Garrett Dennis Archives - Florida Politics

Jacksonville City Council mulls morgue money Tuesday

2017 ended with bodies piling up in Jacksonville’s morgue.

2018 brings something approaching a solution via Ordinance 2018-005.

A bill slated to be introduced at Tuesday’s City Council meeting on an emergency basis will offer what Medical Examiner Valerie Rao called last week a “proposed space solution,” which includes “office and refrigerator space”: a walk-in cooler that would give 40 spaces, and a “modular office on site.”

$206,000: the cost of the complete proposal.

Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa described the temporary facilities as getting the ME “over the hump” to mitigate the current crisis, with a building in a future capital improvement budget.

There will be an “in and out” bill Tuesday in Jacksonville City Council, Mousa said last week, to encompass the portable refrigerating unit for 40 additional bodies, and a mobile unit for six additional staffers to handle the case load.

Equipment is also needed, Mousa said, “for stacking the bodies in the cooler. They’re referred to as racks, I believe.”

“This will give her sufficient capacity for today,” Mousa said, adding that a new facility may be moved up in the CIP.

The “programming phase” — an antecedent to moving the facility up in the capital improvement plan — would take six or seven months, which would allow the administration to mull hard costs of the facility.

Mousa noted that, though a new facility was originally outside the five-year plan, reports of bodies on the floor spurred the Mayor’s Office into “immediate action.”

The next budget would allow for the programming phase, and before the summer budget hearings, a funding source would likely be identified for this capital need.

Councilman Danny Becton expressed hope for a deep dive into decedent data, so that the Council would have a better understanding of the corpse inflow and output into the extant facility.

“The programmer of the facility will definitely look at all the statistics that are available — trends, capacity, future needs,” Mousa said.

Administration members said in December that a permanent facility build could take two years; a building in Orlando cost $16 million in 2010, and given increases in commodity costs and the ever-weakening dollar, that may be an optimistic estimate for a cost.

Duval’s medical examiner serves 1.3 million people in six counties.

Race for Jacksonville City Council VP begins: Danny Becton, Sam Newby launch runs

An annual tradition in Jacksonville City Council is beginning anew: the race for Jacksonville City Council VP.

Often — but not always — the VP slot is a springboard to the Presidency the next year.

The most interesting iteration of this race in recent memory: 2016, when Democrat John Crescimbeni bested Republican Doyle Carter in a cliffhanger 10-9 vote, with one Councilor reneging on his pledge to support Carter.

2017’s race for VP lacked that drama, with Aaron Bowman winning the race, despite many of his votes not having formally pledged to him as part of the process.

What will 2018 hold? At this writing, it appears a number of ambitious first-term Councilmen are in the mix.

Southside Republican Danny Becton confirmed Monday that he is interested in the spot.

Becton, arguably the most debt-conscious member of the City Council, has often been a solitary voice of caution on issues ranging from spending bond money on stadium improvements to not paying off pension debt as quickly as possible.

While his positions conflicted with those of the Mayor’s Office in the past, there is reason to believe that Becton is more aligned with the priorities of the Lenny Curry administration as time goes on.

At-Large Republican Sam Newby confirmed his interest to us Monday also. And that a letter much like that sent by Becton has been sent out.

Newby, the co-founder and chairman of the Florida Assembly of Black Republicans and a strong ally of Mayor Lenny Curry, has no enemies on Council.

One of his closest legislative allies is Democrat Reggie Brown, and in a multi-candidate race, it follows that Newby would be positioned to get not only the votes of conservative Republicans, but also of African-American Council Democrats, who vowed to — and did — vote as a bloc in the 2017 Council leadership races.

Newby and Becton likely will not close out the field.

Councilman Scott Wilson, the Southside Republican who ran a strong race against Bowman in 2017, is mulling a run.

Wilson, who served eight years as assistant to former Councilman Don Redman, notes the jousting for leadership is happening earlier every year.

And we are hearing that former Jacksonville Mayor Tommy Hazouri, an At-Large Democrat, may also throw in. Hazouri was largely marginalized on Council committees this year, a consequence of going against Anna Brosche in the race for the top job.

And one could envision, as the process winds on, other candidates — such as Finance Chair Garrett Dennis — may see openings.

For now, it’s Becton and Newby.

But the race could get crowded quickly, with as many as five potential candidates at least testing the waters.

As was the case in 2016, when then-VP Lori Boyer faced no opposition for the Presidency, the real action will be for the Veep role in 2018.

Jacksonville Council panel rejects change to sexual predator distance requirements

2018 began for the Jacksonville City Council with some holdover business from 2017: a proposed lessening of residency distance requirements for sexual predators.

The bill has been around since September, and is headed toward the graveyard of dead bills. Councilors spiked it by a 2-5 margin Tuesday in the Neighborhoods, Community Services, Public Health and Safety Committee.

Councilman Bill Gulliford, the sponsor of the legislation, said in September that it was driven by two women in Mayport who want to open a day care center. But since it is 2,380 feet from the residence of a sexual predator “as the crow flies,” they can’t. Current ordinance sets a 2,500 foot predator buffer.

Gulliford’s bill would set the limit to 1,500 feet. But this bill doesn’t appear to be headed anywhere.

Councilman John Crescimbeni cautioned that “whittling this down” would create a potential slippery slope of future exemptions.

Gulliford reiterated his September arguments, noting that in Mayport, there are schools and one park closer to the sexual predator than the proposed day care center.

As was the case in 2017, Gulliford encountered resistance on Tuesday before the no vote.

Gulliford and Councilman Greg Anderson exchanged crosstalk about the appropriate “best practices” in distancing, before Anderson said he couldn’t support it, as he needs more information.

The bill will move to Rules and then Land Use and Zoning, but there is no reason to think it will do any better there.

A.G. Gancarski’s 10 predictions for Jacksonville politics in 2018

For the third straight year, Florida Politics is attempting to predict how politics in the 904 will go.

And hopefully the predictions will go better than they did the previous two years.

2016’s predictions were as reliable as a coin flip: Six right, six wrong.

2017 saw six wrong… and four right.

Batting .400 is fine for a baseball player; however, it indicates room for improvement in terms of political prognostication.

Without further adieu, let’s see if the third time is the charm.


1. Al Lawson will win Democratic primary in CD 5

In 2016, Al Lawson took advantage of Corrine Brown having legal problems and a concomitant inability to fundraise, and won a primary election in a re-configured Congressional District 5.

In 2018, Lawson looks poised to defend his crown — with a Jacksonville challenger, at this writing, being slow to materialize.

While former Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown has teased a candidacy, Lawson has a number of factors in his favor.

Incumbency, and the fundraising networks that allows, works in Lawson’s favor. As does playing ball with the Jacksonville business community. And working well with his Jacksonville House colleague, Republican John Rutherford.

Lawson had a slow third quarter, but carried $97,000 cash on hand into the final three months of the year; it’s not as if he’s been dynamic in fundraising up until now. But Lawson has the western part of the district on lock. Brown’s challenge: to engage the donor class, and to convince skeptical Jacksonville Democrats that he’s for real.

Because make no mistake — Brown would have to sweep Jacksonville Democrats, and drive high turnout.

Brown, however, may have another option.


2. Democratic challenger will emerge for Lenny Curry

Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry is polling well, at least according to a University of North Florida survey in the fall.

Sixty-nine percent approval citywide, 57 percent approval with Democrats and 59 percent with African-Americans.

So it’s all clear for his re-election bid, right?

Not exactly.

Democrats hold a registration advantage. And there is a lot of time between now and March 2019.

One worry — which may surprise some — is that Alvin Brown makes another bid for City Hall.

The case: Brown was above 50 percent favorables even when he lost the election, a loss that had much less to do with Brown than it did with the shambolic, disengaged campaign on his behalf.

Brown’s messaging was a mess, with the mayor accepting cataclysmic help from the Florida Democratic Party, and taking positions that were out of their playbook — and out of step with the Jacksonville electorate — such as a push for an increased minimum wage.

Brown was ill-prepared to deal with realities as a result of not being true to his messaging, such as a shot up school bus on the evening of a debate.

All that said, he lost by fewer than three points.

While those close to Brown tell us that he’s looking at Congress rather than City Hall, there are those in Curry’s orbit who don’t want a rematch.


3. FEMA $ delay will lead to hard budget choices

As hard as it is to believe, the Donald Trump administration may not have it all together when it comes to FEMA.

Per the Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville is waiting on $85 million from FEMA for Hurricane Irma. That’s added to an additional $27 million the city is waiting on from Hurricane Matthew.

Is the city sitting pretty? Depends on how you look at it.

While the city has roughly $200 million in fund balance, per the Times-Union, the reality is that even before Irma, senior staffers from Lenny Curry’s office were talking of the need to boost the emergency reserve — as the city’s bond rating was capped below AAA by low reserve levels.

Of course, that’s not the whole story.

Part of the issue: high fixed costsdespite pension reform.

Another part of the issue: a surfeit of tangible steps to deal with climate change, particularly salient after a year when epic flooding hit Jacksonville after Irma — weeks after Harvey doused Houston with a year’s worth of rainfall.

Another budget without real attention to storm budgeting — and infrastructure — will lead to consequences down the road.

The feds aren’t going to help.


4. John Rutherford waltzes to re-election

The Duval Democrats are making some interesting moves, but one of them doesn’t seem to be fielding a viable candidate against John Rutherford for re-election.

Rutherford is a nice guy and an enthusiastic advocate for the Trump agenda — which, at least conceivably, could make him worth targeting.

However, Duval Dems don’t seem interested in fielding a candidate — like Nancy Soderberg in Congressional District 6 — who can challenge him.

Maybe it’s not a winnable seat. But a serious candidate should emerge. But hasn’t yet.


5. JEA privatization push gets ugly

The cleanest distillation of the Lenny Curry administration’s case for JEA privatization was made in Sunshine State News weeks back, by South Florida journalist Allison Nielsen.

The city could get a lump sum of money by selling the utility to outside investors. But there would be consequences, including the loss of the near $115 million JEA contribution, and property tax revenues. Not to mention how accountable an outside operator would be to Jacksonville politicians.

JEA also carries debt, and has been dinged by Moody’s for an unwise investment in nuclear power, per the Florida Times-Union.

In short, there are a lot of caveats.


6. Serious challenges for City Council incumbents

Three to watch: Anna Brosche, Katrina Brown and Garrett Dennis.

All three were elected in 2015; all three will face serious re-election challenges, essentially because they pissed someone off.

Brosche has sparred with Mayor Curry on a number of issues, including but not limited to pension reform and the Kids’ Hope Alliance.

Brosche also upset police union head Steve Zona in commenting on disproportionate stops of African-American jaywalkers; Zona, on Twitter, advised Brosche to clean up the City Council.

By that he means Councilwoman Katrina Brown.

Brown accused Jacksonville police of racially profiling a Council colleague during a traffic stop. She would not walk it back, despite national Fraternal Order of Police leadership showing at Council to force her hand.

Expect FOP candidates to come after both women’s Council seats. A retired cop, perhaps, for each.

Councilman Dennis, meanwhile, has been (along with the aforementioned Brosche) the sole source of antagonism for the Mayor’s office.

He clowned Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa during budget hearings, and fought Mayor Curry on issue after issue over the summer.

He will be a target of the Mayor’s political operation.


7. Another hurricane impacts NE FL

As the Governor likes to say, I’m not a scientist, but with water temperatures warming up farther and farther north every year, odds look good for a third storm year in a row. If you are investing in generators, beat the rush.


8. Lenny Curry distances self from Donald Trump as scandal builds

Mayor Curry spent a lot of 2016 and 2017 answering for Trumpiness. The best — or worst, depending on how you feel — example was when questions came in at a presser about the Paris Accord.

Curry has yet to actually have to say President Donald Trump is wrong about something. But conditions are changing.

Robert Mueller is for real. And so are conditions that are conducive to a wave election. And the utter frustration with having one’s own agenda hijacked by some idiotic tweet or soundbite from the White House.

Trump has, by and large, been a bust for Jacksonville. See the above section on FEMA money. Even when a Republican mayor walks the line, Jacksonville is still shorted.

In 2018, Curry will have occasion to put distance between himself and the president. On some issue, somewhere.

The base might not like it, but it will happen. Trump is only becoming more erratic, in terms of messaging, as he sits on Pennsylvania Avenue.


9. Murders continue spike, but no challenge to Mike Williams

Murders are up for the third straight year — at this writing, the final number isn’t in, but it is at least 131.

Last year saw 118 homicides.

This, despite additions of ShotSpotter and NIBIN — a national database that takes fingerprints of bullets to find killers. And additions of new police officers and equipment in the last three city budgets.

Ambitious politicians would make a real run at Williams. However, there don’t seem to be many of them.

Williams has consolidated support in the JSO, and has a $300,000+ campaign nest egg.

Thus, even if murders go up again in 2018 — a safe bet, given that there is no real change in conditions or legislation that drive them — Williams is on the glide path to re-election.


10. Jaguars win the Super Bowl

In this year of inverted reality, the Jacksonville Jaguars are as good as any team in the league. Even with wide receivers plucked from obscurity. 

The playoffs — Buffalo at home, then Pittsburgh on the road — shape up well for them.

And the Patriots are beatable. So too are the Vikings — or any NFC team.

Now, the question: do they remake this classic?




A.G. Gancarski’s 10 people to watch in Northeast Florida politics: 2018 edition

Politics in Northeast Florida is about to heat up, with state races in 2018 and Jacksonville municipal elections in 2019. Here are ten names worth watching.

Alvin Brown: Is he running for the U.S. House against Al Lawson? Mayor against incumbent Lenny Curry?

He will have to decide, one way or another, this year.

We’ve gone into the challenges Brown would face against Lawson: among them, primarying an incumbent; not being known west of Duval County; a lack of buy-in among Jacksonville Democrats (who think he disappeared after losing the Mayor’s race in 2015, only returning ahead of running for whatever this year or next); and a lack of buy-in among the donor class.

The Peter Rummell-types have moved on, some to Lawson. And the trial lawyers probably aren’t that hyped up on taking Alvin to the next level.

That said, there almost has to be a Jacksonville candidate — and Alvin Brown looks like the best bet. Still.

Those familiar with Brown’s thinking say it’s Congress or bust. Time will tell.

Lisa King: The new chair of the Duval Democratic party is fired up and ready to go when it comes to the 2018 cycle.

Expect King, an establishment Democrat from the Hillary Clinton wing of the party, to manufacture media coverage every time there is an opportunity.

Unifying the party and building donor confidence will be key this year, as King tries to turn Duval into “Bluval.”

Carlo Fassi: One of the sharpest political minds in Northeast Florida that most people outside of downtown haven’t heard of.

Fassi is running Baxter Troutman’s campaign for Agriculture Commissioner — sort of the Royal Rumble battle royal of GOP primary races.

Before turning his attention to statewide work, Fassi worked for State Attorney Melissa Nelson, first as her campaign manager, then handling public affairs in her office.

Fassi is not a self-promoter by trade — and that may seem anomalous to fans of the political consultant game.

But expect this: no matter how Troutman fares this year, Fassi will be increasingly sought after for Republican candidates down the road.  

Reggie Brown: Is he running against Audrey Gibson for the state Senate?

To us, that sounds like a suicide mission. And we’re skeptical it’s going to happen.

Brown, a Jacksonville City Councilman, would run into some of the same issues Alvin Brown would run into versus Lawson. How does he credibly challenge a Senator who is poised to lead the caucus after the November election? Specifically, one who has institutional buy-in with corporate and institutional donors.

Rory Diamond: Diamond, an alumnus of the George W. Bush White House, the California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger administration, and head of the charitable non-profit “K9s for Warriors,” is highly regarded among local Republicans.

He’s a current Neptune Beach City Councilman, and he’s making a run for Jacksonville City Council in 2019.

He also has roughly $100,000 banked.

Yet he will face a competitive race.

There are those who contend that Diamond isn’t enough of a social conservative to replace termed-out Bill Gulliford on the City Council.

There will be a candidate that attacks Diamond on those grounds.

Garrett Dennis: With Brian Hughes moving into the office of Mayor Lenny Curry as chief of staff, there are strong expectations that the political and the policy sphere will essentially become one.

With that in mind, it’s worth watching the only Democrat on Council who has acted like a Democrat: Garrett Dennis.

Alone among Council Democrats, of whom at least a few have functioned like adjuncts of the Mayor’s office, Dennis has embodied an actual attempt to put checks and balances on the Curry agenda.

He’s taken risks. Taken slings and arrows for his trouble. But on a City Council that has not offered much resistance to any of the reforms in the last thirty months, Dennis is the sole reminder that there are two political parties in this town, each with their own agendas.

Empower Jacksonville: There’s not a breakout star of this group — a Christian conservative Liberty Counsel front that would like to see, ultimately, a City Council referendum to overturn the LGBT protections in the Human Rights Ordinance expansion of 2017.

But the group is very much worth watching. It seeks to have two ballot items next August. The first: a referendum to change the city’s charter to allow citizens to challenge any law via referendum.

The second measure: a straw ballot on whether or not the HRO should be subject to a citizen referendum. The specific area of contention: the additions to the law this February, not the previously extant law.

Those additions: protections of LGBT people in the areas of housing discrimination, workplace protections, and public accommodations.

This underscores a larger rift in the Republican Party between religious conservatives and more pragmatic conservatives; naturally, the latter category is called RINOs by those in the religious camp.

Aaron Bowman: A VP for business recruitment for the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce, Bowman also is City Council VP.

And he will walk into the presidency next year.

Bowman has been an interesting case. A dyed-in-the-wool Republican, the former Mayport base commander nonetheless is the kind of Republican who embodies the “kinder, gentler America” former President George H.W. Bush talked about.

He ran for office against a Christian conservative, vowing to push for the aforementioned Human Rights Ordinance expansion. And that went through this February.

The book on Bowman among some on Council was that he thought he should have been in leadership from the start. That didn’t sit well with some Council veterans.

He’s there now, of course, and the way he won the Council VP election in 2017 was notable. Pledges materialized seemingly from thin air, with Bowman becoming the runaway choice.

Meanwhile, during the presidency of Anna Brosche, Bowman avoided making waves on hot-button issues like Confederate monuments. He clearly is amassing political capital. Will he use it during his presidency? Or does he have more ambitious plans down the road?

Earl Testy: Why Testy?

Despite having just $13 cash-on-hand, the self-styled “radical Republican” has already become the most quotable Jacksonville candidate since Rep. Kim Daniels.

Testy is known for mansplaining about how sexual harassment was a function of the female libido.

“They have themselves and their libidos to blame for much of their own abuse by men,” Testy posted to Facebook.

And if that isn’t enough, he also advocates the “conversion of Negro Democrats to the Republican Party.”

“I devote a portion of the time remaining in my life to facilitating the conversion of millions of Negro Democrats back home to the Republican Party,” Testy remarked.

Testy is running against an establishment Republican — Randy DeFoor — who will have all the endorsements and money she needs.

There likely will be a Democrat in this race — and other candidates — before all is said and done.

So why are we watching him? The reality is that he will get a sizable chunk of the vote… in the most liberal district in the city. Which says quite a bit about where Duval County really is.

Tracye Polson: Can Polson, a clinical social worker by trade, do the seemingly impossible and turn Rep. Jay Fant’s red district blue?

The Democratic candidate for House District 15 is about to find out.

Polson is keeping pace with the Republican in the race — Jacksonville lawyer Wyman Duggan — in terms of fundraising.

She also is aggressively canvassing the Westside Jacksonville district, an approach that she and her volunteers hope overcome the tendency of some voters in the district to just vote for the Republican.

Polson does have a primary opponent, but he is essentially unknown to local Democrats. Polson, by contrast, is a known quantity.

Lenny Curry staffer decries Garrett Dennis’ ‘aggression’ against her

The Jacksonville City Council approved six members of the Kids Hope Alliance board on Tuesday, including Joe Peppers.

Peppers, in fact, was approved unanimously — but by no means does that mean his nomination process went smoothly, specifically with regard to one particular Councilman: Garrett Dennis.

In fact, the process was characterized in an email by Jessica Laird — a liaison from the mayor’s office who sat in on the meeting between Peppers and Dennis — as one in which Dennis showed “aggression” to her during a Nov. 20 meeting between Laird, Dennis, and the nominee, worrying her that there may be “blowback” against Peppers’ nomination.

Peppers, for his part, emailed Laird on the evening of Nov. 20, describing Dennis’ behavior as “bullying.”

Councilman Dennis, meanwhile, had his own version of events — saying that the mayor’s office’s involvement in the process was unusual and raised questions about the “independence” of the nominees.

Dennis also noted that he felt the mayor was trying to intimidate him with follow-up communications, including a phone call and an invitation to an in-person discussion of the matter.

A former chair of the rules committee, Dennis met with what he estimates to be hundreds of nominees, and in all that time he had “never had the mayor’s office babysitting nominees.”

Dennis did not want Laird in the meeting, though he maintains that he was “not aggressive to her.”

“I don’t usually let people sit there,” Dennis said, noting that Laird was attempting to defend Curry.

“If I allow you to speak,” Dennis said he said to Laird, “it will be your last time. I told her to sit and listen, but it was not her place to defend the mayor.”

Dennis, when asked, said his attitude had nothing to do with Laird being female, noting that a meeting between him, Ali Korman Shelton of the mayor’s office, and another nominee reflected no such issues.

Curry and Dennis soon enough had words, Dennis related.

A tense elevator ride, in which Curry was “not a happy camper,” gave way to a very “abrasive” phone call from Curry, which Dennis described as confrontational.

Dennis claims Curry invited him to his office for a follow-up conversation, but Dennis did not walk over.

Dennis also claims that Peppers talked to him on Nov. 21, and said that “the mayor shouldn’t have sent a cub into the lion’s den.”

Peppers confirmed via email that the meeting was tense: “for various reasons, most of which I am not privy. From my perspective, we have resolved the issue and I look forward to working with CM Dennis and Ms. Laird going forward.”

“My hope is that all parties show each other grace as we move forward and we focus on making KHA great for the children of Jacksonville,” Peppers added.

The mayor’s office — via Spokeswoman Marsha Oliver — offered a statement Friday morning.

Their take: the email speaks for itself.

“The email speaks for itself as it relates to whose actions were described as ‘bullying.’ It is not a practice of the mayor or his administration to discuss one-on-one interactions with council members. Mayor Curry did, in fact, contact Council member Dennis to request a meeting,” Oliver wrote Friday morning.

“Mayor Curry is committed to ensuring that all City of Jacksonville employees thrive in a workplace where they are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. As for the KHA board appointments,” Oliver added, “we are delighted that Board member Peppers and the other nominees received overwhelming support for the experiences and contributions they will bring in serving Jacksonville’s children.”

Tensions between the Curry administration and Councilman Dennis have surfaced before, of course, both in the Kids Hope Alliance legislative process and the budget process that preceded this.

But this opens up a new chapter, a new level of tension — and the feeling among many close to the mayor’s office was that Dennis crossed a line, one with particular provenance in this era when men intimidating women in the workplace has become an issue of unprecedented visibility and urgency to resolve.

Six ‘Kids Hope’ board picks clear Jacksonville City Council

Six of the seven board members of Jacksonville’s nascent Kids Hope Alliance cleared City Council Tuesday evening.

Five of them made the cut via the consent agenda: Rebekah Davis, a former member of the Jacksonville Children’s Commission board of directors; Kevin Gay, a previous Jacksonville Journey board member; former Jacksonville Sheriff and current Edward Waters College President Nat Glover; Iraq War Bronze Star recipient Joe Peppers; and Tyra Tutor, an senior vice president at The Adecco Group North America.

The sixth was not on the consent agenda.

Dr. Marvin Wells lives in St. Johns County.  And even though he cleared the Rules Committee a week before without a no vote, the waiver of residency requirement required a full hearing.

Ultimately, it was for naught.

Councilman Garrett Dennis noted in Rules that he worried that Wells was a “test case” for another nominee from outside the county, one who could have been more controversial.

In the Council meeting, there was some resistance to Wells.

Council President Anna Brosche, meanwhile, was less bullish on waiving the residency requirement for Wells.

“I’m not willing to out of the gate support someone who doesn’t live in Duval County,” Brosche said.

Dennis concurred.

“We are waiving the code. We are waiving the law,” Dennis said. “I ask the mayor to select a nominee that lives in Jacksonville.”

“The mayor couldn’t find one person in Jacksonville who could serve on this board?” Dennis asked.

Allies of the Mayor’s Office — such as Reggie GaffneyTommy Hazouri, Katrina Brown and Al Ferraro — backed the appointment.

In the end, Brosche and Dennis stood alone, with the rest of the Council going with the mayor’s pick.

Duval Democrats ‘aggressively organizing’ as Lisa King prepares to lead them

After winning her election for chair of the Duval County Democrats earlier this weekLisa King issued a statement that read more like a call to arms.

“The stakes have never been higher for our country. The ideals that we hold so dear seem to be under attack every day. While we are currently the minority in the federal and state government, there are proportionally more registered Democrats than Republicans. It is our duty as an organized party to not only engage our voters,” King wrote, “but to also fight for their rights and well being every step of the way.”

“We will not sit back and watch the rights of our citizens be challenged at every turn. We can and will bring the fight for human rights, health care, equality, and justice to the front steps of our Republican Legislators. We will be a force to be reckoned with on the public stage where these battles are fought. We will exude strength and grace – fighting for our values and pushing back against any individual or group who decides to challenge them. We are Democrats and we are ready to fight for American values,” King added.

Duval Democrats performed well for Hillary Clinton in 2016. She got more votes in Jacksonville than Donald Trump. King was instrumental in that effort as the regional lead for the Clinton campaign.

Next year is bearing down on Duval Democrats, and they are fielding interesting candidates, such as Tracye Polson in House District 15 (where one-half of the political team for the likely Republican nominee, Wyman Duggan, is headed to City Hall to work as Lenny Curry‘s chief of staff).

Polson, of course, is aggressively campaigning — canvassing every weekend, and offering social media commentary on news stories. As of this moment, she is the best chance Northeast Florida Democrats have to flip a seat.

Still, there are holes in the field. Mayor Curry and Sheriff Mike Williams have no 2019 ballot competition. State Reps. Cord Byrd and Jason Fischer lack even nominal opposition in next year’s general election. Are Dems going to concede these opportunities?

Time will tell on that.

“I can tell you that we are aggressively organizing so as to turn out Dems and dem leaning NPAs in every precinct in this County.   I’ve talked to most of our statewide candidates and they all know how well we did for HRC in 2016 so I expect we’ll see all of them here. We have a lot of work to do but we’ve never been more unified and committed to doing it,” King asserted.

King understands better than many how partisanship works.

Despite raising more money and getting more endorsements than Al Ferraro in her 2015 race for Jacksonville City Council, King was unable to beat him.

King gave us a candid interview after that ballot-box setback.

Her polling had her up two weeks before the election; however, King noted that the “top down partisan messaging from either team,” which drove party identification voting as the Lenny Curry team wanted.

In her hyper-Republican Council district, King was washed out.

Curry, once in place, looked to revamp the city’s boards and commissions — and in his sights was the Planning Commission.

King, who was by then chair, and fellow Democrat Joey McKinnon were targeted for removal, and by a 13-5 City Council vote, they were yanked.

The vote was especially notable because many Democrats, such as Garrett DennisKatrina Brown and Reggie Gaffneywent against King.

King asserted then that “nothing teaches you who your friends are quicker than who is on your side when they have something to lose.” [Worth noting: since that 2015 vote, Dennis may have learned the same lesson at the hands of Council].

King was said to have been too partisan for the comfort of Curry and his inner circle.

Now, in what could be construed as an irony, she takes the helm of the local party in the same week that Mayor Curry’s chief political strategist, Brian Hughes, became chief of staff (effective Jan. 2).

For King, that hire is an example of “blurred lines” between politics and policy in the administration.

“Mayor Curry has stated that Hughes has played a significant role in key issues of his administration such as pension reform and the [Kids Hope Alliance]. He played that role while on the payroll of the Mayor’s PAC. Have open government norms been violated?”

“This is a disturbing question that taxpayers have a right to have clarified. I served on the Planning Commission as a volunteer from 2012-2015. Before even my first meeting,” King said, “Jason Gabriel of the General Counsel’s Office briefed me on the requirements of the Sunshine Law and continued to remind me and my colleagues of its requirements. Our leaders owe us real transparency.”

Will the Democratic Party finally serve as a bulwark against what King and other Dems see as the Curry administration’s blurring of policy and politics?

Time will tell.

But their new chair is aware of the ineluctable partisanship of the game being played.

Mayor’s ‘Kids Hope’ board picks sail through Jacksonville City Council panel

Six November nominees to the Jacksonville Kids Hope Alliance board were up in committee Tuesday.

All of them sailed through with nary a no vote, putting them on the Consent Agenda at next week’s City Council meeting. Most of them were completely uncontroversial.

And the one who was controversial going in wasn’t controversial at all in the end, proving yet again that — in the case of Jacksonville City Hall — what Mayor Lenny Curry says pretty much goes.

Rebekah Davis, a former member of the Jacksonville Children’s Commission board of directors; Kevin Gay, a previous Jacksonville Journey board member; former Jacksonville Sheriff and current Edward Waters College President Nat Glover; Iraq War Bronze Star recipient Joe Peppers; and Tyra Tutor, an senior vice president at The Adecco Group North America.

The controversial (to some) choice: Marvin Wells, the first African-American graduate of the U.F. College of Dentistry. But not for reasons of qualifications.

Wells, who owns an oral surgery practice, lives outside of the Duval County limits.

The ordinance establishing the KHA as the replacement for the Jax Journey and the Jacksonville Children’s Commission required Duval County residency — one of a number of changes City Council negotiated with the administration.

And some Council members, such as Garrett Dennis, made it clear they weren’t happy. The ordinance, passed this fall, was intended to have a binding residency requirement.

They saw the out-of-county pick as an attempt to undermine Council authority and create a “test case” for future appointments that contravened the residency requirement.

Davis, Gay, Glover, Peppers, and Tutor moved through quickly, with convivial Q&As that reflected their unique skill sets.

Wells, a Raines High School graduate who grew up in the Northwest Quadrant, was a different matter, as he has lived outside the county for 11 years.

Councilors — committee members and otherwise — spoke up.

Council President Anna Brosche weighed in as a visitor to the committee, saying she has not decided yet on Wells, and will let her conscience drive her vote Tuesday.

Councilman Garrett Dennis — a frequent sparring partner of the Mayor’s Office, and a visitor to the committee –noted that Council members have to live in the area that they represent.

“We could find sharp, dedicated individuals … out of the 850,000 in the city,” Dennis said, noting that he’d pushed for the “permanent resident” requirement.

“I will not be able to support your appointment,” Dennis said, brandishing a list of dentists in Jacksonville who actually fulfill the residency requirement.

Dennis also worried that Wells was a “test case” for another nominee who lives outside the county.

Councilwoman Joyce Morgan likewise said the felt “uncomfortable with the Mayor’s Office throwing that at us right away to test” the residency requirement.

“We should never have had to have the debate about his residency at all,” Morgan said, depicting that this was “almost a situation of ‘who’s next’ … from St. Johns County.”

“Really, nobody else in Duval County can do this? Nobody?,” Morgan said. “I do not want to open the gate. I don’t think we need to go there. It’s just not necessary.”

Morgan went along with consensus in the end, of course.

Other Council members were eager to work around the residency requirement they voted into being.

Al Ferraro noted that a meeting with Wells overcame his objections to supporting someone who lives “out of town.”

“Talking to you, you talk softly … seem very sincere … with a moral drive,” Ferraro asserted. “Sometimes this place can be a snake pit where people try to get you to do things that you know are wrong.”

Katrina Brown said that, while Duval residency was a “big important key because we didn’t want to have a lot of people who lived outside the community … sometimes there are exceptions.”

“I’d hate to pass up on a person with your caliber of experience,” Brown said.

“He kind of reminds me of myself,” Brown said later in the discussion.

Councilman Reggie Brown told Wells that “the residency issue is bigger than you” and that he would support Wells.

“It was about paid employees,” Brown said, alluding to out-of-county hires during the John Peyton administration.

Councilmen Sam Newby and Scott Wilson likewise backed the Mayor’s pick.

And Wells, like the others, cleared the committee with nary a no vote.

As is so often the case when Mayor Lenny Curry proposes something to the Jacksonville City Council, they may grouse, but fall in line in the end.

No more room at the morgue: Crisis in Jacksonville

The opioid overdose crisis in Jacksonville has taxed city resources on a number of fronts, including those not visible to the public, such as the Medical Examiner’s office.

Numerous city hall conversations this year have spotlighted the pressures created by the unnatural and unbudgeted deaths of the overdose crisis.

WJXT reported on a cry for help email to the entire City Council from Medical Examiner Valerie Rao.

There is no room to perform autopsies, Rao wrote: “We have one body on the ground, which is not an ideal situation. Bodies cannot be autopsied because there are no trays and the bodies are on racks.”

Corpses are being turned away, Rao said.

Jacksonville City Council Finance Chair Garrett Dennis described the situation to us as “bodies piled on top of bodies” ahead of the meeting.

At the end of Rao’s testimony, Dennis suggested moving a new building up in the capital improvement plan, as he has been hearing from people who are outraged at the concept of a loved one’s body laying on the floor.

A new building, to replace the facility built in 1968, will be required down the road. The facility serves 1.6 million people in a five county area, including Duval, Clay, Nassau, Hamilton, and Columbia Counties.

The Finance Committee spoke to Rao on Tuesday, who delineated her concerns, in light of population growth, the drug crisis, and a continuing uptick on homicides.

There have been 2,698 decedent cases this year: up from 2,484 last year.

There were 589 drug cases last year, and Rao says her office is “way over” that pace this year.

“We have no space,” Rao said of the building with a capacity of 50, adding that the administration suggested a “mobile cooler facility.”

“I need a commitment that this is going to be a temporary measure. We need something permanent,” Rao said.

In the next two weeks, they will have an estimate for the cost of that facility, which will replace seven employee parking spaces at the Medical Examiner’s office. They expect to have specifics by early January.

Rao noted that Orlando has a brand-new building that cost $16 million.

“We’ve been asking for a new building for a while now,” Rao said, but she wanted to leave the details to the Lenny Curry administration.

“We need a lot of space. In terms of square footage,” Rao said, “I have no idea.”

Rao wants a “fast-track” solution, given that the population will continue to grow, and given the increase year over year in recent years.

Rao was elusive in terms of specific data, however, saying that she didn’t have the figures with her, and wanted to be “accurate and scientific.”

This lack of specifics irked Councilman Danny Becton, who pressed Rao to outline the case for a new facility in business needs, making projections about what is needed.

“I’m trying to get you as an administrator to understand we need more information to help you solve this problem,” Becton said.

Councilwoman Katrina Brown urged that Rao bring people who were capable of answering specific questions to the next Finance Committee meeting.

Other Council members — including Matt Schellenberg — noted that Rao has failed to offer specific needs and proposals, dating back even to the budget process in August.

Administration members say that a permanent facility build could take two years, and that the Orlando building was built in 2010, which means the $16 million may be a lowball estimate.

“The bigger issue at hand is the opioid crisis,” said one Curry administration member, which is driving the death increase that is taxing the facility.

The lack of room creates issues for medical examinations, including questions of DNA transferring from one body to another because of overcrowding; such close proximity could compromise exams and investigations.

“We have to be careful we don’t lose our accreditation,” Rao said, saying that substandard facilities could compromise that status, before amending her statement, saying that in her 38 years in the business, cross-contamination has never been an issue.

A Curry administration member noted that accreditation was not brought up in meetings between the ME and the Mayor’s Office.

Councilman Reggie Brown suggested “mobile morgue” trailers, such as those being used elsewhere.

“This would suffice in terms of our body count until we build a new facility,” Brown said, urging Council members to “back down on the whole panic” that frothed up in the discussion of this issue.

Councilman Becton also urged caution, saying the discussion of cross-contamination and the like “opened up a Pandora’s Box” that attorneys could exploit in challenging the Medical Examiner’s findings.

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