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Alvin Brown's no-win situation: inside the JAXBIZ endorsement of Lenny Curry

Was the JAXBIZ endorsement of Lenny Curry preordained? It depends on how you look at it.

The endorsement came late Tuesday, just one day after the JAXBIZ interview of Mayor Alvin Brown, and seemed to reflect a consensus view. The wording: unambiguous.

“JAXBIZ researched the records and platforms of each of the three major candidates, and then met individually this week with Curry, Jacksonville City Councilman Bill Bishop and Mayor Alvin Brown. After careful consideration, the board felt that inadequate proposed solutions to the pension crisis, an overall inability to manage the city’s finances and other missed leadership opportunities warranted a change in the mayor’s office. The board determined Lenny Curry was the best candidate.”

Indeed, the board did make that determination. But was it a unanimous position? Brown had supporters in the room. And those supporters think that the mayor was in a no-win situation going into the room.

Why? Demographics – specifically, of the board itself.

Brown supporters think the fix was in from the outset, and that the mayor showed courage by going in, knowing that he was being interviewed by some of Curry’s leading supporters, and a veritable Who’s Who of Jacksonville’s political class.

In the room were local Republican heavyweight Marty Fiorentino, and Peter Rummell (the kingmaker from 2011 who famously repudiated the mayor last year, saying that the mayor “wimped out”). Not to mention Ed Burr, the elected leader of the Jacksonville Civic Council. And Mike Hightower, who endorsed Curry in the strongest possible terms, saying that “Lenny Curry is committed to a continued low-tax, business-friendly climate for the community and has the leadership ability and vision to move our city forward. There is no more important election than that of Jacksonville’s mayor and JAXBIZ’s decision is a vote for the future of Jacksonville and confidence in the leadership Lenny will provide as the city’s CEO.”

Reportedly in the room also were figures ranging from Daniel Davis and former Sheriff Nat Glover to Abel Harding, former Mayor John Delaney and Susie Wiles, to name just a few on this Duval County establishment all-star team.

Some think the decision not to endorse Brown was ultimately predicated on (or at least justified by) him refusing to commit to a tax increase during the interview. There is a school of thought that suggests, also, that if Brown had not ruled out taxes, he would have paid a political price for that; thus, the mayor faced a classic prisoner’s dilemma.

Another wrinkle: Many conservative Republican politicians in Jacksonville are touting tax increases in response to the pension problem and other issues.  Bishop wants a half-penny sales tax increase, for example. Delaney has gone on record saying that a tax increase is necessary to resolve the pension predicament. The Delaney statements would offer Curry political cover to raise taxes and fees if he wanted, at least in the short term.

Brown maintains the position that he did not raise taxes this term. His campaign says that he will not raise taxes in a second term, either. A remarkable no-tax pledge, albeit one marred by the City Council raising property taxes in 2013 – a point pounced upon by the Curry Campaign already.

Whether the decision was made because of Brown’s aversion to tax increases or not, the Chamber endorsement did not surprise Brown’s campaign.

“Let’s be clear about this: Many leading JAXBIZ members asked the mayor to commit to raising taxes during his second term. Mayor Brown refused to make that commitment. Given that Lenny Curry has now received their endorsement, he has a lot of questions to answer about his commitment to protecting taxpayers,”  Deputy Campaign Manager Fabien Levy said in a prepared statement.

Levy maintained that Brown has bipartisan support, in spite of the Chamber endorsement – which he attributed to bias on the board.

“Given that many of the JAXBIZ members in the room during the endorsement meeting were strong financial backers and supporters of Lenny Curry’s campaign, including his Finance Chair, the result is unsurprising. The reason why Republican business leaders like Toney Sleiman, Ron Autrey, and Mark Frisch are supporting Alvin Brown is because there are 36,000 more jobs in Jacksonville today than when Alvin Brown became Mayor. Under Alvin Brown, Jacksonville has been hailed as the best place in America to start a new business. Those are the facts.”

The Brown campaign released a statement from Autrey, a former chair of both JAXBIZ and the JAX Chamber, that offered support to the off-the-record assertions from Brown partisans.

“The way JAXBIZ operates is that it is stacked with party leaders that had already endorsed Lenny. I suspect they drove the message and group think kicked in. It’s always easy to criticize the incumbent when compared against a fabricated candidate like Lenny.”

Autrey’s critique is sharply worded, and is clearly intended to undercut the legitimacy of the endorsement. Mayor Brown didn’t get the endorsement four years ago, either, and it didn’t hurt him in the end. But the political landscape of 2015 is different than 2011, and most observers will interpret what went down this week as a vote of no confidence, and won’t delve very deep into the process itself.

Written By

A.G. 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 AG@FloridaPolitics.com

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