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Jacksonville: A transactional town

It didn’t start with microgrants.

For roughly 18 months, Visit Jacksonville has the now roundly mocked “It’s easier here” as a slogan.

The slogan became a punchline almost instantly, with city politics roiled by a JEA privatization debate and a procedural standoff about whether the School Board has the right to decide when to have a capital referendum.

Mayor Lenny Curry‘s administration felt emboldened. With Brian Hughes and Sam Mousa running operations and General Counsel Jason Gabriel offering the legal justification, Curry’s office moved forward aggressively.

Often at the end of a first mayoral term, the opposition party challenges the incumbent officeholder. Despite a registration advantage for Democrats in a county where Andrew Gillum carried by seven points, there was no challenge here.

The Duval Democrats took the load less traveled, backing without explicit endorsements Republican City Councilwoman Anna Brosche, who crashed and burned against Curry’s political machine.

Democrats were recruited, but were scared or disincentivized to run, as the party chair ran and nearly won Brosche’s old City Council seat.

The lack of an actual Democrat on the ballot foreclosed potential investment from the state party, and helped to ensure an almost entirely Curry-approved City Council.

As all this was happening, there were problems internally: specifically, with the Kids Hope Alliance, the organization Curry spun from whole cloth to restructure and bring “accountability” to children’s services.

 Joe Peppers, a member of the Kids Hope Alliance board, moved to the CEO position.

While Councilman Garrett Dennis saw Peppers as unqualified to be CEO and as someone who is parlaying relationships with the board and Mayor Lenny Curry‘s team into a high-paying job, Council went with the Mayor.

Given recent revelations which show Peppers headed out of city employment either by his choice or by that of the Mayor who gave the Iraq War vet a spotlight dance leading a major reform of core services, Dennis (a modest man by all accounts) would be permitted a wry chuckle or two,

Peppers referred to the job in the past tense late last week: “I’d like to say that working for the Kids Hope Alliance was a blessing.”

There is, we hear, at least one Inspector General’s report in the offing, dealing with some concerns about Peppers’ job performance. Some say there may be a look into the Mayor’s Office also.

Peppers lasted under a year and a half, and we know one reason why (per a conveniently leaked memo): his objection to a series of transactional-on-their-face “microgrants” for “grassroots” organizations who were going to “stop the violence” last year, just a few months before city elections.

Those “stop the violence” microgrants were to go to politically connected preachers, and the Mayor’s Office and City Council expressed great interest in programming the money in a way that preserved relationships.

The meeting was hosted by Councilman Reggie Gaffney, a Currycrat who is the king of old-school machine style politics in this town, complete with handing out cash to voters.

As the Florida Times-Union reported this week, Peppers contended in a 2018 memo that Mousa and Hughes encouraged him to steer bids on microgrants to local non-profits.

Peppers said that Mousa described doling grants out according to subjective criteria as “family talking.”

“Bethel gonna need micro,” Hughes texted Peppers.

And indeed, Bethel needs micro and macro, as suggested by a million dollars in federal tax liens from 2010 to 2017. But, per Hughes, the text was misunderstood shorthand.

“It was a communication reflecting that the deadline for the second set of applicants for micro-grants was the next day, and that I was encouraging KHA to make Bethel aware that they could apply for a micro-grant because they had an existing program for teenage boys that could be expanded if they were selected by the [request for proposal] process,” Hughes asserted Friday to Action News Jax.

Bethel, former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown‘s sinecure, embraced by Mayor Curry of late, will be fine. It always is. The tax lien story has been pushed so many times it has fingerprints in its back, and even in this context, it won’t go anywhere.

The church is too important politically. Pols from all over the city have made pilgrimages to kiss the ring. And they shall continue.

Some, such as the Duval Democrats, have called for a corruption investigation into the Curry administration.

However, current State Attorney Melissa Nelson would have to recuse: as is known, Curry chief of staff Hughes ran her successful 2016 campaign. The investigation would be kicked to a different circuit, one where the unique constraints of Duval County politics arent fully understood.

And such an investigation of the microgrant process and its particular subjectivity would sweep in Democrats on the City Council also. As a well-attended meeting between potential recipients, Council, and Mayoral staff showed, the whole process was a food fight.

See, it wasn’t just Bethel that needed micro. The dirty little not-so-secret about Duval politics is that coalitions are constructed through what one leading Republican calls “relationship building.”

The best example of that: the pension reform push.

Curry got 65 percent of the city to vote for a three-decades sales surtax, while convincing unions to end defined benefits for new hires, and enlisting a bipartisan coalition that didn’t collapse in any meaningful way.

It was brilliant power politics. A Belichickian game plan. And it has set the stage for every aggressive play since.

Expect more to come out on Joe Peppers. Expect that Peppers’ attorney Hank Coxe will aggressively push back for his client. Watch for the IG report(s).

And then the quicksand of the Labor Day weekend and the performative frenzy of hurricane season could end this media drama just as quickly as the big move to pull Confederate monuments a couple of years ago.

Meanwhile, #jaxpol observers again have a front seat to a theatrical production.

Some will call it Theater of Cruelty. Some Theater of the Absurd. And everyone will claim they knew how the play would turn out all along.

It’s easier, here.

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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