I remember the first time I interviewed former Jacksonville Mayor John Delaney. It was 2008, and I wanted to know why it was that the Duval County power structure fell in behind the Presidential bid of Mitt Romney. The University of North Florida President gave me something that is all too rare in politics: a forthright answer that was concise and that made sense.
To this day, he’s never done anything but give me real answers to the sort of questions that most folks sidestep. I interviewed him today in his office at UNF, and as always, the answers were revealing.
We started off talking about the 2011 election, and how it was that “the Manchurian candidate” Alvin Brown won. Both of us agreed that a big part of why that election went as it did was because the media was so focused on the myriad gaffes of Mike Hogan that there wasn’t much vetting of Alvin Brown, who was, Delaney said, underestimated.
As the sole viable Democrat in a “jungle primary,” Delaney said that Brown’s advancing to the runoff was more of a sure thing than many observers at the time saw as a possibility. From there, he clearly had at least an even shot.
One of the arguments I’ve made over the last few months was that Brown’s campaign messaging didn’t deliver.
“I thought the campaign’s TV ads were well done,” he said. Regarding the segmented advertising for the African-American community and other audiences, Delaney said such “tactics typically work,” citing the example of Mark Mahon beating Charles McBurney in a State House race in 2000, where Mahon used similarly segmented advertising.
Still, Delaney noted, African-American turnout was not as decisive a factor as it was in 2011; “there was not a lot of enthusiasm,” he said.
Given that, reportedly, Brown got booed at the local music festival Funk Fest this year, that much is clear.
“On occasion,” Delaney added, Brown “could delude himself,” citing his repeated inconsistencies regarding Mayor Brown’s relationship with Barack Obama, which culminated in accusations throughout the African-American community that Brown didn’t want to be seen on the same stage with President Obama. These accusations got currency in the final mayoral debate, when Curry brought up Mayor Brown being an Obama delegate, a point the mayor denied afterwards to media, saying that he didn’t know what Curry was talking about.
That said, Delaney sees Brown as a “likable guy” with a “good heart,” who joins a fraternity of five of the last nine Jacksonville mayors, who lost their last run for the top job.
Delaney related that the Lenny Curry side felt confident even three weeks ahead of the election that they would win. “The numbers were that solid,” he said, but “it was still a close final.”
“Lenny’s camp said that if Republicans vote for Republicans, we’re going to win,” Delaney said, adding that they treated the race like a campaign in a “Republican congressional district.”
That being said, Delaney observes that Curry is “more moderate” than his campaign persona was. And, as you would expect given the hires of Sam Mousa and Mike Weinstein, Delaney is on board with the talent that the Mayor-elect has brought on board.
“Ed Austin used to say that you can’t hire for senior posts based on politics,” which should be taken as a clear indication that party loyalty or campaign work should not inform those decisions.
Delaney had nothing but positive things to say about Mousa and Weinstein.
“Sam makes the trains run on time,” Delaney observed. Weinstein, meanwhile, was described as “brilliant in the financial realm” and “very creative” with a great grasp of “hypotheticals” and how to choose, quickly and decisively, from a “range of options.”
Curry, posits Delaney, is well-suited to benefit from such veteran talent.
“Lenny is a good listener,” Delaney observed, “thoughtful and reflective.”
Such qualities will help him work with his team to right the ship during what Delaney called a “tough budget situation.”
That budget situation might be exacerbated by increasing headwinds in the national economy; macroeconomic non-negotiables such as interest rate hikes, cooling off of the equity markets, and so on. However, Delaney adds that “every mayor has his own recession.”
Regarding the Great Recession, Delaney observed that “Florida started to feel it in 2008. Peyton’s second term was difficult,” but the mayor dealt with it by stabilizing city finances.
During Delaney’s tenure, the big downturn was in 2000 and 2001, which “didn’t hurt Jacksonville as much as the rest of the country.”
Still, there are considerations that Curry will face, such as the fact that “property tax revenue doesn’t generate as much as under the previous structure,” and the declined productivity of this revenue source impacted Peyton adversely. Thus, economic development became even more important as a revenue generator.
Regarding Mayor Brown’s repeated insistence that he didn’t raise taxes, Delaney sees that assertion as not true, given the millage rate increase that the administration acquiesced to, which the former mayor says “probably was needed.”
However, the Brown propaganda had its purpose: “Stop seven out of ten people in Jacksonville on the street,” Delaney said, “and they’ll say taxes didn’t go up under Mayor Brown.”
Being mayor, of course, extends beyond fiscal stewardship. It also encompasses being a leader to the entire community. This is something Delaney believes Lenny Curry has a grasp on.
“Lenny and I won by the same margin. What I saw was that I had African American districts where I got no votes,” something that almost seemed like a “mistake” to him.
Thus, a lesson was learned once the initial elation of victory faded. He realized quickly that “I can’t govern if a quarter of the community doesn’t think I represent them.”
How did he resolve that issue? Through concerted effort.
“The first year I was in office,” Delaney related, “I spent every Sunday in an African-American church.”
The reaction went from “cold to cool to warm to hot,” he added, and the payoff was more than political.
“It made me a better human being, a better mayor. I began to see the community through African-American eyes,” and he had to, as his charge was to be “mayor from county line to county line.”
“People have to feel that you represent them,” as part of executive leadership is forging compromise, which Delaney believes “too often is a dirty word” in politics.
Beyond compromise, genuine inclusion is necessary, and diversity was a cornerstone of the Delaney administration. Many previous mayors, he related, put African Americans in “soft positions,” but Delaney had African Americans in prominent positions: fire chief, General Counsel, Deputy CAO, and director of the Solid Waste department among them.
Almost half of his cabinet members were Democrats, also, which added diversity among political parties.
Curry spent more time during the campaign in the African American community, Delaney adds, than some thought was advisable. But that outreach will serve him well, Delaney believes.
“In politics, you move in symbols,” Delaney said. “You need to be cognizant of decisions,” both real and perceived impacts.
“You’ve got to think bipartisan, so that people feel the community is theirs,” he added, a condition which forces a moderate approach
One issue Curry has to look forward to: how to handle the first year in office.
“You spend the first 90 days on a budget. You hand it to City Council, and then they massage it,” typically.
That said, “budgets have been completely reconstructed” by that council the “last three or four years.”
There also are the hiring decisions. Though Delaney believes that Curry has had “homeruns on key hires” thus far, a bad hire is likely inevitable. Some folks may have a “felony in Colorado or something” that had gone previously unreported; otherwise, “some people might say stupid things” that could lead to PR nightmares.
As well, “fights in early stages” of any given administration are inevitable, with ambitious people trying to place themselves on “the pecking order.”
Beyond that, Delaney believes that a “tax increase is inevitable,” given the pressures presented by the pension, the port, paying the police, and funding Shands.
“We need more revenue,” the former mayor says bluntly.
The question that Curry will have to face: “Do you do it early to get it out of the way?”
If not, Mayor Curry may face some of the unpalatable and politically toxic situations Mayor Brown faced.
“Closing libraries was where people probably did a tilt,” Delaney observed. Among all of the moves Mayor Brown made, including force reduction in the police department, that was unique.
“What kind of city can’t keep its libraries open? That seemed to change things psychologically” in Jacksonville.
Mayor Brown’s budget issues, Delaney adds, undermined the “strong mayor” form of government Jacksonville traditionally has.
“Council is part time. The bulk of the year, Council deals with land use and zoning issues. 3 months of the year, the budget. Four budgets didn’t add up,” Delaney said. “It’s a wreck. We’ve got to manage that.”
“If the mayor proposes a responsible budget, things resolve.”
Right now, Delaney observes, there are major issues beyond the budget. “The org chart is a mess,” Delaney said.
There are some bright spots. One of which is Economic Development. Delaney had kind words to say about Downtown Investment Authority head Aundra Wallace, also, saying that he had a “mathematical standard on how to make a deal work.”
And Economic Development is the big enchilada.
“Economic development is what you wake up thinking about.”
Hot-button issues on the minds of many locals: the Human Rights Ordinance and courthouse weddings.
Delaney, three years ago, led on this issue, getting out in front of the Brown Administration. He’s still committed.
“I just met with a group on it yesterday,” he said, and Delaney is “willing to do whatever it takes to help” on it.
He “counted ten votes” on at least a modified version of the HRO. A “fully-inclusive” version, meanwhile, might be more of an open question.
“There’s work to do with the identity component,” he said, adding that “television normalized the popular perception” of gay people, and may do so sooner than later with the transgendered.
Delaney cited the groundswell of support for gay marriage, which is now the law nationwide, as significant.
“There’s never been a social issue with that level of change.”
That said, those agitating for the HRO, such as former City Councilman Tommy Hazouri, might want to draw distinctions. There is a certain threshold in the “chain of commerce” that is meaningful; a corporation might have different standards applied to it than a “mom and pop.” This does not extend, Delaney adds, to restaurants, cabs, and other “public conveyances.”
Meanwhile, on the courthouse wedding question…
“Ronnie [Fussell] is a good friend of mine,” Delaney says, who “has a deeply held religious belief.”
Fussell “doesn’t have a hateful bone in his body,” yet “in trying not to discriminate, he discriminated.”
“Once started,” Delaney said about the long-standing policy of courthouse weddings, one “shouldn’t be able to take it away.”
That said, “when Ronnie goes to his church, people tell him that he did the right thing.”
Mayor Curry will have a smorgasbord of issues to deal with, and a lifetime supply of free advice. However, of all those in a position to give him counsel on how to be a successful mayor of this city, John Delaney may have the best insight of them all.