The literary field of semiotics, as articulated by French theorist Ferdinand de Saussure, boils down to a relationship between signs and their intended meaning.
The ultimate meaning of those signs is not fixed; rather, it moves with cultural interpretation.
As we find ourselves now less than three months before primary elections for the 2018 ballot, we will be inundated with signs — the symbolism of politicians either as square-jawed unstinting incumbents fighting the people’s battles, or hard-charging challengers devoted to storming the palace gates, animated by some quasi-populist crusade.
The local landscape in 2018 has its own wrinkles. A former Jacksonville mayor running to take Corrine Brown’s seat back in Congress, part of a group of Democratic primaries on the August ballot. A compelling GOP primary race to succeed Jay Fant in the State House (even as Democrat Tracye Polson presents a challenge in the general).
And so on.
What ultimately engages the mainstream media? Hard to say. The mechanics of politics doesn’t lead local TV, and the Times-Union is moving increasingly toward long-form investigations, as opposed to quick-hit coverage.
An ever-changing media landscape — and what it may (or may not) prioritize — dictates a certain randomness to which narratives will or won’t prevail.
In that context, an old lesson applies: Win every news cycle. Define the contest before it defines you.
Nelson spotlights Vilano renourishment
Sen. Bill Nelson visited Vilano Beach this week, spotlighting coastline restoration efforts as storm season begins.
Per WJXT: “With the St. Johns County Coastal Storm Risk Management Project finally on the path to being approved, Nelson met Tuesday with Col. Jason Kirk, with Corps, and county leaders to talk about the project, and what’s being done to restore the county’s beaches.”
“The entire east coast of Florida, after we had Hurricane Matthew two years ago, it chewed up the beach like you can’t believe,” Nelson said.
“The property values are going to come back,” Nelson said. “You ask the question, ‘What you can do if you’re a homeowner?’ If you’ve got a dune, keep vegetation on that dune because the sand dunes are Mother Nature’s way of protecting the upland land.”
“The goal is to finish all this out about another mile south and then north of the St. Augustine Inlet,” Nelson said. “Vilano Beach, get that 3½ miles complete, and then they will be in pretty good shape here in St. Johns County.”
Jax Councilmembers hit with federal fraud indictment
Jacksonville hasn’t dealt with a politician’s fraud trial in roughly a year. Perhaps the city was overdue.
A 61-page indictment dropped in federal court Thursday for Jacksonville City Council members, Katrina Brown and Reggie Brown.
Their first appearance was Thursday at 2:30 p.m. Alleged: a conspiracy to defraud, spread out over 38 counts.
In 2013 and 2014, Katrina Brown opened two companies — A-Plus Training and Consultants and RB Packaging — listing Reggie Brown as the principal.
According to the indictment, the companies were used solely as instruments of fraud, as attempts to siphon government money intended for economic development plans regarding a BBQ Sauce Plant that never appeared seriously meant to come to fruition.
Reggie Brown opened up bank accounts for the companies at a BBVA Compass location soon after forming the entities.
Before this, Reggie Brown — who was serving on the Council at that point — voted yes for what would be a fateful decision in 2011: to appropriate $640,000 for KJB Specialties, a Katrina Brown company, to create 56 jobs at a BBQ sauce plant in Northwest Jacksonville.
Those jobs, as reported previously, were never created — and both the federal government (on the hook for a $2.6 million SBA loan) and locals are still searching for their money back.
By the time Katrina Brown and Reggie Brown went into business together, the barbecue sauce plan was failing. And soon enough, per the indictment, malfeasance began.
Around the end of 2013, A-Plus Training was, the indictment says, used to funnel $12,500 in SBA loan funds, setting up a pattern. In 2014, $251,919 of those funds processed, with Basic Products and Katrina Brown getting over $166,000 of them, and Reggie Brown getting the remainder, prosecutors allege.
[Katrina Brown was elected to Council in 2015; Reggie Brown elected in 2010. However, some of this money went to Katrina Brown’s political activities, including a $3,500 loan from her campaign, and donations for former Mayor Alvin Brown and the Duval Democratic Party.]
The conspiracy boils down to Katrina and Reggie Brown secreting SBA money, with both Councilors engaging in fraud.
Cops snub Brown, back Lawson
U.S. Rep. Al Lawson’s re-election campaign rolled out local police union support in his primary challenge from Brown, a former Jacksonville mayor.
For Brown, this must feel like déjà vu.
Brown didn’t secure the FOP endorsement in 2011; that went to Mike Hogan.
In 2015, the FOP backed Lenny Curry over Brown: “In addition to demonstrating leadership and vision for restoring Jacksonville’s greatness, he has committed to fully support law enforcement and community leaders in their effort to eliminate crime by ensuring they have access to every resource necessary to fight crime … We are confident that the election of Mr. Curry will be Jacksonville’s best chance to help our members keep our citizens safe and move our city in a positive direction.”
While it came out sometime later that Curry had given the union assurances that he would protect defined benefit pensions, a factor not mentioned in the endorsement, the FOP nod conferred momentum upon the Republican’s challenge of the incumbent mayor.
Meanwhile, the state FOP endorsed Lawson in his race against former Rep. Corrine Brown in 2016, and there clearly was no reason for the union to deviate from established protocol this time.
Brown to get raise if elected to Congress
At last count, a member of Congress makes $174,000 per annum.
Former Mayor Brown, a current candidate for the primary nomination in Florida’s 5th Congressional District, would stand to receive a serious pay raise in 2019 if he wins the nomination and is elected, per his financial disclosure form.
Brown has made minimal income in 2018, and 2017 also was a lean year.
In 2018, Brown brought in less than $400 in interest income, and $8,250 in consulting fees ($750 from the Westside Church of God in Christ, $7,500 from Gray Global Advisors).
2017, a pre-candidacy year for Brown, was financially healthier, with more honorarium and consulting cash.
Gray paid him $45,000; additionally, $13,000 in honorariums were paid out (Merck, Sharp and Dohme Credit Union was in for $10,000; Alliance of NC Black Elected Officials for $1,500 and Shiloh Baptist Church for another $1,500).
Incumbent Lawson has not filed a 2018 disclosure; however, 2016 paperwork showed Lawson, a busy lobbyist, raked in over $200,000 in 2015 and roughly $75,000 through the first part of 2016. He also had rental properties and a mortgage that was near being paid off at the filing of his previous disclosure.
A recurrent Lawson talking point has been that Brown “failed as mayor and a lot of people in Duval are saying he’s just looking for a job” by running for Congress.
Brown’s financial disclosure does not show truly steady work since he left office nearly three years ago, suggesting that Lawson’s verbal jab may have some truth to it.
Lawson works Jax Dems at town hall
U.S. Rep. Lawson was in Jacksonville Tuesday for a town hall, as he looks to repel a challenge in the Democratic primary from another moderate who hasn’t been afraid to blur party lines in former Mayor Brown.
The question for Lawson this campaign: Can he parlay incumbency and a primary opponent who has myriad flaws into consolidating support on the eastern side of the district?
The answer is, as yet, unanswered.
Lawson spoke a lot about bipartisanship, noting that after Hurricane Irma, he worked to “convince” House Speaker Paul Ryan of the need for FEMA reimbursements, while working well with Rep. John Rutherford and Mayor Curry.
Lawson noted that on hurricane relief and efforts to fix problematic Eureka Gardens, working across the aisle is key.
Unlike any other politician in this market today, Lawson expressed interest in crossing party lines repeatedly during the event.
Lawson was asked about a claim from 538.com regarding his voting with President Donald Trump more often than some might like: “If it’s good legislation, doesn’t make a difference if it comes from Trump or anybody. If it benefits this area, I support it.”
“The man is the president of the United States,” Lawson added, noting that he finds it perplexing when people castigate him for not voting with the Congressional Black Caucus on every roll call vote.
“Nobody in the Black Caucus voted for me. That’s why I don’t understand when people say [I] don’t vote with the Black Caucus,” Lawson said, noting that he votes for what his district wants.
In an activist year, as a candidate from the other side of the district, it’s interesting to hear Lawson pitching collaboration and cooperation.
Jax elite fall in behind Waltz for Congress
Rutherford and Curry were “honorary hosts” for a fundraiser for Florida’s 6th Congressional District Republican Mike Waltz Wednesday.
The fundraiser, held at the home of JEA Board member Husein Cumber and City Council hopeful LeAnna Cumber, featured a number of interesting names on the host committee.
Among the luminaries: Jeb Bush, Jr; former Duval GOP Chair John Falconetti; power broker Michael Munz; and Total Military Management’s Kent Stermon.
Waltz is one of three Republicans vying to replace DeSantis in Florida’s 6th Congressional District, a south-of-Jacksonville sinecure hugging the Atlantic coast in St. Johns, Flagler and Volusia counties.
The GOP race in CD-6, where candidates vie to replace outgoing Rep. DeSantis, has been an interesting one, with Waltz and John Ward both raising serious money for what will be an expensive primary straddling three media markets (Jacksonville, Daytona and Orlando).
Despite his ability to bring in money, Ward had a catastrophic news cycle last week, with comments he made at an April forum saying that Puerto Ricans shouldn’t vote in Florida drawing scrutiny and condemnation from Republicans and Democrats alike.
Gibson pushes back against rumors of divided Dem caucus
Florida Politics caught up with Jacksonville’s Audrey Gibson, as the incoming Senate Democratic Leader negotiates a restive caucus and a primary challenge from City Councilman Reggie Brown.
Thus far, 2018 has been interesting in ways that could not have been forecast less than a year ago, before Gibson replaced scandal-plagued Jeff Clemens.
As we reported last week, Democratic campaign consultants and other insiders see the creation of two recently formed political committees and associated fundraising as an indirect challenge to the Gibson’s leadership.
But she was quick to tamp down any rumors of discord that could challenge her leadership.
“I’ve called every single member of the caucus,” Gibson said. “Before the article came out, I had a couple of calls from some lobbyists who said ‘Hey, what’s going on?’”
hat was the first she had heard of it. Soon after, she made calls to her Democratic colleagues.
“After the article came out, just to, first of all, say ‘remember, our goal is to win in November.’ Because my understanding was some of it was about who the next leader would be.”
Gibson has a message to colleagues: “Let’s get the job done in November. And, everyone get to know each other.”
“The response I got, was ‘we’re all heading in the same direction. We just thought we’d form these entities to try to bring in more money.’”
Gibson told them it would be “good if we could do that in a coordinated way.”
“I hear what you all are saying,” she recounted, “but in public, it looks divisive. Make sure we rein in that because we’re all heading in the same direction.”
She continues to work on behalf of the caucus.
“It’s not a reflection of me not working, me not bringing the caucus together,” she said. “Ever since I was elected, I’ve done meetings and get acquainted stuff and balloons and all those types of things to bring people together.”
Gibson wants security at HUD complexes
Per WJCT, Sen. Gibson sent a letter to Congressman Lawson and Sen. Nelson asking the two to “sponsor legislation mandating HUD negotiate in housing contracts that affordable housing complexes located in high-crime areas provide security or that the policy be created as a rule within the agency.”
Gibson, speaking at Eureka Gardens apartment complex, had some criticism for the new ownership making promises it couldn’t deliver on the facility rehab.
“I understand there’s anxiousness to do it all at one time and they should never have promised the residents that it would happen that way, but I think there should be some system of determining which apartments are in, if you will, priority disrepair and then make sure they’re communicating with all the other residents in the community,” she said.
Curry critics critique courthouse jazz fest stage
Jacksonville held another well-attended iteration of its yearly jazz festival over Memorial Day weekend, but critiques of a scheduling decision came from several local politicians.
City decision makers did not use the Jacksonville Landing as a location for a festival stage, in a move not altogether surprising given the continued legal back and forth between the city and Landing tenant Toney Sleiman.
Sleiman, a prominent political donor, set up an oppositional relationship with the Curry administration even before Curry was elected (by appearing in an ad for Curry’s 2015 opponent, then-incumbent Brown, concomitant with a Brown/Sleiman proposal to spend nearly $12 million on a teardown and rebuild plan for the declining Landing).
Since Curry’s election, the administration and Sleiman have not been able to agree on terms, and the city currently is moving to take possession of the waterfront mall from Sleiman, with each side claiming breach of contractual obligations.
While the back and forth continues in legal channels, politicians opposed to Lenny Curry used the move of a performance stage from the Landing to the “iconic” backdrop of the Duval County Courthouse as a launchpad pad for more holistic critiques.
Per WJXT: Jacksonville City Councilman Reggie Gaffney seeks to broker a peace between Curry and Jacksonville Landing tenant Sleiman.
“I am going to make one last attempt to try to bring them both together, see if I (can) get both of them in the same room,” Gaffney told News4Jax. “We can iron out whatever problems they may be having so we can move the Landing forward because nobody wins right now.”
There’s one consideration worth mentioning: Sleiman is bankrolling Gaffney’s re-election bid.
The Curry administration and Gaffney have a solid relationship. But is Gaffney really the person to broker a peace here?
KEYS 2 Drive rolled out
Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams and State Attorney Melissa Nelson Wednesday rolled out the ‘KEYS 2 Drive’ (Knowledge Empowers Your Success) diversion program.
The program will help those facing primary charges of driving without valid driver’s licenses, or suspended or revoked licenses, to get them reinstated.
Of the 12,000 people faced with that fate last year, estimates are that half of that number — at least — could have been helped by this program.
For Nelson, a proponent of “smart justice,” this program is a potential reprieve for many from “the cycle of license suspension … ballooning of fines and fees” and a “costly and complicated” process of license restoration.
Eligible offenses include misdemeanor driving while license is suspended or revoked, expired or otherwise invalid, or driving outside of classification.
Sex offenders are ineligible for the program, as are non-Florida residents and those with licenses suspended in major criminal traffic offenses.
JEA privatization bills pulled
Jacksonville City Councilmen Jim Love and Matt Schellenberg, both second-term Republicans, had expressed different visions for the future of Jacksonville’s public utility.
Both bills will not see the Council floor, after a Wednesday meeting in which both agreed to pull their bills.
Though Curry has clarified some confusion in his position, saying that he wouldn’t push legislation at this point in favor of a sale, the question is not considered closed by close observers of and participants in the City Hall scrum, despite a recent Moody’s FAQ on the under-construction Plant Vogtle asserting that “the potential to privatize was recently studied by the Mayor and City Council and rejected.”
Love and Schellenberg congregated Wednesday with a group of Councilors, including President Anna Brosche, former President Greg Anderson, Finance Chair Garrett Dennis, and Councilman Gaffney to solve the problem of legislation currently without a purpose.
Love noted the landscape has changed “radically” in relation to JEA, given a special committee and the lack of mayoral initiative on a privatization plan, as well as no board decision in favor of reviewing the option further.
Mind games continue between Curry, Dennis
Though the Jacksonville City Council is on its “fifth week,” a sanctioned break from committee meetings, the intrigue continues in the St. James Building.
On Tuesday, Curry met with a candidate for the legislative body: Marcellus Holmes.
Holmes, a former professional football player, didn’t hone into specific policy proposals when we interviewed him in April.
If elected, he will be “bringing the community together” to “meet the needs of every community” and “get every issue solved.”
Lack of specifics notwithstanding, Holmes scored a Tuesday meeting with Curry.
On Wednesday, Florida Politics caught up with Dennis, who was amused by the meeting.
Dennis has been meeting with potential 2019 candidates for Mayor; he would not specify whether those candidates were in the current field, which includes Republican Jimmy Hill, Democrat Doreszell Cohen and NPA hopeful Connell Crooms.
Dennis, as of this writing, has not filed for re-election.
Discussion has lingered for months about the vehicle Curry’s political machine could use to exact revenge on Dennis, who has stood athwart many of the administration’s initiatives.
Perhaps the meeting is an augury of meaningful support to come.
Clay opioid raid yields no opioids
Per The Appeal: “Sheriff Darryl Daniels of Clay County … is positioning himself as a social media celebrity in the ongoing war on opioids. In January, Daniels’s office filmed the aftermath of a SWAT raid that he and masked officers carried out on a so-called narcotics house on a tree-lined suburban street in Orange Park … The video documenting the raid — in what the sheriff dubbed ‘Operation: You Were Warned’ — went viral, garnering 30,000 shares and 3.4 million views on Facebook.”
Sounds good! But …
“Despite the sheriff’s announcement, the ‘raid’ resulted in only five adult arrests and one juvenile arrest, according to Elaine Brown, a lead records specialist at the sheriff’s office. According to police records reviewed by The Appeal, the drug seizures from this ‘narcotics house’ were fairly small scale and did not include opioids. In an email to The Appeal, Sgt. Keith Smith, an office spokesman, clarified that during the raid, narcotics deputies found what they believed to be 1.2 grams of heroin and fentanyl after an initial field test, but subsequent tests revealed the seizure was not a controlled substance.”
The Clay Sheriff’s Office did find weed though.
Solar boom for JEA
Finally, some utility news that doesn’t read like a rejected plot of “House of Cards.”
The Florida Times-Union reports that JEA “plans to team up with a private company for construction of five solar farms through 2020 that will collectively produce as much electricity as a small natural gas plant, turning JEA from a below-average utility in terms of solar power to a utility that is well above average for Florida, according to the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.”
“Smaller utilities like Beaches Energy, which is owned by Jacksonville Beach and also serves Neptune Beach and Ponte Vedra, likewise are getting into the game. This month, Beaches Energy joined forces with 11 other municipal utilities to announce plans for 900,000 solar panels at three solar farms in Orange and Osceola counties. They would produce 223 megawatts by 2020,” adds the T-U report.
YMCA breaks ground on Jacksonville expansion
Northwest Jacksonville’s James Weldon Johnson YMCA has broken ground on a new expansion, reports WJCT. Among the renovations include an updated wellness facility, a new swimming pool, and doubling the teen program capacity with a new teen center.
Now serving around 30 to 40 teens daily, the completed center will increase that number to 100.
First Coast YMCA Social Responsibility VP and Johnson YMCA Executive Director Irvin Cohen tells WJCT: “We really, in this community, didn’t have a place where young people who were not athletically inclined could go. You either went to after-school programs after the school — which were primarily sports-related — [or] until nothing.”
Nearly all the $3.5 million for the project’s construction costs were through private donations. About 10 percent came from state funding; Cohen said it will cover programming costs.
“We all know in communities like this the consequences of idle hands can be deadly to say the very least,” Cohen added.
Local tie to NHL title hunt
Jacksonville is not known as Hockey Town, but the chair of a local company is just a few wins away from an NHL title via his ownership of a franchise.
Bill Foley, chairman of Fidelity National Financial, owns the Las Vegas Golden Knights.
The Jacksonville Daily Record profiled him this week.
Foley expected a playoff team in three years, a title team in six — not a title run in the first season, he said.
Foley, 73 now, is dialing back his Duval business ties.
“He remains chairman of Fidelity’s board and is executive chairman of Black Knight Inc., the Jacksonville-based mortgage technology company spun off from Fidelity. But he said he will likely give up the executive chairman role at Black Knight, which carries more responsibility than chairman of the board of directors,” the Record reports.
Jacksonville Zoo extends popular dinosaur exhibit
“Dinosauria,” the popular dinosaur exhibit at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, will extend through Sept. 22. Beginning March 2, the program was originally slated to end July 2.
According to the Jacksonville Business Journal, Imagine Exhibitions provided the dinosaurs, the first time that the company created a zoo installation. Previously, they were supplied by Billings Productions.
“The dinosaurs were just going into storage until their next exhibit,” zoo director Tony Vecchio told the Journal. “So, I asked if they could stay here. We’ve never had dinosaurs in the summer, and if we paid full price for them it wouldn’t be viable, but the fact they were just going into storage, the company was happy to do it at a discount.”
Initially, the exhibit was expected to help boost attendance during the zoo’s slow months – July and August – as a relatively inexpensive program. The 21 life-size animatronic dinosaurs in “Dinosauria,” Vecchio said, are larger and electrically powered, with smoother hydraulic motions than previous versions.
After its success, zoo officials decided to extend the project. The exhibit will now run through September and costs an additional $4 for the public and $3 for Zoo members.
Also returning is another popular program, called “92 at the Zoo,” offering half-price admission on select days when weather forecast but the temperature above 92 degrees.
Critics aside, coach likes where Bortles is headed
Despite a huge season that had the Jaguars only 5 minutes away from the Super Bowl, there are still those that want to complain. The biggest target of those complaints usually shows up on the back of quarterback Blake Bortles.
He certainly had his difficulties but improved overall from last season. During the playoff games against Pittsburgh and New England, he bordered on spectacular.
That only quieted some of the critics, but the fifth-year veteran from Central Florida is earning the praise of someone important. His offensive coordinator, Nathaniel Hackett, believes “the sky’s the limit” when describing the offensive production capabilities of his signal caller.
“The one thing that was consistent throughout the whole [2017 season] was Blake, and Blake getting better and better,” Hackett said Tuesday after offseason OTA (Organized Team Activities) Practice No. 4. “If he keeps progressing on that upward hill, good things are going to happen.”
Jacksonville is favored to win their second straight AFC South title for good reason. No one in the AFC gave up fewer points than the Jaguars and this year’s draft only made the defensive unit even stronger.
If Bortles and his supporting cast on offense can produce points like they did at the end of last season, there is every reason to believe they can take the next step. Hackett is seeing a quarterback that is beginning to understand how to be successful.
“I want Blake to play football,” Hackett said. “There have been so many times he’s gone out there and he hasn’t been able to just go out there and play, and really think about beating a defense. As the  season went on, I think that’s where he went.”