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A.G. Gancarski’s Top 10 stories of 2015 in Jacksonville politics

In Jacksonville politics in 2015, the game changed … perhaps for good.

Big money went into campaigns: over $10 million, including soft money, in the mayoral race. Close to $2 million in the sheriff’s race. And even some City Council candidates who raised close to a quarter of a million dollars did so in vain.

The consultants had to get sharper, as did the microtargeting used by them.

And unlike in 2011, when the general complaint during the General Election was that coverage was desultory, especially in terms of the mayoral race, every news cycle had its own narrative arc for months before the final elections in May.

It would be easy to come up with a Top 25 stories in Jacksonville’s political scene for 2015. But mercifully for most readers, we’re leaving it at 10.

No. 1: Lenny Curry defeats Alvin Brown

It’s the top story of the year, in a year full of compelling stories.

When Curry launched his campaign in spring 2014, the smart set told him that he couldn’t win. He lacked the gravitas of Property Appraiser Jim Overton. The knowledge and procedural deftness of Councilman Bill Gulliford. The retail politics skills of Mike Hogan. Not to mention that Mayor Brown’s poll numbers were, according to the University of North Florida polling, near 60 percent (but falling from 70 percent) as late as spring 2014.

However, a number of factors converged to take Curry from a footnote to the fourth floor of City Hall. The first-rate work of Tim Baker, Brian Hughes, and Brian Swensen, combining a use of data unprecedented in this market with the willingness to do what it took to win any given news cycle, helped Curry erode the advantage enjoyed by the Brown campaign.

Curry was not a natural campaigner. He developed his voice and his style as his operatives undermined the ultimately soft support enjoyed by the incumbent. And once Bill Bishop was out of the race after the March 1 election, Curry was able to bring a lot of moderate Republicans back into the fold. Those Republicans had supported Brown, in reaction to a general feeling that Hogan was too far right on social issues, but Brown couldn’t hold them.

That, in spite of holding the moderate Republicans clearly being part of the nonpartisan mayor’s strategy. Brown wouldn’t appear with Barack Obama when the president came to town, but found time for a Leadership Luncheon with local Tea Party founder Billie Tucker. Brown played to the center up until a few weeks before the election, when issues like a state-mandated minimum wage and Medicaid expansion became concerns of his.

All the while, Brown couldn’t move left on one issue: expansion of the Human Rights Ordinance. Though LGBT activists ended up endorsing Brown anyway, as the mayor staked his re-election efforts on stacking votes in the low-turnout Riverside neighborhood, the mayor’s leftward pivot did more for the Curry camp’s messaging than it did for Brown’s.

No. 2: Corrine delivers?

At this writing, the big question in Northeast Florida politics involves Corrine Brown and her next move.

There is still a theoretical chance that her legal challenge to the new map is successful, but the more interesting scenario revolves around the question of what happens if it isn’t.

Does Brown move on to run in Congressional District 10, down Orlando way? Or does she stay in North Florida and run against former State Sen. Al Lawson of Tallahassee, to represent a district after she said that “Jacksonville, Florida, has nothing in common with North Florida.”

Local Republicans are split on this one. The mouth-breathing rank and file would like to get rid of her; however, those more attuned with Brown’s effectiveness in lobbying for local causes know that Congresswoman Brown brings a unique value add.

Thus, even if Brown loses her lawsuit early next year, she may get pressure and tangible support from local GOP heavyweights to stay in North Florida. Will it be enough? Former Duval GOP Chairman Tom Slade said, many years ago, that Brown was a “good fit for her district.” Will local Republicans seek to ensure that even as that district map changed radically, Brown still fits into what could be called the Northeast Florida Way?

If not, worthy candidates, such as Audrey Gibson, Mia Jones, and Tony Hill wait in the wings. However, none of them have Brown’s national network of support. The concern among the local political class is that redistricting could leave Jacksonville a big loser, with just one congressman (Ander Crenshaw) with ties to the area.

With strong indications that she’s all but filed to run again in District 5 (even with the lawsuit challenging the new map), Brown should make Jacksonville locals happy.

No. 3: Sam Mousa is back!

Unless you see Jacksonville’s Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa in action, you might not have a sense of what he has brought to the table for Lenny Curry since days after Curry’s election. From the transition period in June to this writing, Mousa has taken close looks at every aspect of the city’s operation, keeping the kind of hours that most journalists (and most in City Hall) would recoil at.

Mousa’s credibility and ability to broker win/win compromises between the administration, City Council, and community stakeholders has quieted down restive Council members, some of whom took advantage of the perceived weakness of Mayor Brown’s position to exert quasi-executive prerogatives.

The real greatness of Mousa is appreciated in the smaller meetings. From public notice meetings where the public apparently didn’t get the notice to agenda meetings before a committee deliberates a major bill, Mousa is able to explain the administration’s position in an avuncular way, removing even token resistance from most of the eager-to-please rookies on the legislative side.

Curry’s hires, with one notable exception, have been smooth as fresh silk. Mousa is the capstone of that recruitment effort, and the only comment overheard from some is that Mousa’s power came at the expense of Chief of Staff Kerri Stewart, whose presence isn’t quite as pronounced as that of her predecessor, Chris Hand.

 No. 4: Jacksonville the new Detroit?

One of the running themes of Lenny Curry’s public statements: If Jacksonville doesn’t get the public pension crisis under control, the Bold New City of the South will be transformed into Where Default Begins.

The question of who messed up the public pension system depends on who you ask. The police and firefighter unions claim that the city misappropriated funds earmarked for the pension. Politicians, meanwhile, claim that the Police and Fire Pension Fund was mismanaged by former executive director John Keane, and that interpretation is buttressed by a “forensic investigation” authorized by City Council earlier this year.

A pension agreement was reached in the spring, as Alvin Brown was headed out of office, yet the Unfunded Liability issues, both in the Police and Fire and the General Employees pension funds, are of great concern to Curry, who says that without a way to turn around the cash flow, Jacksonville will  be the next Detroit, and ambitious plans for public safety and infrastructural renewal will be consumed by legacy costs.

No. 5: HRO expansion

Which way will Lenny Curry go? His odyssey, in terms of evolution on the Human Rights Ordinance expansion to the LGBT community, mirrors that of his generation, which has become increasingly understanding that, as with heterosexuals, those who operate under different paradigms of gender construction or expression and sexual identity deserve to have their rights protected.

However, in a city like Jacksonville, there are myriad concerns to address. Ministers, both black and white, worry about the effect HRO expansion will have on religious freedoms and potential impacts, both costs and legal, to public accommodations. Advocates have worked to craft a bill that mitigates the concerns of opponents.

However, opponents would prefer the referendum measure introduced by Councilman Bill Gulliford, as expectations are that a referendum full of low to no information voters would swing, as it did in Houston, against the bill.

Tommy Hazouri introduced a traditional piece of legislation, and Gulliford, the Finance Committee chairman, has already said he wants the bill considered in Finance because of its financial implications.

Meanwhile, strong expectations are that there could be a third HRO expansion bill, one that leaves the protections for transgender people to be negotiated at a later date.

Curry is taking his time to figure out the next move. Meanwhile, both the right and the left wings of council are threatening to fly without him, which is the first challenge to the primacy of the executive branch since July.

 No. 6: 11 New council members

The big story coming out of the 2015 election: 11 of the 19 councilmembers would be new to the body.

Has there been real change? So far, the jury is out, and probably will be for some time. However, if you listen closely, you can hear grousing among City Hall veterans about subjects ranging from the ethical gray area of taking perks from the Jacksonville Jaguars to a fundamental lack of preparation to be active councilmembers in some cases.

Currently, Council is a two-tiered enterprise, with a few Council members demonstrating the stamina and acuity to drive the process, and more than a few who simply follow the leader. The new class, in that context: a work in progress.

No. 7: New sheriff in town

After a bruising campaign full of more oppo dumps than any other campaign locally this year, Mike Williams overcame Ken Jefferson in the May election. Williams was identified very closely with Sheriff John Rutherford, which was arguably a hindrance in the seven-candidate First Election in March. Leading up to the May election, he seemed to signal a perestroika in the office; more transparency.

Thus far, his reforms have been quiet ones. Williams has been strong at community outreach, even as his administration has weathered the occasional bit of bad press, such as The Florida Times-Union reporting on the sheriff’s office only keeping emails for 90 days after receipt, which the paper correctly said could hinder active investigations.

Williams, as was the case with Rutherford, likely will be in office for as long as he wants to be. He benefits from a strong working relationship with Lenny Curry, one that presents meaningful contrast to the clashes between Alvin Brown and Williams’ predecessor. The questions going forward: Will Williams stake out a reform path while he’s in office? And how will his office deal with the ongoing larger debate about police and fire pensions?

No. 8: Shad Khan

In 2015 Khan played an increasingly meaningful role in Jacksonville’s political life. He went six figures deep in backing Alvin Brown for mayor, in addition to contributing to PACs that sent mailers for candidates such as Kim Daniels. Then, after Brown’s defeat, the big question was one of when and how (never whether) Khan would pivot to supporting Curry.

The bromance started slowly, with Curry and Khan appearing together at an Enterprise Florida Board Meeting in Ponte Vedra late in the summer. From there, the London trip for the Jaguars, in which Curry tweeted out a picture of him fist-bumping the billionaire Jags owner after the team beat the Buffalo Bills.

The real moment for celebration, however, was the $90 million EverBank Field improvement package, one that was walked through council by Sam Mousa and senior leadership of the Jaguars, the latter of which seemed like honorary members of the executive branch for a couple of weeks.

With Khan giving money to Build Something That Lasts, and placing an executive on the JEA Board, what is clear is that no matter who the mayor is, Jacksonville is Shad’s town, and we’re just living in it.

No. 9: No budget fuss

Whether the criticisms were entirely fair or not, the budget process of former Mayor Alvin Brown became a political piñata in recent years. Councilmembers griped about inconsistent budget practices, and having to do triage to fix the budget.

The Curry team had no such issues. The money they found in various subfunds helped facilitate capital improvements and a budget process that proved to be as clean as could be hoped for.

Though a necessary caveat that the next few budget processes might be more interesting should be issued, Team Curry scored a big, legitimizing political win in its first budget.

No. 10: Jax Journey 2.0: Let’s ride

One of the interesting threads of the Lenny Curry campaign, and the early part of his administration: a commitment to revitalize the Jacksonville Journey.

With $5 million in the current budget for that end, there are moves to do just that, and Curry’s commitment to this underscores many of his other initiatives, including his administration’s focus on the issues at Eureka Garden (even as those at Cleveland Arms and other similar complexes are not as yet on the radar).

Curry, very aware of the political power of African-American pastors, worked with Bishop John Guns on the branding of this process, to the point of using Guns’ catchphrase. An interesting theme to watch for 2016 and beyond: Will the ministers fall in behind Curry throughout his term, as they seem to have thus far?

Written By

A.G. Gancarski has been a working journalist for over two decades. Gancarski has been a correspondent for FloridaPolitics.com since 2014. In 2018, he was a finalist for an Association of Alternative Newsweeklies "best political column." He can be reached at a.g.gancarski@gmail.com.

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