Duval’s December begins as most months have begun the last four years: Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry and his ever-expanding political machine standing strong, even as political enemies recover from their latest rout.
Last Tuesday saw a doubleheader: back-to-back events illustrating the futility of, as the phrase once went, raging against the machine. An older phrase (“Sound and fury … signifying nothing”) aptly sums up the Curry Crew’s perception of its critics.
First: the “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” moment, when the JEA Board selected in-house interim CEO Aaron Zahn as the local publicly owned utility’s permanent CEO.
The media and the cynics said the fix was in, and maybe so. But, as our review of scoring worksheets suggested, not every board member was in on the fix. Zahn was not the first choice by the numbers of three voters, with the board chair actually giving the edge to San Antonio’s Cris Eugster.
However, neither Eugster nor the other outside candidate knew the game. Curry frequently talks about politics being a “relationship business.” Who had relationships in this scenario except Zahn?
Board members slammed Eugster, who was qualified on paper, for not wanting the gig enough to say or demonstrate it was his first priority. Hill coasted through her interview as if there was some realization that not only did circumstances dictate that Zahn merited a leg up, but that the case could be made, in a quasi-empirical fashion, to give him the role.
When Curry came into City Hall, he soon enough moved to reconfigure boards and commissions, with the JEA Board being a primary example.
Curry got his board. He got his CEO. And in terms of the vision of the administration, a construct that sees a strong mayor atop a dynamic city, that’s exactly what the Chamber and other key supporters of the mayor will want.
What that means, regarding the future of the utility, is unknown. Zahn has said that “capital conversations” are precursors to discussion of changes of the business model. Will JEA privatize? With a new City Council in play, there could be more appetite toward manufacturing consent in that direction.
Curry scored a second victory Tuesday night when City Councilwoman Anna Brosche saw her transparency bill mauled by her colleagues in a 3-16 vote.
The bill, written after a task force on open government and transparency during Brosche’s Council Presidency earlier this year, included a number of reforms.
The legislation would have required anyone doing more than $1 million worth of business with the city to disclose local political donations over the last five years. It would have also required emails and text messages between councilmembers and registered lobbyists to be posted to an online portal as the public record documents they are.
Curry was not in the house, but his senior staffers were, watching the carnage from their vantage points in and near the green room. Sushi, we are told, was served up inside. But the real feast was on, yet again, those who diverge from the Mayor’s agenda.
The effectiveness of this Mayor’s Office in manufacturing consent on this Council has been a common thread of the last few years, even as the personnel and the tactics have changed. Those on the Mayor’s side will say that his team has to grind for every vote.
And there are examples of Curry positioning favored legislators to succeed. Consider the United Arab Emirates funding, much of it going to District 10’s Ken Knight Road; that money will help appointed Republican Councilman Terrance Freeman, who has reportedly said that Curry won’t let him fail.
Or consider the microgrants being given to non-profits to help stop gun violence in Jacksonville. Currycrat Reggie Gaffney, facing a crowded field for re-election, was helped by the buy-in that creates with the community.
Why would a Council member go against that? Most never do. They learn it’s a bad idea.
Consider Danny Becton, who made noise about wanting to spend more money retiring the city’s $3 billion-plus unfunded liability on the pension debt.
Becton talked a good game of brinksmanship, got smacked down, and since then has toed the line. Except for Brosche and Council gadfly Garrett Dennis, everyone pretty much figures that out.
The open question going into the 2019 elections: will Curry face a real challenger?
Brosche hasn’t filed yet. Dennis hasn’t filed yet. The rest of the field lacks portfolio or capital.
Complaining about Curry’s political operation is a popular game, but it’s about as useful as complaining about the Jacksonville Jaguars if there is no challenge to the Mayor worth mentioning.
Curry and Chief of Staff Brian Hughes enjoy the brinksmanship and the combat. Their opponents don’t seem to in the same way. They seem to take the personal attacks personally, rather than as a mechanism of negotiation.
Most of the political talent in this town (specifically, the younger talent) is either in the administration or signed up to lobby for this administration. There is a vision of continuity that is being set up for the long haul, and some of the behind the scenes players we see now are people who will have more prominent roles in the years and decades to come.
The tree has deep roots, and most of those outside the process just see the top branches.
The 2019 elections will offer a referendum on the last four years.
Curry promised decisive, “bold” leadership; he’s provided that.
He’s brought confident, hard-charging people into most roles of import, and though it may look like a boys’ club to some, that doesn’t seem to worry anyone on the inside.
Longtime observers of the local scene who align with Curry expect, even if Brosche gets in, to see her around 30 percent of the vote, with Curry around 50 percent and the minor candidates on the ballot getting the rest.
While there may be a path for Brosche, that path will be laden with landmines: establishment endorsements for Curry, oppo dumps for the challenger.
And if she doesn’t run?
Curry will be popping bottles Jan. 11, with qualifying in the rearview mirror and a cakewalk to four more years.