As our own A.G. Gancarski suggested in his predictions at the beginning of 2018, the year was bound to be filled with excitement.
He even got some of his predictions right. He knew the JEA privatization debate was going to be ugly. He also knew that no matter how many murders happened on Jacksonville streets, that Sheriff Mike Williams’ re-election was probably a slam dunk.
Some predictions, such as another hurricane impacting Jacksonville in 2018 and the city having to make budget cuts because FEMA money didn’t come through, were washes. As was the idea that Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry would be compelled to distance himself from President Donald Trump.
As 2018 ends, and the action around Jacksonville City Hall moves from boil to simmer. And during the Council’s holiday break, there is no better time than now (in our production schedule) to review 10 of the top stories of 2018.
No, not quite yet.
It is the last Bold of 2018. As ever, we thank you for reading, and we here at Florida Politics hope that you and yours have a redemptive (and restorative) holiday season.
What a year it was for Jacksonville’s municipal utility, which saw Aaron Zahn quickly go from board nominee to permanent CEO.
That ascension paralleled a debate about whether JEA should stay public or should privatize, a flashpoint that saw Council members Anna Brosche and Garrett Dennis teeing off at Mayor Curry and his administration.
Ultimately, the privatization debate is on pause. How long will the break be? That’s the question.
Some say discussion of the concept may ramp up as soon as next summer, after city elections. Those close to Zahn and Curry caution that a sale of the utility would be a complex transaction, affecting many contracts and units of business and that any process would take years.
Whatever the case, let’s look at the scoreboard. Curry has his board and his CEO. Even if the utility never privatizes, the likelihood of significant daylight between the Mayor’s office and the electrical company is nil.
Hughes takes over
Four years ago, when political operative Brian Hughes was teeing off against the Alvin Brown administration, who predicted that the political veteran would be Curry’s chief of staff?
And who predicted that Hughes would simultaneously serve as interim CEO of the Downtown Investment Authority?
Hughes’ road to two of the biggest jobs in the city was not without potential detours. However, when former Chief of Staff Kerri Stewart left the Mayor’s Office to move to JEA, Curry clearly decided to make his COS the person who understands best what he’s trying to do, from a political and policy standpoint.
The Mayor’s Office is aligned as it hadn’t been previously, with Hughes and Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa carrying out the agenda of the Curry, a strong Mayor in Charter and deed.
It remains to be seen what a second Curry term might look like. Will Hughes stay on as COS? Will Mousa stay as CAO?
For some roles, younger talent is also waiting in the wings, of course. But one thing is clear: that Hughes/Mousa vibe in the Mayor’s Office will continue if Curry gets his second term.
The 2018 elections revealed surprises for some: namely, that Democrats Andrew Gillum and Bill Nelson, despite losing statewide bids for Governor and Senate, carried Duval County.
In a deep-dive piece for the Florida Times-Union, Andrew Pantazi noted that “Duval’s margin shifted by a whopping 50,855 votes.”
However … “even though Duval was one of the few counties to shift hard toward Democrats, the county is still run almost entirely by Republicans. It has a Republican mayor in the city that gives the most power to a mayor of any municipality in the state. It has a Republican sheriff in a consolidated government that gives him more power than almost any other sheriff. It has Republicans running each of the constitutional offices — tax collector, property appraiser, clerk of courts, supervisor of elections. And the City Council is still overwhelmingly Republican: 13 out of the 19 city council members are Republicans, a supermajority.”
So: the question right now? Do Democrats who can raise money (and their profile) challenge Curry, Sheriff Williams, Supervisor of Elections Mike Hogan, et al.?
Sure, Brown can run for Mayor again (more on him later). And Dennis could take a shot at Mayor or Supervisor of Elections. Other candidates could emerge.
But both would be up against a daunting political machine. Curry has $3 million banked; he’s already running television ads. New Duval GOP chair Dean Black will be a more reliable ally for the Mayor than his mercurial predecessor, Karyn Morton.
Can Democrats cash in on 2018 momentum and make a dent in the GOP power structure that controls Jacksonville? The jury is out.
Despite Democrats carrying statewide races with Duval voters, Jacksonville won’t be hurting, given the advantages Northeast Florida has in the capital city.
Senate budget chair Rob Bradley is from Fleming Island. House budget chair Travis Cummings is also a Clay County guy.
Senate Minority Leader Audrey Gibson is from Jacksonville itself.
Governor-elect Ron DeSantis, though never representing Jacksonville itself in Congress, nonetheless got to know local power brokers and their priorities while standing for St. Johns County and points south.
Williams is currently on the public safety task force, helmed by DeSantis’ local rainmaker, military contractor Kent Stermon.
Brown goes down (again)
Another major political story from 2018 may have ramifications for 2019 and beyond: the continued political fall of former Jacksonville Mayor Brown.
Democrat Brown, who lost a very narrow mayoral race to Republican Curry, was attempting a political comeback this year.
It didn’t go so well.
Brown challenged Tallahassee Democrat Rep. Al Lawson in the primary for Florida’s sprawling Congressional District 5, an east/west configuration straddling Interstate 10.
Brown raised money, brought in outside help, and they lambasted Lawson for being too Trumpy and an insufficiently doctrinaire Democrat.
It didn’t matter much: Lawson kept margins close in Duval (where people still apparently held a grudge against Brown) and swamped him in the other seven counties of the district.
Lawson enjoyed some important Jacksonville endorsements, critical to his race against Brown. The local Fraternal Order of Police and Jacksonville Association of Firefighters endorsed him, as did state Rep. Tracie Davis and the Florida Times-Union.
Before he lost to Curry, Brown was in the conversation for a statewide race. After he lost to Lawson, the question is one of what’s next?
Hart Bridge triumph
Jacksonville plays the long game on the lobbying side, and evidence of that was again provided this year with the city getting all the money it needs to take down the Hart Bridge offramps and part of the elevated expressway in favor of new ramps that would go onto Bay Street and through the Sports Complex entertainment district.
This was a heavy lift. We recall the Duval Delegation meeting two years ago when the Mayor showed up with an artist’s conception, and an ask for $50 million in state money for the project.
That didn’t come to pass; however, the city was able to get $12.5 million from the state in the 2018 budget, courtesy of some interesting “strategery” from Sen. Aaron Bean (who stuck a million dollar bookmark in the budget, one fulfilled as City Hall hoped).
Florida TaxWatch might have thought it was a turkey. But local leaders disagreed.
The city had appropriated $12.5 million of its own, giving it $25 million for the project. A design criteria study funded by the state managed to shave off some of the cost, paving the way for the federal government to come through for the rest via a Department of Transportation grant.
Victory has many fathers here, and among those positioned to take credit: Jacksonville Transportation Authority CEO Nat Ford, who has continued a remarkable run of getting grants fulfilled.
Between this and the continued federal commitment to dredging the St. Johns River, the city is getting some significant capital needs addressed.
After the 12 months of hell that was the relationship between Curry and former Council President Anna Brosche, the tenure of current President Bowman has been the pause that refreshes.
Brosche saw the Council as a check and balance against the Mayor’s Office, and that perception informed discussions ranging from children’s program reforms to the future of JEA.
Brosche may or may not be running for Mayor, and Council began to treat her attempts to counterbalance Curry as an effort to that end.
Bowman, a VP of business recruitment for the Jax Chamber’s JAX USA brand, has been an active collaborator with the Mayor’s Office.
Time and again, on issues ranging from an attempt to return grant money to the United Arab Emirates to bills that attempted to bring more transparency to city government, Bowman has reinforced the Mayor’s Office, offering important political cover in a climate where dissidence becomes fodder for the unfriendly media.
Murders still an issue
At this writing, Jacksonville has seen 100 murders in 2018.
This puts the city on track for over 100 by the end of the year, which has been the case for Curry’s whole tenure.
Will it matter in terms of 2018 elections?
The Curry administration has been vocal about its push for public safety spending, with more cops, better pay for them, and better equipment for their use. They are four budgets in, and at this writing, it is difficult to see who will make a case that they have failed to invest in solutions.
Sheriff Mike Williams, at least as of now, does not face a scary challenger on the March ballot. Democrat Tony Cummings can’t even afford a catered lunch, much less an ad buy.
State Attorney Melissa Nelson, if asked, will be able to say with all honesty that she, the Mayor and Sheriff have a unified vision for criminal justice.
Yes, the murders matter.
But unlike in 2015, millions of dollars won’t be spent blaming incumbents for them.
Daniels wins again
A state House race is typically obscure, but the re-election of Democrat Rep. Kim Daniels in House District 14 is worth noting.
To sum up: her party establishment lined up against her in the primary, backing former Duval County School Board chair Paula Wright.
This was an open primary. And Daniels, written off by her party, taught them a political lesson.
She was helped along by mail from political allies of Curry, which targeted Wright and lauded Daniels, in part to teach a lesson to Duval Democrats for opposing him. The pass-through Conservatism Counts committee blamed Wright for crime in Duval County schools in mailers and the like.
Wright was the Duval Dems establishment choice, endorsed by Sen. Gibson, state Rep. Tracie Davis, and Councilman Dennis. Daniels, conversely, was targeted for myriad scandals and apostasies from party orthodoxy.
In the end, voters went with the incumbent, who was backed by many Jacksonville Republicans. Daniels won by 10 points, beating a Democrat favored by the party for the second time in two years. Wright now works a day job with the school district.
We asked Daniels about the party gunning for her a couple of weeks back.
“Primaries don’t bother me at all. That’s what the process is all about,” Daniels said.
“I think the more you’re primaried, the stronger you get. The ones who aren’t primaried, they have to worry, because they don’t have name recognition. So when you’re primaried, and you win, you’re good,” Daniels added.
“But those who aren’t primaried, who sit back behind the scenes and just get on the ballot. I think that’s [scarier]. Being primaried has been a blessing,” Daniels concluded.
Hogan knows best
“Hulkamania” may be dead. But the political career of Supervisor of Elections Hogan looks poised to continue.
Soon after the 2018 elections (complete with requisite recounts) were finally put to bed, the Republican career politician filed for four more years.
Hogan has been derided since taking over from Jerry Holland in 2015, but with a term under his belt, initial apprehensions may have been misplaced.
Recounts in Duval went smoothly, with no real anomalies. Hogan also, under pressure from Democratic activists, opened two early voting sites at local colleges. Though turnout at the locations wasn’t robust, Hogan was as good as his word when he said he’d consider the options and move forward if he could.
Curry, a political rival of Hogan four years ago, is keeping an eye on whether Councilman Dennis files against him. If so, expect Curry and Hogan to find a way to work together … an outcome no one would have predicted four years ago when he was seen as the biggest intraparty speed bump standing between Curry and the Mayor’s Office.
JAXPORT CEO takes top honor
JAXUSA Partnership, the regional economic development organization serving the greater Jacksonville area, is honoring JAXPORT CEO Eric Green with the International Industry Leader Award for 2018.
The annual award recognizes innovative work four regional growth, as well as for civic and charitable contributions to the community. In awarding the honor, JAXUSA member Nelson Bradshaw, who serves as Northeast Florida CEO for BBVA Compass Bank, listed some of Green’s recent achievements:
— Gaining authorization and funding for the first stages of the Jacksonville Harbor Deepening Project.
— Leading the port to record growth in container and vehicle volumes, as well as record-setting year-over-year revenues
— Securing additional international ocean carrier services and options which have attracted numerous large-scale distribution and logistics centers
— Supporting innovative investments in liquefied natural gas, a cleaner, greener maritime fuel, by major JAXPORT tenants Crowley and TOTE Maritime, both serving Puerto Rico.
— Negotiating the long-term agreement with Carnival Cruise Line to continue cruise service from JAXPORT’s North Jacksonville passenger terminal
“I am humbled by this recognition and determined to let all of you know that this award is simply a reflection of our partnership and hard work,” Greene said. “I am only a visible representative of this vibrant maritime, transportation and business community.”
Happy Zoo Noon Year’s Eve
Jacksonville Zoo & Gardens is helping ring in 2019 with a wild, family-friendly event featuring “real party animals”— all before bedtime.
The New Year’s Eve celebration, free with Zoo admission, features live entertainment, party favors, giveaways, special kid-friendly activities, face painting, crafts and more.
Sponsored by Fun4FirstCoastKids, the party begins Monday, Jan. 31, at 10 a.m. through 1 p.m. on the Great Lawn. And at noon, everyone can enjoy an apple juice toast!
Noon Year’s Eve events have been springing up across the country, offering families an opportunity to enjoy a safe celebration with children, and without the rowdiness of alcohol-fueled midnight revelry.
More information at jacksonvillezoo.org/NYE.
A dismal season, but Campbell finds Christmas joy
The downfall of the Jaguars defensive is one of the season’s biggest unpleasant surprises. Defensive end Calais Campbell has tried to hold up his end with some respectable statistics, but it is a commitment away from football that is gaining notice during Christmastime.
The 11-year veteran is in his second season with the Jaguars and became part of last year’s dominant defense that came to be known as “Sacksonville.” After earning 14.5 sacks last season, he has recorded eight quarterback takedowns this year that includes 17 tackles for loss.
While the team is limping toward the end of the season with a 4-10 record, Campbell and some of his teammates had a way of brightening the holiday season for some of those in need. He took 40 children from a local middle school on a shopping spree this week at Target, capped off by some pizza and a chat with Santa Claus.
Campbell, who played college football at the University of Miami, hosted his ninth annual “Christmas with Calais” Tuesday, where the children are provided with $200 each to spend. Tuesdays are an NFL player’s only day off during the season.
Tuesday’s event marks the second year in Jacksonville for Campbell’s annual tradition. The first seven came while he was in Phoenix playing for the Arizona Cardinals.
He was joined at his event by some teammates and the Roar Cheerleaders. Along with making some youngsters happy, Campbell was grateful for the chance to boost spirits.
“Especially after a year like this year,” Campbell said. “This is exactly what you need to … feel that joy.”
Earlier in the day, several Jaguars also used their day off to help acquire food for those in need and deliver them to nonprofit organizations who will ultimately get them to families, seniors and veterans.
The local generosity of Jaguars’ players provided one last glimpse of some of the team members for this year. Jacksonville’s final two games are on the road starting Sunday in Miami against the Dolphins and ending the year Dec. 30 in Houston when they face the Texans.