Corrine Brown Archives - Page 5 of 34 - Florida Politics

Schedule confusion characterizes Al Lawson in Jacksonville

U.S. Representative Al Lawson may have had good intentions when choosing to spend the first part of an off week in Jacksonville.

But intentions are one thing. And delivery is another.

Lawson’s itinerary, arrived at last week, was pretty straightforward.

Among other things: the first-term Democrat from Tallahassee was to go to Eureka Garden on Tuesday afternoon, accompanied by Mayor Lenny Curry and Jacksonville City Councilman Garrett Dennis.

However, the plan did not come together.

For one thing, Lawson called an audible and made his Eureka Garden visit on Monday — Presidents’ Day.

Mayor Curry was camping with his family.

Councilman Dennis likewise was busy with personal business.

The end result?

With no local political backup, Lawson arrived with representatives of the management company and police officers inside and outside the community center at the Westside Jacksonville apartment complex.

He spoke in generalities about the improvements on the property, discussing potential collaboration with Sen. Marco Rubio on HUD reform.

Even so, there was a tone deaf quality to his remarks. From “Whenever I get my pay check, I think of you” to  his assertion that Eureka apartments — which made national news for months because of their issues — are “better than [his] apartment in D.C.,” Lawson’s presentation confused media on hand — especially those who have been immersed in the Eureka Garden story.

On Monday, Lawson announced his plans to accompany Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry on a neighborhood walk — something Curry does regularly in neighborhoods left behind by Jacksonville’s progress.

However, those plans were for naught.

Lawson decided to cancel his participation on the walk Tuesday, hours before it was to kick off.

This visit to Jacksonville was pivotal for Lawson, replacing Corrine Brown — who was an effective legislator in terms of constituent service.

Brown was a Jacksonville Congresswoman, no matter how far her district stretched.

Locals, before this week, saw Lawson as a Tallahassee guy.

How do they feel now?

Rep. Lawson had an opportunity to prove to locals that he was as committed to the needs of Jacksonville, the biggest city in the district, as to the farmland out west and the state capital.

He needed those photo ops with the mayor and Councilman Dennis.

More importantly, however, he needed those insights from politicians who understand, better than most, the challenges of the local community.

Corrine Brown won’t plead guilty, rebuffed in request for trial delay

It was never supposed to be like this for Corrine Brown.

The now-former twelve-term United States Congresswoman was one of the leading politicos in Jacksonville, upbraiding media that crossed her, and picking winners and losers in primary and general elections alike.

The slogan: Corrine Delivers.

The end of that era: July 6, 2016, when Brown and her chief of staff were presented with wire fraud, mail fraud, and other associated charges in a 24-count indictment that changed Jacksonville politics forever.

From that point on, delivery was refused.

Now, one by one, the acolytes have fallen off, like leaves from a windswept autumn tree.

The branches are barren now. The checks have stopped coming from Washington D.C. and from other sources, such as One Door for Education and her two federal PACs.

And the cronies have made their own arrangements, like members of a disbanded pop group.

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Former aide de camp Von Alexander is no longer on the payroll, and can’t talk to Brown without counsel present.

Carla Wiley, who ran the non-performing One Door for Education charity which collected $800,000 over a few years, with all of that money going to Brown and her chief of staff rather than to helping poor kids with educational costs, awaits sentencing while cooperating with the Feds against Brown.

And that chief of staff?

He’s going to roll on Brown too.

Ronnie Simmons pleaded out on Wednesday, and — unless his cooperation is deemed valuable enough by prosecutors — is poised to spend 30 years in prison, and is on the hook for almost $1.8 million in restitution and fines. [Ronnie Simmons’ Plea Deal, in full.]

All of that prologue set the stage for a hearing in federal court Thursday, where Brown was slated to agree to the commencement of jury selection for her now-solo April trial.

Instead, she requested a continuance, with the rationale being that her defense was undermined by Simmons’ abrupt plea of guilty.

However, that request ultimately was denied, with the judge noting that, while Simmons’ plea may have surprised Brown, the plea came in five weeks before the Mar. 16 plea deadline.

That said, the defense has thirty days to formulate a “documented motion to continue,” including potential “impediments” to the April 28 start.

The motion must be filed by March 9.

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The former congresswoman was not alone Thursday, despite betrayal by her inner circle

Brown was accompanied by a dozen supporters, most notably Martin Luther King III, as she entered the courtroom ten minutes before 2:00 p.m.

Wearing a purple dress, she was cordial as she faced her first hearing as the sole defendant in the One Door for Education case.

Though the Feds have reached out for a plea deal, Brown isn’t interested in that course of action at this point.

As her attorney, James Smith pointed out, Brown currently has a “firm intent” to go to trial.

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U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan started proceedings by declaring previous motions in the case moot, with at least one related to Brown’s former co-defendant.

From there, the prosecution, via A. Tysen Duva, had its say.

Among the highlights of the government’s strategy: a forensic accountant will be called, and so will someone from the IRS, but neither as an expert witness.

Discovery, meanwhile, continues apace on Brown’s bank records, including the Friends of Corrine Brown bank account.

And the prosecution conducted a four hour interview with Simmons, which will lead to some discovery in itself.

And the government expects the trial to last nine days, approximately.

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Then the defense spoke, addressing issues of reciprocal discovery and intentions going forward.

Smith does not intend to call an expert witness in.

He is happy with the pace of discovery, but is not ready to go to trial, given the government has access to information the defense does not.

Brown’s defense has been predicated on Simmons and she not being guilty, having been exploited by Wiley.

That ineluctably has changed, Smith said, and further investigation may be necessary.

Hence, a request for a continuance of at least 60 days, given that discovery is still coming in.

Simmons “said that he was guilty, but doing it all at the direction of my client,” Smith said.

Smith then said he wanted to “fully investigate Simmons’ background for other crimes he may have committed,” a remarkable position given Brown and Simmons have been close for “20 + years.”

“In many ways,” Smith said, “he was a son to her.”

The plea was a surprise to Smith and Brown both, the defense attorney said.

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A. Tysen Duva rebutted Smith, saying that the previous status meeting precluded a continuance barring an unusual development.

A co-defendant copping a plea, Duva said, does not meet that threshold.

“The plea changes nothing,” Duva said.

The need to investigate Simmons’ background was characterized as a “red herring” by Duva.

And the defense strategy, said Duva, was “untenable.”

“The factual basis of the plea agreement was extensive,” Duva added.

Simmons told Duva that Brown knew what was going on related to One Door for Education and the schemes alleged in the indictment.

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Smith rebutted Duva.

“From the beginning, Corrine Brown’s defense has been that Ms. Wiley was responsible for this,” Smith said, “taking advantage of Brown and Simmons.”

“Knowing that a co-defendant has just pleaded guilty … how can the government say this does not affect our defense?”

In a case that comes down to the credibility of the alleged co-conspirators, Smith asserted that his defense was undermined to such a degree that a continuance was necessary.

“This isn’t a very simple case at all,” Smith added. “Now the individual is saying … I’m guilty and I was ordered to do this.”

When pressed for why 60 days was needed, Smith said that there was an issue with “trying to find witnesses to impeach the credibility of Simmons,” given various issues leading to a reluctance to testify.

“This did come as a shock and surprise to us,” Smith said. “After receiving no notice of this short of an email notification … one of the things we intended to do this week was meet with Mr. Simmons … this fundamentally changes the direction this goes in.”

Judge Corrigan urged that he be told about those witnesses who might need counsel, so the trial is not “interrupted by those issues.”

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Duva wasn’t finished.

If Brown can’t find witnesses in ten weeks, he said, another 60 days won’t help.

“Mr. Smith, there’s nothing to be gained in these additional 60 days,” Duva said.

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Smith noted that he would have multiple members of Congress, and other high-profile figures, as character witnesses for Brown.

How that relates to the charges was left unsaid.

Corrigan noted that there may be “honest disagreement” between the two parties as to how many character witnesses are actually necessary.

“Whether you can call 15 members of Congress or only ten members … I’d rather have those discussions pre-trial,” the judge said.

Finally, Smith asserted that Brown does not intend to plead guilty, despite the government’s entreaties.

“The firm intent is to go to trial,” Smith said.

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Judge Corrigan, after a recess, issued his ruling on the continuance request.

“I feel that would be kicking the can down the road,” Corrigan said. “Scheduling a three or four week trial is a difficult undertaking for everybody.”

“I’m not convinced an extra 60 days is going to benefit anybody,” Corrigan added.

As stated above, the defense has the option of filing a formal motion for continuance by Mar. 9.

“It’s going to take some persuading to convince me otherwise,” the judge said.

Barring any developments, the next status conference in this case will be Apr. 5 at 2:00 p.m.

And Corrine Brown will be in attendance.

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After the hearing, Brown took questions from reporters.

The most notable quote?

When asked how she felt about Simmons’ betrayal, she asked plaintively how one does “sign language for a broken heart.”

Ronnie Simmons pleads guilty to two counts in One Door for Education case

On Wednesday, Ronnie Simmons, a co-defendant in the One Door for Education trial with Rep. Corrine Brown, pleaded guilty to two federal felony counts.

The timing was notable, as Brown and Simmons were slated to appear at a joint status conference on Thursday for jury selection for the April trial.

The symbiosis between Brown and Simmons, her chief of staff during her entire career in the U.S. Congress, is decades old.

Simmons pleaded guilty to Counts 1 and 18 of the indictment, withdrawing previous not guilty pleas. Meanwhile, other charges are to be dismissed if the plea deal is ultimately accepted.

Simmons will not be eligible for parole, and his sentence could be more severe than he expects, said Judge James Klindt.

As it stands, Simmons could face 30 years in prison, $500,000 in fines, and $1.287 million in restitution.

An appeal is precluded barring a sentence that is unusually harsh or against the 8th Amendment.

And he is expected to cooperate with prosecutors against his former boss.

Simmons is at liberty pending sentencing, which could be more than three months out.

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The first count to which Simmons pleaded guilty: conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, with six different allegations rolled up into it.

The federal government alleges between late 2012 and early 2016, the defendants were involved in a “scheme and artifice to defraud,” a conspiracy driven by One Door head Carla Wiley who gave the checkbook and debit cards for One Door accounts to Simmons.

Simmons, Brown’s chief of staff, also controlled the finances for two Brown-associated PACs as part of this “unlawful plan.”

Money, say the feds, flowed from Brown’s campaign and those PACs, “Friends of Corrine Brown” and the “Florida Delivers Leadership PAC,” to One Door and Brown’s personal account.

Brown, Simmons, and Wiley exploited Brown’s membership in Congress to fraudulently solicit and receive hundreds of thousands of dollars of payments toward One Door starting in 2011 on the pretense they would be used for charity.

Money flowed in and out of the One Door for Education account, despite the charity not actually distributing money for its intended purpose, with Simmons the regular conduit for outflows of cash from the account, filled with donations from leading Florida and Washington, D.C. political figures.

Funds were used for “luxury vacations” in Los Angeles, for skyboxes at Beyoncé concerts, and for walking around money.

The penalty for that count: 20 years, $200,000, or twice the gross gain of loss, plus three years of supervised release.

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Theft of government funds constituted the second count to which Simmons pleaded guilty.

A “close family member” of Simmons, alleged the Feds, derived $735,000 of gross compensation from this scheme from 2001 to 2016, despite having done no real work for the money.

The “close family member” is a teacher in Jacksonville, a full-time role that presents schedule conflicts with political work such as “outreach specialist” and other fanciful titles.

Simmons himself was a co-signatory of the account, and used $80,000 of funds paid to his sister for personal use.

The penalty: 10 years, $250,000, or twice the gross gain or loss, with up to three years of supervised release.

All told, Simmons could serve 30 years in prison, with $500,000 of fines.

Additionally, Simmons could be forced to pay $1.287 million in restitution to those defrauded.

Simmons was dispassionate when acknowledging the verdict and his understanding of the charges he pleaded guilty.

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Brown and Simmons were indicted in 2016 on 24 charges combined, enumerated in a 46-page indictment related to the One Door for Education scheme.

The charity, which collected $800,000 from some of Jacksonville’s most prominent politicians and public figures, disbursed $1,200 of that sum.

Brown faces a possible 357 years in prison and $4.8 million fine if all counts are found valid.

If guilty of all counts, Simmons would have faced as many as 355 years and a $4.75 million judgment.

With Simmons reversing his original plea of innocence, the pressure is now on Brown to plead out or stand alone against the power of the federal government.

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After the hearing wrapped, Simmons’ lawyer, Anthony Suarez, addressed the media, describing his client’s decision to “end his battle.”

Among the revelations: Simmons would “testify truthfully” if called to do so by the prosecution.

The decision to plead out, Suarez said, was made just two days ago, to offer him and his family “peace after a long year of struggle and anxiety.”

Simmons is now divested of his social circle, and will have to get “new friends, a new life,” Suarez said.

Corrine Brown co-defendant sets ‘change of plea’ hearing for Wednesday

The twists and turns of the trial of Corrine Brown and her former chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons, continue even after she’s become a historical footnote in Washington, D.C.

The latest sudden development: a “change of plea” hearing that Simmons scheduled for Wednesday afternoon.

Simmons had previously attempted to sever his case from that of his former boss, but within days of filing a motion to that effect in December, rescinded that motion.

Speculation has run rampant in the media as to when one of the co-defendants would finally separate from the other.

It appears that Wednesday’s hearing in Jacksonville will tell the tale.

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The congresswoman from Florida’s 5th Congressional District, along with Chief of Staff Elias Simmons, face a combined 24 charges, enumerated in a 46-page indictment related to the One Door for Education scheme.

The charity, which collected $800,000 from some of Jacksonville’s most prominent politicians and public figures, disbursed less than $2,000 of that sum.

The balance of the money, prosecutors assert, was purloined for personal purposes, ranging from walking around money to skyboxes at Beyonce concerts.

Brown faces a possible 357 years in prison and $4.8 million fine if all counts are found valid.

For Simmons, it would be as many as 355 years and $4.75 million, if guilty of all counts.

The estimated restitution for Brown would be $833,000 — plus $63,000 in tax — roughly $897,000. For Simmons, the number would be over $1.2 million.

Will Wednesday’s hearing change the calculations for both?

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Brown’s inner circle, predictably, has become increasingly separated from her.

At the indictment in 2016, the court pronounced that neither of the co-defendants could talk, outside of the presence of counsel, to Carla Wiley or Von Alexander.

Wiley ran the One Door for Education charity.

Alexander worked for Brown, while also working for the Jacksonville Transportation Authority, creating a conflict of interest.

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Simmons’ plea could set into motion events that would lead to Brown’s plea.

Both co-defendants may be encouraged by the relatively light sentence rendered to Reggie Fullwood, a former state legislator who pleaded out last year on a count of wire fraud and a count of failure to file a federal tax return.

Fullwood’s sentence, rendered today: three years of house arrest, and just over $100,000 in restitution.

 

John Rutherford opposed controversial House ethics changes

For those watching to see how Rep. John Rutherford will function in Congress, the Jacksonville freshman congressman may have passed his first test.

Rutherford opposed Monday’s move by House Republicans to eviscerate the independent Office of Congressional Ethics.

That move has already been reversed, vindicating Rutherford’s position.

Rutherford committed to working across the aisle during a primary campaign full of pitched partisan rhetoric, and maintained that position through the November election.

And that commitment to bipartisan solutions animated his opposition to the offensive against OCE, as Rutherford believed that any reform should be a bipartisan effort of the House Ethics Committee.

Rutherford wasn’t the only Florida Republican opposed to the move; as Mitch Perry reported, Rep. Dennis Ross likewise opposed the move … one that was questioned by President-elect Donald Trump on Twitter Tuesday morning.

Florida Democrats urged Republicans to stand and be counted regarding their position on this matter.

“Floridians deserve to know which of their Republican members of Congress voted to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics last night,” said spokesman Max Steele. “If they would like to offer any justification whatsoever for why they feel there should be no ethics oversight for members of Congress, we’re all ears. After turning a blind eye to Trump’s historic corruption and conflicts of interest, it’s no wonder Republicans want a piece of the action.”

While some Florida Republicans did vote to “gut” the office, Rutherford was not one of them.

As Matt Dixon noted on Twitter, OCE oversight factored into Florida politics very recently, with high-profile inquiries from the office into the affairs of Democrats Alan Grayson and Corrine Brown.

For now, at least, the OCE appears safe from “reform.”

A.G. Gancarski’s 10 predictions for Jacksonville politics in 2017

Now that 2017 is all but upon us — after a tumultuous 2016 electorally — what’s next for Northeast Florida politics?

One assurance: unlike in 2016, with a massive electoral turnover in the region’s Washington and Tallahassee delegations, as well as in both the state attorney and public defender offices, 2017 won’t see that.

With that in mind, our crystal ball turns — mostly — to policy.

Though, as you will see, we won’t be able to resist a few purely political prognostications.

In the words of Jay-Z (or was it Lenny Curry?) “you can’t change a player’s game in the ninth inning.”

Prediction 1: Duval Delegation will struggle to bring home the bacon.

The smart people (or at least the old ones) will rehearse their now ritualized laments for another year. They will whisper and mutter about how things used to be, back when titans like Jim King ruled the corridors of power in the state capital.

And they will be right.

The Duval County Legislative Delegation is in for two years, relatively speaking, in the cold. House Districts 11, 12, 13, 14, and 16 all have rookie legislators.

You can see the track toward power — or not — in committee assignments.

The only leadership position will be held by the one returning member from Jacksonville — House District 15 Republican Jay Fant — vice chair of the Civil Justice & Claims Subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee.

That lack of stroke, coupled with a darkening fiscal forecast for the Sunshine State and the parsimony of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, is going to lead to fewer appropriations projects coming back to Duval County.

While Jacksonville is lobbying up in Tallahassee again in 2017, replicating the 2016 strategy involving the Fiorentino Group, Southern Strategy Group, and Ballard Partners, expectations will have to be tempered given that every major push will have to be made to legislators from outside the area.

Duval’s priorities will be weighed against those of delegations with superior manpower and seniority in the House.

In the Senate, of course, Audrey Gibson and Aaron Bean are seasoned pros. But the House is going to be where Duval’s dreams live or die.

Prediction 2: No money for the Hart Expressway offramp removal this year.

Curry wants $50 million in state money for Hart Expressway ramp modifications, noting at November’s Duval Delegation meeting that the current setup has outmoded designs and creates public safety issues.

“The ramps were originally designed to bypass the industrialized waterfront,” Curry said, a purpose outmoded in the half-century since the original construction.

Indeed, the city strategy is predicated now on utilizing the potential of Bay Street. The goal is to have meaningful tourist attractions at the Shipyards and Metropolitan Park, to augment the latest $90 million capital influx into the Sports Complex.

However, Prediction 1 comes into play: who from outside the area, in a year of dwindling state resources, is going to push for a $50 million road project in Jacksonville’s downtown?

Mayor Curry played any number of hold cards during the last session to get the pension reform bill through Tallahassee and onto the referendum ballot. Does he have enough juice to get this ball into the end zone with a line full of untested rookies blocking for him?

Prediction 3: Collective bargaining will not wrap in time for Jacksonville’s FY 18 budget

Who will blink first in the current negotiating table showdown between city negotiators and the heads of various unions? And when will they cave?

City hopes have been that they could close a deal with one of the bargaining units by the middle of the year, and that unit would be willing to accept defined contribution plans for new hires.

Out of the units — general employees, police, and fire — the expectation is that general employees would be willing to “take a haircut.”

Police and fire risk their lives daily in the field. Meanwhile, there are some general employees whose greatest daily risks is queueing up at food trucks at Hemming Park during lunch.

However, with general employees, there are a lot of moving parts. And even with a bargaining unit as relatively friendly as the Jacksonville Supervisors Association, the city and union are far apart on pay raises.

Throughout the city, many employees took a 2 percent pay cut in 2010, and have yet to see restoration. It means there are a lot of people — and unions — looking to be “made whole.”

Thus, a trend. The city offers pay raises that get them part of the way there; the unions counter by saying the raises aren’t enough.

Meanwhile, a wrinkle affecting public safety: the 2015 pension reform accord signed into law by outgoing Mayor Alvin Brown, which was supposed to hold for seven years.

The idea behind that accord: relative stability, coupled with an increase in city contributions beyond current levels totaling $350 million in 13 years.

The public safety unions interpret that as not having to agree to anything until next decade.

They could, theoretically, cave. But the world is watching. And by the world, we mean the national organizations of the Fraternal Order of Police and the International Association of Fire Fighters.

Prediction 4: Human Rights Ordinance expansion faces another uphill slog.

The “smart set” wants HRO expansion to the LGBT community — and the “T” is non-negotiable.

The arguments for the HRO expansion are familiar by now: other cities accomplished this years ago, and their moral firmaments remain intact. The cities that have gotten protections for people regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression align more closely with the values of corporations looking to relocate to Jacksonville. And it’s the right thing to do.

Also familiar by now: a Jacksonville City Council, which has many members who might have said in 2015 on the campaign trail that they support HRO expansion. But in 2016 and 2017, the concerns are more prosaic, about the “language of the bill” and “unintended consequences” of legislation that could, theoretically, impact churches and small businesses.

Despite the fact that enforcement of the ordinance expansion would be in a gray area, there are real concerns about the nightmare scenarios that happened to Christian conservatives elsewhere in the country when they flouted laws and refused to provide service to LGBT people.

Early indications are that advocates have taken a “divide and conquer” approach with the council, each of them lobbying a handful of members. There may be attendant risks to that strategy. It didn’t seem to drive the votes in 2016.

Word is by early January, HRO proponents are going to know if they have the votes needed to push the bill through. If you don’t see a filing soon after that, you will know there aren’t quite 10.

Is there a Plan B?

The way to lobby this council is to pick one lobbyist — my pick would be Paul Harden, who is the best lobbyist in the city — to make a unified, cohesive pitch. Such a pitch would ensure the council is on the same page, and understand both the affirmative talking points and how to undermine concerns of the Christian right.

This is a good ol’ boy town. To sell radical change, it has to be through the good ol’ boy system.

Prediction 5: The murder rate won’t abate, and that will become a problem for the mayor’s office.

As I write this (late December), the city of Jacksonville is well over 110 homicides. As of December 21, the numbers was 116.

That’s consistent with the range between 2012 and 2015, which was between 109 and 117. Given the realities of Christmas and New Year’s celebrations, it’s likely that Jacksonville could end up with over 120 homicides.

If so, that would be the first time since 2008.

Mayor Curry has been able to message on the need to improve public safety for a year and a half as mayor and for longer than that on the campaign trail.

However, if the blood tide surges in 2017, blaming it on decisions made in 2012-14 by the “previous administration” will be a strategy with diminishing returns.

The corrective strategies that can be used are already being used. Increased enforcement in the hot zones, coupled with new technology (new for Jacksonville, that is) like Shot Spotter, which allows LEOs to identify where a shot may come from.

However, the question is whether law enforcement can solve problems created by a lack of economic opportunity, educational gaps, family structures decimated from said lack of economic opportunity, to the school-to-prison pipeline.

While there may be nuanced and plausible solutions advanced behind closed doors, the question may be more elemental: can government solve this issue through prevention, intervention, and enforcement? Or is there something larger happening — a societal dislocation?

The mayor would be well advised to message aggressively on the issue of public safety in the early spring, getting ahead of the inevitabilities of the summer to come.

Prediction 6: Alvin Brown continues to resurface

Former Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown stopped by the mayor’s office to talk to Lenny Curry in December, offering a long-delayed coda to an acrimonious mayoral campaign.

Expect to see more of Brown in 2017.

He didn’t lose to Curry by much; there was not some populist wave sweeping him out of office, as was the case with State Attorney Angela Corey and Public Defender Matt Shirk.

And much of the reason for Brown’s loss had to do with inept re-election campaign messaging, and an inability to corral a balky city council on pension reform until the end.

Brown is not damaged goods, in other words.

Is he a viable quantity going forward? There may be a platform in which we find out. Sooner than later.

Prediction 7: Democratic demolition derby begins, ahead of local challenge to Al Lawson

Message to Duval Democrats: he’s not that into you.

By “he,” we mean Rep. Al Lawson, the Tallahassee mainstay who came to visit and left with one of Jacksonville’s two congressional seats.

By “into you,” we mean that Lawson will put Tallahassee first. That’s where his base is.

And that means opportunity for a local Democrat.

Who might that Democrat be?

Alvin Brown’s not doing anything major right now; he’s a former mayor who has a natural rapport with Curry and Jacksonville power brokers. That could matter.

With former Rep. Mia Jones termed out of the State House, her credibility and gravitas could take her a long way. Undetermined: does Jones have the brashness needed to make a primary challenge against an establishment-friendly Democrat? And could she stack votes in Duval to make up for an uphill slog the farther west the district goes?

Sen. Audrey Gibson is chair of the Duval Democrats. However, she has already filed for another run for State Senate. And, as Lake Ray can attest, it’s not a great idea to launch a run for Congress from a party chair position.

Former State Sen. Tony Hill: a name to consider also, at least according to some members of the chattering classes. Could Hill convince local power brokers to back his play?

Out of these four, we still believe Brown has the clearest path with the fewest impediments.

Prediction 8: There will be a homeless day resource center in Downtown Jacksonville

The scene outside of Jacksonville’s city hall is like something out of a Hieronymus Bosch hellscape.

The homeless population fills Hemming Park, and on cold days spills into businesses like Chamblin’s Bookmine and the public library, inhibiting patterns of usage that might otherwise lead to downtown becoming the destination that city leaders have wanted, ever since department stores cleared out during the Hans Tanzler and Jake Godbold eras.

The reality is that Jacksonville would like to gentrify its downtown. The parallel reality is that much of the homeless problem can be attributed to the lack of a homeless day resource center, which would allow that population to shower, shave, and assume various accouterments of normalcy.

One of these existed when Alvin Brown was mayor, but the Curry administration cut it in its first budget, and didn’t restore it in its second.

The days of Lenny Curry taking lunchtime runs through Hemming Park seem to have ended, but what he would see if he were out there would be flocks of dispossessed people, who (whether they are ultimately responsible for their own fates or not) run counter to the brand Jacksonville desires.

Policy Director Robin Lumb has suggested a “well-managed day center for the homeless.”

If the mayor were to roll out a proposal for something along these lines, one could expect the timing to be deliberate: perhaps the March ICARE meeting of local socially-conscious church types would be that time.

That would put the proposal — which likely would be in the $1M per year range — out front ahead of the budget season, allowing the mayor to advance other priorities based on a relatively inexpensive gesture that would, in the final analysis, advance public safety.

Prediction 9: The city will reassume control of Hemming Park, but it won’t matter much

Speaking of Hemming Park, another big story to watch is whether Mayor Curry follows through with his stated intention to have the city take back control of “the front door to city hall.”

Policy Director Lumb noted in an internal memo that “the city does not have a compelling interest in creating conditions in the park conducive to attracting any group of persons looking for a place to ‘hang out’ for extended periods of time … people who otherwise have no reason to be downtown other than to receive services from homeless agencies, food kitchens, and shelters.”

His recommendation: the Parks Department should take control of the park back, stepping up enforcement, and RFPing an event promoter for nights, weekends, and park vendors.

Despite the well-documented issues with Friends of Hemming Park, they had — until recently — offered consistency in presence.

Will the city enforce conditions in Hemming Park in a more aggressive way than it does in Main Street Park? The latter, just two blocks away, has a robust homeless population and no enforcement presence, so to speak.

The Hemming Problem: a symptom of a larger social malaise.

Attempts to remedy Hemming appear to be an ornamental solution to create an oasis downtown for business people. And of course, these attempts have been tried, and have mostly failed, for decades now.

In a way, FOHP was a useful foil for city government.

As long as Friends were engaged, there was the idea that things could improve if the city took control.

If the city takes control, and conditions aren’t better next summer than last summer, what happens then?

Prediction 10: Political scofflaws skate on charges

Yes, Reggie Fullwood pleaded guilty to two felony charges in his campaign finance fraud case.

And, yes, Corrine Brown’s trial will be complicated by the drip-drip-drop of serial betrayals from her coterie of cronies and hangers on.

And there may be a city councilwoman whose familial barbecue sauce plant was raided by the Feds in December.

But not much will come of any of it.

Will Fullwood serve real prison time?

Will Corrine beat the rap?

Will there be any real consequences for whatever is going on with Jerome Brown BBQ?

The pitchfork mob might want it.

But the case could be and will be made that Fullwood has paid his price already.

That Corrine Brown wasn’t aware of what was happening in the name of One Door for Education.

And that Katrina Brown is a limited partner in her family business and had little to do with its inability to meet the job creation goals mandated by her company’s $640,000 grants and loans agreement with the city.

While the punitive model of justice exhilarates some, there is a corollary argument.

What’s accomplished by locking up Fullwood until he’s an old man?

By locking up Corrine Brown for the rest of her life?

These questions seem remote now, but when Fullwood is sentenced in February, and when Corrine Brown’s trial starts later this year, they will seem less so.

 

Infamous dates: The moments that shaped Florida politics in 2016

Everyone expected Florida to play an important role in politics this year.

And why wouldn’t they? Presidential hopefuls hailed from here; the state’s electoral votes were coveted; and its Senate race could have determined control of the U.S. Senate.

But just like many predictions in 2016, some of the prophecies for Florida’s outsized role on the national stage fell flat. Many believed a Sunshine state politico would be a presidential nominee (not quite right) or that the election would hinge on its 29 electoral votes (close but no cigar). And that much anticipated battle for the U.S. Senate? It fizzled out before the first vote was even cast.

Here are the dates that really mattered in Florida politics this year. And some of them might just surprise you.

Jan. 20Florida Senate says it won’t appeal redistricting decision — A years-long battle over the state’s political lines came to an end in January, when Senate leadership announced it planned to let the court-ordered maps go into effect. The Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald reported the four-year legal battle cost Florida taxpayers more than $11 million. The new maps threw a wrench in the 2016 election cycle, with all 40 of Florida’s state Senate seats on the ballots. While many believed the new maps could boost Democrats chances in 2016, that didn’t quite pan out.

Feb. 20 — Jeb Bush ends 2016 presidential bid —  All signs pointed to Jeb Bush being the front-runner for the GOP nomination. The son and brother of two presidents, the former Florida governor racked up a massive war chest and plenty of big-name endorsements. But Bush couldn’t make headway in a crowded field of Republican hopefuls and was often on the receiving end of then-candidate Donald Trump’s attacks. After a sixth place finish in Iowa and a fourth place finish in New Hampshire, Bush hung his hopes on South Carolina. He spent days on end campaigning in the Palmetto state, but it was just too late. He came in third, and ended his campaign that night.

March 15Donald Trump triumphs in Florida primary — Was it the turning point for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign? Maybe. The New York Republican was already on a winning streak by the time the March 15 primary rolled around, but the Sunshine State contest was the biggest one to date. And Trump was up Sen. Marco Rubio, who was believed to be a hometown favorite. Turns out, Florida voters weren’t keen on sending Rubio to the White House. Trump trounced Rubio, winning every county except for Miami-Dade County. Rubio ended his presidential campaign that night, saying America was in “the middle of a real political storm, a real tsunami. And we should have seen this coming.”

April 21Gwen Graham hints at 2018 plans — When the dust settled on new congressional districts, one thing was clear: Florida’s 2nd Congressional District was solidly Republican. What wasn’t entirely clear was whether Rep. Gwen Graham would run for re-election or follow in her father’s footsteps and run for governor in 2018. She put the rumors to rest in April, announcing she was dropping her re-election bid and was “seriously considering running for governor in 2018.” In the months since, Graham has continued to fuel speculation about her plans for 2018, most recently telling reporters every part of her “wants to run for governor,” but that her husband’s battle with cancer will play a significant role in her decision.

April 28Workers’ compensation decision rocks business community — A Florida Supreme Court decision striking down the state law limiting attorney’s fees in workers’ compensation cases might have been a victory for injured workers, but it also set the wheels in motion for what would become significant workers’ compensation rate hikes. The 5-2 ruling in Castellanos v. Next Door Company was just one of the decisions striking down workers’ compensation laws this year. Those rulings prompted the National Council on Compensation to ask state regulators to approve a nearly 20 percent rate hike. That rate, which was eventually lowed to 14.5 percent, went into effect Dec. 1. The state’s business community has said the rate hikes could have a dramatic impact on business, and are pushing lawmakers to tackle workers’ compensation reform in 2017.

June 1249 killed in an attack on Pulse nightclub — In the wee hours of the morning on June 12, a gunman entered the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, killing 49 people and injuring more than 50. It was the deadliest mass shooting in recent history, and sent shockwaves through the state and country. Gov. Rick Scott spent several weeks in Orlando, visiting with the victims and their families, attending funeral services, and meeting with members of the community. In the weeks and months that followed, the community came together to support the victims and their families. Spearheaded by Mayor Buddy Dyer, the city set up the OneOrlando Fund to assist victims of the attack. As of Dec. 2, the fund distributed $27.4 million for 299 claims, or 98 percent of all eligible claims filed.

June 17David Jolly drops out of U.S. Senate race, announces re-election bid — When Rep. David Jolly announced he was forgoing a re-election bid to run for the U.S. Senate, all signs indicated former Gov. Charlie Crist would sail to an easy victory. But after more and more politicos pushed encouraged Sen. Rubio to run for re-election, Jolly ended his U.S. Senate bid and announced a re-election bid, challenging Crist in an effort to keep his seat in a newly drawn district that favored Democrats. He had the support of many local Republicans, but Jolly’s push to end the practice of lawmakers dialing for dollars soured many congressional Republicans. When Election Day rolled around, Crist defeated Jolly, 52 percent to 48 percent.

June 22 — Marco Rubio reverses course, decides to run for re-election — After a devastating loss in his home state’s presidential primary, Sen. Rubio swore he wouldn’t run for re-election. The Miami Republican said multiple times that was going to serve out the remainder of his term and then go back to being a private citizen. And, as he mentioned on more than one occasion, a close friend — Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera – was already running for his seat. But in the days after the Pulse shooting, Lopez-Cantera encouraged his friend to run for re-election. Rubio ultimately announced his re-election bid just days before the qualifying deadline, effectively clearing the Republican field. He walloped Carlos Beruff in the Republican primary, and led in nearly every poll between him and Democrat Patrick Murphy. Rubio sailed to victory, winning a second term with 52 percent of the vote.

June 29 — Gov. Rick Scott declares state of emergency after algae clogs waterways — The Army Corps of Engineers began releasing Lake Okeechobee discharges down the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers after record rainfalls earlier in the year. While those discharges sparked outrage in both communities, the appearance of algae blooms on the state’s east coast prompted action from the governor. Scott declared a state of emergency in Martin, St. Lucie, Lee and Palm Beach counties in June, and called on the federal government to quickly approve permits for dispersed water management projects. The declaration helped push the issue of water quality to the forefront of many campaigns.

July 8Corrine Brown indicted — It was a no good, very bad year for former Rep. Corrine Brown. Florida’s 5th Congressional District, which she represented since 1993, was redrawn as part of the state’s ongoing redistricting case. She and several other political operatives were served with subpoenas at a BBQ joint in Jacksonville. And in July, Brown and her chief of staff were indicted on federal corruption and fraud charges. The charges stem from her involvement in an allegedly fraudulent charity scheme. Brown was defiant, saying “just because someone accuses you, doesn’t mean they have the facts.” To add insult to injury, Brown was lost her primary in the newly drawn district.

July 29 — Zika comes to Florida — The first reported cases Zika virus in the Sunshine State began popping up in February, when state health officials confirmed there were nine travel-related cases of the mosquito-borne virus. Gov. Scott declared a public health emergency in four Florida counties, a number which would grow as the months wore on. As concerns about the illness spread, officials called on the federal government to assist Florida in combatting the disease and minimize the chances of homegrown cases. But in July, health officials announced the first cases of locally acquired Zika had been reported. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention quickly issued a travel warning for the Wynwood neighborhood, where the first cases were found. The state eventually identified several Miami-Dade communities, including a portion of Miami Beach, where local people had contracted the illness. The state cleared the final Miami-Dade Zika zone in early December. According to the Department of Health, there were more than 250 cases of locally acquired infections reported this year.

Aug. 30The Grayson era comes to an end — Rep. Alan Grayson was known throughout Florida — and beyond — as a bombastic, no holds bar congressman. And he lived up to that reputation when he ran for U.S. Senate. Grayson made headlines after his ex-wife claimed domestic abuse over two decades, a claim he refuted (but not before getting physical with a reporter). Grayson gave up seat in Florida’s 9th Congressional District to run for office, but convinced his second wife to run. That pitted Dena Grayson against Susannah Randolph, a former aide to the congressman, both of whom tried to carry the banner for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. And there was no party at the Grayson house when primary night rolled around. Rep. Murphy crushed Rep. Grayson in the U.S. Senate primary; while former state Sen. Darren Soto defeated both Dena Grayson and Randolph (Dena Grayson came in third). The hits kept coming for the Grayson political dynasty. In November, Star Grayson, the former congressman’s daughter, finished a distant third in a three-person race for the Orange County Soil & Water Conservation District Board of Supervisors.

Sept. 2Hurricane Hermine ends Florida’s hurricane-free streak — The Category 1 hurricane was the first storm to make landfall in Florida since Hurricane Wilma in 2005. And boy, did it leave an impression. The storm smacked the Panhandle, knocking out power to thousands upon thousands of customers. While power was restored in some communities relatively quickly, Tallahassee struggled to get up and running. That led to a tussle between Democratic Mayor Andrew Gillum and Gov. Scott. In a testy press release, the governor said the city was declining help from other utility companies and expressed frustration over how long it was taking to get the power back on. Gillum shot back, saying Scott was just trying to undermine a cooperative process. But politicos across the state noted the way Gillum, a rising star in the Democratic Party, handled the situation might come back to haunt him in future political runs.

Sept. 26 Water contamination concerns prompt rule changes — Days of rain leading up to, and following, Hurricane Hermine overwhelmed St. Petersburg’s sewer system. City officials opted to release millions of gallons of partially treated sewage into Tampa Bay, marking the first time in about a year the city did that. Combine that with news that a Mosaic Fertilizer sinkhole released 215 million gallons of toxic, radioactive water into the water supplies, and it’s no wonder concerns about Florida’s water supply ran rampant this fall. After many people raised questions about when the spills were reported, Gov. Scott ordered the Department of Environmental Protection to establish new reporting requirements. Those requirements are meant to guarantee local governments and the DEP are notified within 24 hours of a pollution incident. The state in October reached a deal with Mosaic over the sinkhole, which held the company accountable for fixing the sinkhole and rehabilitating the impacts of the spill.

Oct. 7 — Deadly storm threatens Florida’s east coast — One month after Hurricane Hermine made landfall near Tallahassee, Floridians were faced with another hurricane barreling toward their shores. What started as destructive tropical cyclone morphed into Hurricane Matthew, the first Category 5 Atlantic hurricane since Hurricane Felix in 2007. Gov. Scott and other officials throughout the state encouraged Floridians to evacuate and warned of days without power. The storm sideswiped the entirety of the East Coast, causing damage up and down the coast. The storm tore apart A1A in Flagler Beach, forcing it closed and requiring significant restoration.

Nov. 8Medical pot becomes legal — The second time was the charm for a medical marijuana ballot initiative. The constitutional amendment which allows people with debilitating medical conditions to use medical marijuana, easily passed with 71 percent of the vote. Supporters of the amendment, led by Orlando attorney John Morgan, were able to fend off opposition attacks. Florida was one of six states that legalized marijuana for either medicinal or recreational purposes on Election Day, marking one of the biggest electoral victories for marijuana reforms in years.

Nov. 10Richard Corcoran era brings new rules to Florida House — Calling for a new culture of transparency in the Florida House, House Speaker Richard Corcoran announced new rules aimed at getting tough with with the capital’s lobby corps. The rules prohibit representatives from flying on planes owned, leased or paid for by lobbyists; require lobbyists to filed individual disclosures for each bill, amendment and appropriation they’re working on; and increased the lobbying ban on former members from two to six years. Corcoran also created the Committee on Integrity and Ethics, an oversight committee.

Dec. 22Will Weatherford rules out 2018 gubernatorial bid — Considered a likely 2018 gubernatorial contender since he left office in 2014, former House Speaker Will Weatherford ended the year (and helped officially kick off the 2018 election cycle) by saying he would not run for governor in two years. “I have decided that my role in the 2018 gubernatorial election should be as a private citizen and not as a candidate,” he said in a statement. “My focus right now is on raising my family, living out my faith, and growing my family’s business.” Weatherford was the first candidate to formally say whether they were running. But even without Weatherford in the race, Floridians can expect a crowded field. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam is expected to run, and Speaker Corcoran has been mentioned as a possible candidate. On the Democratic side, Rep. Graham has already expressed her interest, as has trial attorney Morgan. And Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer are all believed to be pondering a run.

10 people to watch in 2017 in Jacksonville politics

Jacksonville politics is like a Southern family reunion: there are characters of all types.

The 2017 list points out ten of those members of the #Jaxpol family who are uniquely positioned to be in the headlines for one reason or another.

We are hoping that 2016 was an outlier year for scandals, and are not projecting scandal potential onto this list.

These names are in no particular order or ranking.

***

Lisa King: Does the Duval County committeewoman have what it takes to become chair of the Florida Dems?

King has run against the odds before, running a strong Democratic campaign for Jacksonville’s City Council in a deep red area in 2015.

King got Chamber Republican support, and though she lost the race, she outperformed Democrats elsewhere on the ticket.

Similarly, King was willing to battle Mayor Lenny Curry during what Democrats called a “purge” of city boards and commissions.

Worth watching: what commitments of support roll in for King? What kind of press coverage does she get throughout the state? And will the grassroots coalition she seeks to build coalesce around her as ABC: Anybody but Bittel or Clendenin.

***

Anna Brosche: January is almost upon us, and with that the thrill ride of Jacksonville City Council leadership elections will be set into motion.

Is this Anna Brosche’s year to run for VP?

Council President Lori Boyer has made no secret of wanting first-termers to get meaningful leadership experience. Boyer put Brosche atop the Finance Committee, the choicest committee assignment there is. And Brosche has flourished.

If there were a bookie taking bets on which member of the Class of 2015 would be first to make her way to council leadership, the smart money would be on Brosche.

Spoiler alert: she’s not averse to the idea.

“I’m definitely considering it,” Brosche said. “I’ve made my way into these spots.”

However, any bid for leadership will happen at a moment of her choosing: “the right time for me, the right time for the council as a whole.”

Is this the right time?

Boyer has been a stabilizing influence atop the council, a small-c conservative pragmatist in the Tillie Fowler mold. Brosche is also cut from that mold.

She doesn’t pontificate. She doesn’t speak to hear herself speak. She generally is more likely to get in the last word than the first.

Anna Brosche has grown in her time in the public eye, from seeming underdog candidate to MVP of the class of 2015.

Watch what she does early in 2017.

***

John Crescimbeni – the Council VP told us that he wasn’t sure if he’d get to be President. Nonetheless, in preparation for that possibility, the veteran legislator finally hired a council assistant.

He clearly wants to be president. And he clearly has the institutional knowledge to be effective.

So will this be his year to run for the top job?

His run for VP was rough. He beat Doyle Carter by one vote – that of Reggie Gaffney, who had actually pledged to go with Carter, but mysteriously swerved him during the vote itself.

Crescimbeni may face a challenge for the presidency if he runs. But his half year in the VP slot has shown that when in a leadership role, he is able to be a team player.

One would expect that he would be able to count on a solid bloc of Democratic support in a newly revitalized party. With those seven votes, he would only need three Republicans to push him toward the presidency.

Worth watching: if Crescimbeni and Brosche present themselves, however informally and within the guidelines of the Sunshine Law, as a ticket of sorts.

***

Audrey Gibson – The Senator is one of the best politicians in the area and takes over the chair of the Duval Democrats, at a time when the local GOP is experiencing a schism.

What will she and her party be able to do to exploit it?

The Duval Democrats, of course, have a history of schism themselves. And from what we understand, a meeting as soon as January may include a motion to cap at $1,000 the expenditures a chair can commit to without the approval of the Central Committee.

Donald Rumsfeld used to say “freedom is untidy.” But here’s the reality: if the Democrats want to position themselves well for 2018 and 2019, they need to let the chair do her thing.

She’s won elections. Her critics wouldn’t even know how to start.

***

Ronnie Simmons – When will Corrine Brown’s almost-former chief of staff turn on his mentor?

As the One Door for Education trial approaches later this year, the machinations that have already happened provide a window into the future.

Simmons’ lawyer filed, then rescinded, a motion for separate trials from the congresswoman.

Brown’s counsel, meanwhile, has strongly hinted that a key to the almost-former congresswoman’s defense is going to be contending that she wasn’t exactly aware of what was being done in her name, vis a vis the $800K of contributions for the One Door foundation.

“Congresswoman Brown and her chief of staff are alleged to have used the congresswoman’s official position to solicit over $800,000 in donations to a supposed charitable organization, only to use that organization as a personal slush fund,” Assistant U.S. Attorney General Leslie Caldwell, chief of the Justice Department’s criminal division, said in a statement when the indictment was delivered.

Tens of thousands of dollars went into Brown’s personal account, with Simmons as the conduit, from One Door. Luxe hotel accommodations, skyboxes at Beyonce concerts and Redskins games, and other accoutrements of the high life were also funded, as part of over $200,000 allegedly diverted from the One Door account to the Congresswoman’s walking around fund.

Brown is in her golden years. Simmons, meanwhile, has decades to live if actuarial projections mean anything. Expect him to roll over on his former boss between now and the trial.

***

Mia Jones – Miss her yet? Jones was termed out in House District 14 this year, but it’s only a matter of time before she resurfaces.

Could she run for the city council in 2019? Or could she have something bigger – such as a run against Al Lawson in 2018 – in mind?

***

Alvin Brown – The former Jacksonville mayor’s meeting with Lenny Curry was one of those #jaxpol events that everyone said they knew was going to happen … after it happened.

Brown requested a meeting with Curry. As someone who was in the mayor’s office when that meeting was taking place, it was clear from Brown’s booming laugh and the bonhomie between Brown and his successor that the former Jacksonville mayor was angling for something.

That something, we hear from good sources, could be a run against Lawson in 2018.

Whether Brown takes on Tallahassee Al or not, the reality is that he’s got to find a way back into the public eye.

Brown’s painting – a tradition among former mayors – will be unveiled this spring in the mayor’s office, at long last.

An interesting sign of the times: Brown is scrambling to get the money needed to pay for it, and the Generous Donors that emerge will be of interest.

While it’s entirely possible that Brown could set his sights on a lesser office, such as an at-large bid for the city council, the reality is that Congress has been in his sights for a long time.

Brown’s first failed campaign: a run against Corrine Brown in the 1990s.

Worth watching: will Jacksonville candidates cannibalize each other if and when one or more runs against Lawson?

There can only be one, if a challenge is to have any chance of success.

***

Bill Bishop – In 2015, Bishop announced that he in fact would run for mayor in 2019.

However, 2016 changed the former two-term district councilman’s calculus. He has not-so-subtly been hinting at running for city council again – in an at-large seat currently held by John Crescimbeni.

Bishop would, we hear, face off against Republican Mike Anania, who lost a district council race in 2015 to Democrat Joyce Morgan.

Bishop has the name identification advantage over Anania, but the local GOP may want to exact payback for Bishop running against Curry in 2015, then endorsing Alvin Brown once he was eliminated from the race.

Speaking of Alvin Brown, if he were to run for council instead of the United States Congress, he would be in At-Large Group 2.

A Brown/Bishop race would almost certainly be the most interesting contest on the ballot.

***

Matt Carlucci – Carlucci, like Bishop, is another registered Republican that the hardcores say is a RINO.

And like Bishop, Carlucci is looking for one more run at council: to replace termed-out Greg Anderson in 2019.

Carlucci, like Bishop, has what it takes to run citywide; namely, friends on both sides of the aisle.

Carlucci, if he runs and wins, would offer institutional knowledge of the sort that veterans like Tommy Hazouri and John Crescimbeni bring to the chamber.

***

Fred Newbill – Newbill, one of the more politically connected pastors in Jacksonville, made an interesting play late in 2015 that seemed like it could affect his 2017.

In 2015, Newbill came out against expansion of Jacksonville’s Human Rights Ordinance to the LGBT community.

In 2017, Newbill is up for a position on the JEA Board.

JEA offers employment and accommodations protection to LGBT people.

Newbill, we hear, has evolved on the HRO since his opposition to a council vote on the measure.

We hear that he’s not going to evolve toward supporting the measure.

However, he seems willing to relinquish his position as a pointman of opposition to the bill.

It will be interesting to see if the Rules Committee or the Jacksonville City Council cares all that much about where Newbill is on the HRO.

Pay close attention to his hearings in both committee and in front of the full council.

They will tell you where the body as a whole is on expanding LGBT rights to match up with most other major cities in the country.

Pulse nightclub massacre is Florida’s top story of 2016

The massacre of 49 patrons of the Pulse nightclub in Orlando has been voted Florida’s top story of 2016.

The state’s newspaper editors said in an Associated Press poll that the second-biggest story of the year was Florida resident Donald Trump‘s defeat of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in Florida by 1.3 percentage points in the presidential race.

Florida’s two hurricanes, the impact of Cuban leader Fidel Castro‘s death and an outbreak of the Zika virus tied for third place.

In fourth place was the legal tussle over Florida’s death penalty.

Two solar power amendments and the indictment of U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown tied for fifth place.

The death of Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez and the death of a toddler by a Disney World alligator tied for sixth place.

Reprinted with permission of the Associated Press

Subpoenas with a side of sauce: The 10 biggest #JaxPol stories of 2016

Subpoenas with a side of sauce.

That’s one way to sum up the year.

In Jacksonville politics, 2016 started with subpoenas being delivered to Rep. Corrine Brown and her clique at a barbecue place on the Northside.

And it ended with a raid on Councilwoman Katrina Brown’s familial barbecue sauce plant on the Westside.

Katrina Brown’s family, which was granted/loaned over $600K by the city for job creation that never fully happened despite having years to do it, poured real money since that money came through into the campaign apparatuses of the councilwoman herself, along with Corrine Brown and former Mayor Alvin Brown.

As well, shortly after Katrina Brown got the Corrine Brown “Quick Pick,” she gave $500 to Corrine Brown’s former right-hand woman, Von Alexander, for what was called “marketing.”

That, my friends, is what we call a narrative arc. And a story that will have legs in 2017.

Beyond these issues, a heck of a lot happened in #jaxpol in 2016.

Political dynasties: toppled.

Conventional wisdom: shattered.

We are limiting ourselves to looking at the ten biggest stories of 2016 in Jacksonville politics.

In a year as driven by a change dynamic as any since the Consolidation era, this was an easy write.

The biggest difficulty?

Limiting the article to just ten stories.

***

The # 1 story of the year: the passage of the pension reform referendum Aug. 30.

Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry spent the better part of a year manufacturing consensus for the once unlikely seeming proposal of getting the Better Jacksonville Plan tax extended, and using the revenue secured to stabilize the pension debt.

Curry brought together a coalition that the city hasn’t seen since consolidation, with unions and union bosses; African-American pastors and community leaders; and other unlikely supporters, including every Democrat on the city council, lining up behind the mayor.

The manufacturing of consent went deeper than just influencers:
Also in play was a deep-dive data operation, with specific appeals made to medium-propensity voters, to female homeowners between the ages of 35 and 46, and to other blocs of voters, where support could be firmed up and maximized.

“Campaigns are tough,” Curry said at the victory party at the Hyatt on Aug. 30. “You’ve got to execute and win.”

Execute and win he did.

Curry leveraged support in the Senate and the House from regional power brokers, Sen. Rob Bradley and Rep. Travis Cummings, driving to and from Tallahassee with everyone from Marty Fiorentino to Randy Wyse, the head of the local fire union to guide and prod the bill through committees in each house, then through a floor vote.

Any resistance that might have manifested was quelled, as Curry had entire days of meetings with everyone in a position to kill the bill in committee.

It was a tour de force political performance; one planned out well before the session.

And while there is a long way to go to secure the future revenue from the current ½ cent sales surtax — a tortuous road through collective bargaining — Curry did the impossible: provided actuarial certainty that Jacksonville had a way to pay down its massive unfunded pension liability.

Story of the year? Absolutely.

But it had competition.

***

# 2: Angela Corey goes down.

While some other Northeast Florida titans drew their last political breath in 2016, the State Attorney from the 4th Circuit is arguably the most significant locally.

Legislators go to Tallahassee and Washington and generally toe the party line. They aren’t going to be outliers on the big issues of the day.

Corey? Very much an outlier.

It was a climate where the Koch Brothers are attempting to push criminal justice reform from the right, and various groups on the left and libertarian sides pushing for similar ends.

Corey’s “lock ‘em up” approach was as much of a throwback as acid-washed jeans, Milli Vanilli cassette singles, and asbestos insulation.

Corey? She stood athwart that trend, seeking more death penalty convictions than almost any district or state attorney in the country, and earning sobriquets like “the cruelest prosecutor in America.”

It all seemed to be going pretty well. Corey stacked regional and state endorsements like Scrooge McDuck stacking greenbacks. Her first declared opponent in the primary, Wes White, attempted to run an insurgent campaign with little money and institutional backing.

White got some traction, as the negation of the case for Corey, but it looked until June like Corey would get her third term.

Then, a funny thing happened.

Melissa Nelson got in the race, getting real money behind her, and the best political machine in the state — Tim Baker and Brian Hughes — doing what so many people wanted to do.

Getting paid to end Angela Corey’s political career (though one suspects that Baker and Hughes might have been willing to take that task on for free).

By July, Corey was cratering in the polls. By August, the scenarios in which Corey — the epitome of a disqualified candidate — would find even a dead cat bounce were winnowed down to nothing.

By September, she was a lame duck.

Melissa Nelson takes office in January, armed with a community and institutional support, a great team (Dave Chapman, handling comms next year, had been probably the best reporter on the Jacksonville city politics beat this century), and a commitment to reform.

Nelson will spend a big part of her first term cleaning up Corey-era messes.

There will be stumbles.

But Melissa Nelson, unlike Corey, is willing to have a dialogue with the media and the community. And she is looking for applications of justice that actually heal rather than divide communities.

As hinted above, Corey’s political obituary wasn’t the only one written this year. In fact, the third-biggest story in Jacksonville this year was a variation on that theme.

***

#3: Corrine Brown goes down, and Jacksonville loses a congressional seat.

When federal agents served subpoenas up to Rep. Brown and political operatives at the Bono’s on Norwood Avenue, it was the beginning of the end for the congresswoman.

Though she ran a modified version of a re-election campaign for her seat in Congressional District 5, Brown was wounded.

She couldn’t raise real money. She was distracted by the legal fight. And when asked during and after her sole televised debate about the incompatibility of a 23-count federal indictment and a campaign for re-election against a Democrat as connected as Al Lawson, Brown said that the charges against her were as absurd as accusations of pedophilia against news media members.

“The Fifth Amendment says that the prosecutors have to prove their case. Now, what if I said, as we standing up here talking, that you were a pedophile? You would think there would be something wrong with me. So, you would put together a team of lawyers and you would go to court, and duke it out in court. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do. Just because someone accuses you, doesn’t mean that they have the facts. The federal government under these, have a slush fund, and they can do and they can bring charges,” Brown said in August.

She’s not saying that now. Or much of anything. The waiting game of 2017 now involves seeing when and if her inner circle (including/especially Ronnie Simmons, her co-defendant and almost-erstwhile chief of staff) turns against her in the One Door for Education trial.

Meanwhile, Jacksonville is in deep doo-doo regarding its representation, as Al Lawson hasn’t demonstrated a real understanding of local issues compared to those out west.

Jacksonville may produce a real challenge to Lawson in the 2018 primary, but the first two years of the Trump era are going to be challenging for Jacksonville. At a time when the White House is looking to fund ambitious infrastructure projects via expanding the monetary supply, a reliable Jacksonville veteran of the United States Congress will be replaced by a neophyte.

Meanwhile, we hear that the initial staffing process for Lawson is chaotic, with scheduling problems for mid and lower level staff interviews, and a distinct Tallahassee bent to those hired by his office.

***

# 4: Ander Crenshaw out, John Rutherford in.

“I won’t miss the circus, but I will miss the clowns.”

Those words from Rep. Ander Crenshaw, who represented Jacksonville in D.C. for eight terms, say it all.

Crenshaw was ready to step down. And former Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford, on the political sidelines since he was termed out in 2015, was happy enough to step up.

Crenshaw was the type of Republican prominent around Jacksonville in a bygone and better time; cut from the John Thrasher/Mike Hightower cloth, Crenshaw was the kind of conservative who didn’t fit the polemical Tea Party mold.

Because of that declining level of affinity with the grassroots, Crenshaw faced a primary challenge in 2014 from Ryman Shoaf — and it was a closer race than many expected.

Crenshaw’s decision not to run for re-election set up a lively primary campaign, with Rutherford forced to fend off State Rep. Lake Ray and the biggest spender in the race, Hans Tanzler III.

Rutherford, evidently, will attempt to maintain as much continuity as possible. Jackie Smith, a Crenshaw holdover, will run the district office.

That realization of the importance of continuity by their replacements is a major difference — in terms of impact — to the departures of Corrine Brown and Ander Crenshaw.

Of course, there’s more to Jacksonville politics than arrivals and departures. Some issues persist no matter who the incumbent is.

***

#5: The ongoing battles of collective bargaining

When “County Referendum 1” passed Aug. 30, allowing the extension of the one-half cent local sales tax to be devoted to the unfunded liability conditional on closing one of the city’s pension plans to new hires, it represented the fulfillment of one quest and the necessary beginning of another.

Mayor Curry counted fire union head Randy Wyse and police union leader Steve Zona as allies in the run-up to the referendum. However, that was destined to be a short-term accord.

As the days got shorter in 2016, it became apparent that the city and its unions — especially its public-sector unions — were far apart.

The union heads will tell you: getting competent new hires to come in and stick around with a promise of little more than the same 401(k) an office jockey gets is not a sustainable strategy for workforce development and retention.

Cops in their 20s may not see that the future involves them being battered and broken down from the job. But add a wife and 2.5 kids to the equation, and then the future moves from an abstraction to reality.

Thus, the unions want the Florida Retirement System for new hires.

The current sheriff, Mike Williams, is caught between labor and management, and his comments to us a few weeks back reflect that.

While Williams wants a “competitive pay and benefit package,” he contends the “vehicle” doesn’t matter — a position that is news to the union.

Former Sheriff John Rutherford, advocating pensions for officers while in office, has yet to see a defined contribution plan accounting for the real downside risk of a career as an officer.

Expectations are that general employees will be the easier sell on DC plans for new hires. But with six bargaining units to deal with, consensus won’t be quick — and probably won’t be in time for the budget deliberations of June and July.

Amazingly (or not), another pension story makes the top ten.

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#6: Drama continues between city and Police and Fire Pension Fund

The PFPF continues to serve as a piñata for local politicians; 2016 was no exception.

Things were relatively quiet between city hall and the pension fund in the first quarter, until the city and the fund squabbled over the controversial “senior staff voluntary retirement fund” that served to benefit former executive director John Keane and a few others.

Just as May brought in the summer heat, Jacksonville’s general counsel issued a ruling that — contrary to the PFPF position — the fund was subordinate to the city, and the general counsel was, in fact, the prevailing legal authority.

The PFPF attempted to appeal to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi. But it didn’t do any good.

From there, the PFPF cropped up again — a $44 million accounting true-up, for which the fund claimed to have a waiver from the state, allowed Curry to win a November news cycle by excoriating the fund for its sloppy financial practices.

Curry’s ire was undercut in December, however.

The city’s CFO and the executive director of the PFPF appeared together at a Dec. 7 meeting of the Jacksonville City Council Finance Committee.

They said the documents regarding the waiver leaked to the media before they had a chance to figure out a collaborative strategy to address it.

They also suggested that the extra $44 million or so of yearly costs — could be phased in over a few years, or even wiped out after collective bargaining with the public safety units wraps.

Whenever that is.

The CFO, Mike Weinstein, also undercut the mayor’s position by saying the $44 million was a “hiccup” compared to the larger unfunded liability.

A goal for the city of Jacksonville: to not have next year’s “stories of the year” piece marred by yet another chapter in the saga between the city and the PFPF.

There’s still a lot of work to do to get there.

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#7: Municipal bond ratings improve.

In the “if it bleeds, it leads” world of television news, the esoterica of bond ratings doesn’t exactly drive the Nielsen #s.

But in the world of municipal government and finance, bond ratings determine the ability to borrow money, and the favorability of the repayment terms.

With that in mind, a big success of 2016 was rooted in Dec. 2015, when Mayor Curry and an entourage of senior city staffers flew to New York for that year’s annual meeting with the rating agencies.

Successes outnumbered failures.

JEA came out of the event with its first ever AAA rating. Standard & Poor’s Rating Services upgraded the rating on the City of Jacksonville’s sales tax revenue bonds to an “A+” from an “A” the previous year. Other rating upgrades followed.

By October, with the referendum out of the way, Curry’s office was able to trumpet the improved perception of its financial management.

Examples thereof: documentation of Better Jacksonville Plan sales tax revenue upgrades in February to A+ from S&P and Fitch, with a A1 from Moody’s in that category; a March upgrade to AA in excise tax revenue from Moody’s; a July Fitch AA long-term credit rating and an AA issuer credit rating predicated on expectations the city will “continue to demonstrate a prudent level of fiscal management” and “continue to moderate the impact of its pension liability on the annual budget;” similar upgrades in the special revenue rating in August; and an upgraded commercial paper rating in September.

Curry ran as a CEO type with an accounting background, and though his team deserves a lot of the credit regarding the nuts and bolts actions, Curry brought it together.

That wasn’t the only major story of 2016 involving JEA, however.

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# 8: “JEA Agreement

“It’s important to put this in context,” Curry said in March when signing off on the deal.

When Curry came into office, there was a “narrative” that there “didn’t look like a way forward” for the mayor’s office, the Council, and JEA on an agreement.

Curry pushed Alvin Brown’s appointees out, for the most part, and put in his people, creating a “strong board.”

And that strong board was a mechanism to get an agreement between the city and its utility through 2021.

To recap: the JEA Agreement applies between the city and the utility through 2021, with the current JEA contribution set at about $114.2 million, with minimum annual increases of 1 percent. It also allocates $30 million of total funding, split evenly, from JEA and the city for five years for water and sewer projects. And two million dollars a year in water quality trading credits, which will go to stormwater needs.

The stormwater projects are already under way, and they will help to close a long-standing infrastructure gap between pre-Consolidation communities and the rest of the city.

Curry’s comfort level with JEA is such that even when the CEO was out of town during Hurricane Matthew, the mayor did not take the opportunity that some on the city council did to question his priorities and job performance.

Speaking of Hurricane Matthew, that was a pretty big deal also.

***

# 9: Hurricane Matthew

There was a reasonable chance in October that, if the storm had moved 40 miles west when trucking up the Florida coast, Jacksonville would have been devastated.

In fact, the city did pretty well, considering.

While St. Augustine got hit with higher winds and more devastating flooding, which the city is still recovering from, Jacksonville dodged the catastrophic hit that was feared as the storm approached.

To be clear: there were tens of millions of dollars of damage.

Debris removal from rights of way and parks cost a couple of million dollars.

Streets, drainage, and parks likewise required a real financial commitment.

The road to Huguenot Park still needs repair.

And over half the city lost power, with, in some cases, restoration taking up to a week.

But Mayor Curry, the sheriff’s office, and mayors of the beach communities coordinated evacuations for zones where half the city’s population lives (as well as the entirety of the county east of the Intracoastal), and despite the property damage and inconvenience, Jacksonville got through the storm.

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#10: Duval GOP dysfunction

While there are probably stories offering more civic import, worth watching is the continuing decline of the Republican Party of Duval County.

This tale of infighting goes back well before 2016 began, of course. But 2016 had enough drama to make up for it.

The year started with Lake Ray as party chair. That lasted until May, when Cindy Graves took control.

All seemed to be going well enough. From the outside at least.

Karyn Morton, who backed Graves at least by the time votes were counted, said in a news release: “Cindy is the leader our party needs right now.”

Note the temporal phrasing.

The election came and went, and despite Trump getting elected, there was still some trouble brewing.

Just like Andrew Ridgely and George Michael in Wham!, the Morton/Graves alliance would turn a different corner soon enough.

By summer, Morton was grousing as Graves spoke at GOP events, saying that “the leader our party needs right now” doesn’t know when to shut up. [Paraphrased, obviously]

Summer turned to fall, leaves turned on and fell off the trees, and quiet dissidence turned into open rebellion.

December was Graves’ undoing.

Morton ran against Graves, and her speech brought the quiet frustrations to light, as it was peppered with descriptions of mistakes from past leadership.

Some of the old guard wasn’t allowed to vote, including Rep. John Rutherford and Mike Hightower.

Meanwhile, some new Republican Executive Committee members were allowed to vote. And they made the difference.

A veteran of party politics says Morton and the other party officials constitutes the “worst leadership since 1980,” predicting “Audrey Gibson will have a field day” as local Democratic chair, as Republicans “decentralize” in the short term … an important factor to look for as the 2018 races ramp up.

Will Morton be able to appease the donor class? That question remains to be answered.

***

And that was the year that was.

Will 2017 have as much barbecue-related drama as 2016?

Probably not.

But it will have drama, personality clashes and, if we’re lucky, some things on the policy front as well.

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