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How One Spark lays bare Florida’s political divide

For the hundreds of thousands of visitors flocking this week to Jacksonville’s One Spark, the five-day crowdfunding festival is a glorious love-in, a happening, a blissful paean to the millennial generation’s long-awaited 21st century triumph over the city’s stodgy Old Guard. One Spark is the Change They Have Been Waiting For.

Closed streets, open containers, live music and gourmet food trucks on every corner, plus incredible people-watching are the event’s hallmarks. One Spark, as the saying goes, lets a thousand flowers bloom.

But not everyone is thrilled. More conservative-minded Duval denizens are eyeing the third annual event with a mixture of curiosity and disdain.

Case in point: Both liberals and conservatives are sharing a striking Facebook post from local conservative talk show host Bill Hay (with vastly different reactions, of course).

Says Hay:

From time to time it is necessary to leave your comfort zone. Last night I must have traveled to the Twilight Zone … I went downtown to One Spark and carried with me an open mind. I enjoyed the music and the fact that there were finally 1000’s of people downtown walking around (or stumbling around as the night wore on). Being there offered me an opportunity to see what Jacksonville is becoming. I am only making a statement going further, not judging the right or wrong of any lifestyle (right this moment).

When I was in my 20’s, Jacksonville was a family town with good family values and the family influence was obvious. Now, when looking at a cross section of the attendees at One Spark, I see a completely different set of young people in attendance.

I see women “loving” on women, men talking in a tone that would have certainly got them “pants” in gym class and an overall sense of rebelling against the established “Family and Wholesome Ideal” … I have never seen a larger gathering of Beautiful young women who have, IMHO, ruined their bodies with full sleeve tattoos. What happened to a small heart or butterfly on the ankle … I saw one young lady that was no more than 25 with what appeared to be a copy of the Mona Lisa on her entire back …

To me it is a statement of the downfall of the family unit and society as a whole. If your little girls dress like sluts, don’t be surprised when they come home pregnant at 18 … Anyway, enjoy One Spark, afterall your taxes are paying for a big portion of the promotion …

I spoke with Hay, who supported moderate Republican Bill Bishop for mayor, about his post. “It’s just my initial reaction to society as a whole,” he said. “The world we live in today is totally different than the world we grew up in, or the one our parents grew up in. When I was a kid, a girl getting a tattoo was completely unheard of.”

But when Hay expresses alarm at “what Jacksonville is becoming,” he’s simply giving voice to the thoughts of the thousands of conservative, older voters who don’t live in the urban core, adamantly don’t want higher taxes, are turned off by the city’s rising crime rates and failing schools, and are not necessarily down with LGBT equality. (Mona Lisa tats assuredly don’t fly with this demo either). These are the voters that Republican Lenny Curry will easily pull into his column in the city’s runoff election for mayor on May 19. Get that base to turn out and Curry has a strong shot at taking city hall in May.

For Mayor Alvin Brown, the challenge is to maintain his strong base of black Democrats, garner just a slice of Bill Hay’s WBOB listeners, but most importantly — sway Bill Bishop’s former supporters to bubble in his name on Election Day.

The success of One Spark would lead the casual observer to think that Jacksonville is now nothing but a vast sea of Bill Bishop acolytes — mainly white GenX and millennial progressives. He famously was the only candidate in the race to give a full-throated endorsement to updating the city’s human rights ordinance to cover LGBT citizens. But it’s important to note that while Bishop’s ill-fated mayoral candidacy was laser-focused on the so-called “One Spark” set — plugged in, socially liberal, and fed up with politics as usual — he only took about 17 percent of the vote in March.

That’s telling, and reflective of a general divide. The state may be purple, and sliding toward blue, but Republicans won’t let the Sunshine State go without a big fight. Florida is absolutely up for grabs in 2016, which makes what’s happening on the ground culturally in Jacksonville so fascinating. Because this North Florida city is well-known as the most conservative large metro in the country.

Duval County is vast because of its unique consolidated government, and typically leans Republican. While Barack Obama barely lost here to John McCain in 2008, Mitt Romney won the place handily in 2012. Richard Nixon‘s so-called “silent majority is still very much here, and it’s actually not silent. That makes the path to victory a narrow, but not impossible, one for  Brown.

Adds Hay, “One Spark is obviously a younger crowd. I enjoyed myself last night — loved the music. I did notice though, that I didn’t see too many older folks from First Baptist Church out there walking around. We have a divide in our community, and Jacksonville is just that perfect example of tension between a young, tech-savvy population that’s up-and-coming, very live and let live — and then there’s the other side of the coin. You know, the staunch coat-and-tie guys, the women who wear their best dresses to church every Sunday.

“I mean, I know people who’ve run businesses downtown that have closed their doors. They don’t want to deal with this One Spark crowd.”

However, One Spark Community and Public Relations Director takes issue with the notion that One Spark reveals a divide.

“I just disagree with the assertion that One Spark attendees are mostly young hipsters. I feel like One Spark is a force to unite the city, to bring together everyone from all walks of life, and be something our city as a whole can be proud to host here. One Spark became one of the top 20 festivals in the country by attendance last year thanks to so many in our community coming out and supporting the creator projects. We have survey data that backs up that One Spark attendees really are close to a cross-section of Jacksonville,” says Johnson.

Updated figures for OneSpark’s attendance during the 2015 festival show the event topped 300,000 in attendees, an increase from last year.

Written By

In addition to her work writing for Florida Politics, Melissa Ross also hosts and produces WJCT’s First Coast Connect, the Jacksonville NPR/PBS station’s flagship local call-in public affairs radio program. The show has won four national awards from Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). First Coast Connect was also recognized in 2010, 2011, 2013 and 2014 as Best Local Radio Show by Folio Weekly’s “Best Of Jax” Readers Poll and Melissa has also been recognized as Folio Weekly’s Best Local Radio Personality. As executive producer of The 904: Shadow on the Sunshine State, Melissa and WJCT received an Emmy in the “Documentary” category at the 2011 Suncoast Emmy Awards. The 904 examined Jacksonville’s status as Florida’s murder capital. During her years in broadcast television, Melissa picked up three additional Emmys for news and feature reporting. Melissa came to WJCT in 2009 with 20 years of experience in broadcasting, including stints in Cincinnati, Chicago, Orlando and Jacksonville. Married with two children, Melissa is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism/Communications. She can be reached at m.ross66211@gmail.com.

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