.

28Politics in America, 2006 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 2005): 231. For more information on a separate dustup between Brown and the Indiana Republican, see Politics in America, 2008 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 2007): 227.

29John Dunbar, “Congressional Fight Reaching Fever Pitch,” 18 October 1998, Florida Times-Union: A1. The Florida Times-Union provides an overview of Brown’s ethical controversies. See Steve Patterson, “Corrine Brown: Decades of Drama,” 8 July 2016, Florida Times-Union, http://jacksonville.com/news/metro/2016-07-08/story/corrine-brown-decades-drama (accessed 18 October 2017).

30Politics in America, 2008: 228; David Dahl, “Nagging Problems with Ethics Linger,” 5 July 1994, St. Petersburg Times (FL): 14A; John C. Van Gieson, “Rep. Brown Faces 1 Ethics Charge,” 29 April 1993, Orlando Sentinel: n.p. The Florida Ethics Commission did not publish the final or recommended order on their website.

31“Campaign Treasurer Quits Over Forgery,” Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, FL), 25 February 1993: 10A.

32“Congresswoman Admits Errors in Reports,” 26 February 1993, St. Petersburg Times (FL): 6B; Federal Election Commission, “Report of the Audit Division on Friends of Corrine Brown,” accessed 2 May 2017, http://www.fec.gov/.

33Politics in America, 2004 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 2003): 225. Terry Neal, “Scandal Cuts Both ways in Fla. Race,” 21 October 1998, Washington Post: A14.

34Politics in America, 2008: 228; Bill Adair and David Dahl, “The Representative, the Millionaire and the Luxury Car,” 3 June 1998, St. Petersburg Times (FL): 1A; David Bauerline, “Brown Again Faces Review on Ethics,” 9 June 1998, Florida Times-Union: A1; Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, “Historical Summary of Conduct Cases in the House of Representatives,” accessed 28 April 2017, https://ethics.house.gov/publication/historical-summary.

35Politics in America, 2010: 226.

36Alex Tribou and Adam Pearce, “Courts Are Shaking Up House Elections in 2016,” 3 December 2015, Bloomberg, https://www.bloomberg.com/politics/graphics/2015-redistricting/ (accessed 18 October 2017). Steve Patterson, “Corine Brown Indictment Alleges Charity Was Slush Fund for Trips, Luxury Seats at Events, Car Repairs,” 9 July 2016, Florida Times-Union, http://jacksonville.com/news/2016-07-08/story/brown-indictment-alleges-charity-was-slush-fund-trips-luxury-seats-events-car (accessed 18 October 2017).

37Steve Patterson, “Corine Brown Indictment Alleges Charity Was Slush Fund for Trips, Luxury Seats at Events, Car Repairs,” 9 July 2016, Florida Times-Union, http://jacksonville.com/news/2016-07-08/story/brown-indictment-alleges-charity-was-slush-fund-trips-luxury-seats-events-car (accessed 18 October 2017).

38Florida Department of State Elections, “August 30, 2016, Primary Election, Democratic Primary: United States Representative,” accessed 2 May 2017, https://enight.elections.myflorida.com/.

39Eric Garcia, “Brown’s Former Aide Testifies He Was Following Her Orders,” 4 May 2017, Roll Call, http://www.rollcall.com/news/politics/corrine-browns-former-chief-of-staff-testifies-against-her (accessed 18 October 2017); Lynnsey Gardner and Jim Pigott, “Corrine Brown Found Guilty of 19 of 22 Federal Charges,” 11 May 2017, Florida Times-Union, http://jacksonville.com/news/metro/2017-05-11/corrine-brown-convicted-18-felonies-faces-decades-prison (accessed 18 October 2017); Nate Monroe, Steve Paterson, and Christopher Hong, “Free for Now, Corrine Brown is Back in Her Element,” 19 May 2017, Florida Times-Union, http://jacksonville.com/news/metro/2017-05-18/free-now-corrine-brown-back-her-element (accessed 18 October 2017).

40Cleve R. Wootson, Jr., “Former Congresswoman Corrine Brown Sentenced to Five Years in Prison in Charity Slush-Fund Case,” 4 December 2017, Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2017/12/04/former-congresswoman-corrine-brown-sentenced-to-five-years-in-prison-in-charity-slush-fund-case/ (accessed 19 December 2018).

41Steve Patterson, “No Iron Bars, But Prison Comes Monday for Ex-U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown,” 27 January 2018, Florida Times-Union, https://www.jacksonville.com/news/20180127/no-iron-bars-but-prison-comes-monday-for-ex-us-rep-corrine-brown (accessed 19 December 2018); Patterson, “Ex-U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown Enters Prison,” 29 January 2018, Florida Times-Union, https://www.jacksonville.com/news/20180129/ex-us-rep-corrine-brown-enters-prison (accessed 19 December 2018).

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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External Research Collections

University of Oklahoma
The Julian P. Kanter Political Commercial Archive, Department of Communication

Norman, OK
Videoreels: 1994, 2 commercials on 2 videoreels. The commercials used during Corrine Brown's campaign for the 1994 U.S. congressional election in District 3 of Florida, Democratic Party.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Corrine Brown" in Black Americans in Congress, 1870-2007. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U. S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2008.

"Corrine Brown" in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U. S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2006.

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Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Government Operations
  • House Committee - Public Works and Transportation
  • House Committee - Transportation and Infrastructure
    • Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials - Chair
  • House Committee - Veterans' Affairs
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