On the steps of Jacksonville’s City Hall on Tuesday, Bill Bishop announced he won’t endorse either Alvin Brown or Lenny Curry in the runoff mayoral race this year. Instead, he said, Bishop plans to run for mayor in 2019.
On a sweltering March afternoon, the moderate Republican stood at a makeshift lectern before a cadre of local supporters and local media. He talked about how he’d talked to people for the past 10 months, acknowledging the “tremendous support from Bill-ievers.”
He answered the question he’s gotten in the week since last week’s election from many supporters: “Who should I vote for?” By Bishop’s reckoning, neither Brown nor Curry has made the sale. He urged concerned voters to ask “pointed questions” and demand “specific answers” on questions such as the pension deal, which “illustrated the need for strong leadership.”
“I just believe that candidates should answer questions with direct answers,” he said.
When Bishop said that was “not endorsing either candidate … [and] I intend to run for Mayor in 2019,” a palpable sense of relief descended over his supporters, some of whom had expected that Bishop would be loyal to his party and endorse Curry. A spirited chant of “Bill! Bill! Bill!” filled the area. Supporters, he said later, should “Hang on to [their] campaign signs.”
When Bishop said he would run in 2019, I asked via which party. The answer: Republican. “I’ve always been a registered Republican,” he said, “and I don’t intend to change.”
If Curry wins, it sets up an interesting dynamic between the outgoing councilman and a mayor from the same party. When asked why he was declaring his 2019 campaign so far out, he replied: “The answer to ‘why now?’ is ‘why not?'”
When asked what he learned from this race, one takeaway was that “running for mayor is a whole lot different than running for city council.”
There has been little contact between Bishop and the two remaining candidates; Bishop “chatted briefly” with each of them, but “neither asked me for anything.” Asked whether the healing had begun in his strained relationship with the local GOP hierarchy, Bishop replied, “You’d have to ask them.”
Throughout his remarks, Bishop almost painstakingly avoided any statement that could be interpreted as preference. “Most things affecting cities are not partisan,” he said, adding that voters should do their homework and “demand straight answers.”
“Each candidate has pros and cons,” he said, adding he is “not going away. Not deliberately getting involved. Not saying things just for the heck of it to get headlines.”
One of his most vocal supporters, local activist Denise Hunt, asked Bishop how he would handle outreach to the African-American community in the Northwest Quadrant.
Bishop’s response was that he would “do more there; reach out more and earlier.”
When asked afterward what she thought of Bishop’s response, Hunt was characteristically blunt. Bishop’s problem with outreach outside of “Riverside, Avondale, and the Friends of Hemming Park” was because he surrounded himself with “people who think and talk and look and act like you,” which Hunt said was a way to guarantee that he would “lose again in 2019.”
“It’s not just African-Americans. It’s whites in Oceanway and Wesconnett” who didn’t connect with Bishop’s approach.
Hunt’s question and her response was the only note of discord on a day dedicated to celebrating Bishop’s issues-oriented campaign.
Brian Hughes, on behalf of the Lenny Curry campaign, issued a statement saying, “Councilman Bishop ran a good campaign and came in third place. Like all voters in Jacksonville, we welcome his involvement and work to restore Jacksonville’s greatness. The best way to do that is to change the direction of this city and put new leadership in place in City Hall. Lenny Curry has a vision and a written plan, he has the backing of law enforcement professionals who endorse his plan for public safety, and as a job creator and accountant he has the professional experience to reform and restore taxpayers’ trust in the city’s finances.”
Brown’s campaign manager, Isaiah Nelson, offered similar praise.
“Mr. Bishop’s long record of honest public service to Jacksonville speaks for itself. Mayor Brown has always respected Mr. Bishop’s leadership and looks forward to continuing to work with him to put Jacksonville first. These divisions in party boss Lenny Curry’s own party show just how unqualified he is,” said Nelson, new to the campaign.
“Mayor Brown keeps his promises, and looks forward to continuing to work to earn the vote of every single Jacksonville voter,” Nelson said.
Some had speculated that Bishop might endorse Brown so as not to upset his hipster supporters, but RPOF guidelines precluded him endorsing a Democrat, even if he wanted to (which he gave no indication of wanting to do). Some had thought he’d endorse Curry, out of party loyalty or out of a shared desire for change from the current administration; that didn’t happen either. Bishop made no play of “releasing his supporters,” recognizing that such measures are artificial.
Announcing a 2019 campaign seven weeks before the 2015 campaign ends will be interpreted by people according to their cognitive and associative biases, of course. Although it’s an open question whether the Bill-iever momentum will carry for four years through the various issues Jacksonville will address, that seems to be the bet he has made.