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2019 was the year Northeast Florida politics broke

This year’s most influential political figure never ran for office, but changed the game

Northeast Florida politics didn’t go as smoothly in 2019 as they did in recent years.

For starters, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry may have won his second term going away, but optics issues have plagued him. 

From the City Council hitting the brakes on a school sales tax referendum to the JEA Board moving to sell the local utility, the Mayor’s Office has been caught in controversies of its own making. Can Curry recover? With three and a half years left, he will have to figure it out.

A big indication of the need to recalibrate: The “Christmas miracle” about-face on advocating the privatization that spanned two full years, a massive investment of political capital that he will find it difficult from which to recover.

The region’s Tallahassee presence, meanwhile, appears to have crested. Sen. Rob Bradley and Rep. Travis Cummings, appropriations chairs in their respective chambers, are termed out and done with the Legislature. 

Bradley’s wife is running for Senate, while Orange Park lawyer Sam Garrison will likely win the House seat. But in terms of real-deal seniority, not so much.

Another setback: Sen. Travis Hutson conceding his bid for the Senate Presidency to Kathleen Passidomo. While Rep. Paul Renner will be Speaker, the opportunity for meaningful regional synergy is scotched.

So, there have been better years. And our Top 10 rankings below reflect that. Indeed, the politician of the year has never run for office at all ….

1. Aaron Zahn, former JEA CEO

Zahn, like no one who actually ran for office this year, is the center of local and regional political discussions.

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Trying to privatize the local utility, all the while irritating and alienating a City Council that was a functional rubber stamp during Curry’s first term … few could have pulled that off.

Getting removed by the JEA Board, the same ones that picked him earlier this year, lauding his “passion?” 

Done.

Making the highest salary of any public employee in the city? Zahn’s accomplished that also. 

A $515,000 salary … and he made the case he was not paid in line with other utility execs.

And all this even as his polling numbers were underwater, according to the most recent University of North Florida poll. A 44 percent unfavorable rating.

After a completely anticlimactic election cycle in 2019, Jacksonville policymakers will spend 2020 in the House that Aaron Zahn built.

The public is engaged, and even as agents in favor of a sale have contracted the best lobbyists and crisis communications staff in the state, it’s clear that anyone contracted to explain this mess will earn their money and then some in what will be a horrible aftermath. 

No, Aaron Zahn has never been a candidate for office. But this was his year: unaccountable, condescending, and prickly, Zahn defined the political contours of 2019.

With the potential for grand jury investigation and a discovery process, expect that Zahn won’t be too far from Jacksonville and the 2020 political scene.

2. Sen. Rob Bradley

As mentioned in the lede, the Senator is not running for reelection … though the seat will stay in the family, with wife Jennifer Bradley running to replace him.

However, Bradley is still the Senate appropriations chair, a role with singular importance in Northeast Florida, especially given the unlikelihood that the region will retain that prerogative after 2020.

Bradley’s importance will be felt statewide as much as locally. Expect some aggressive work on criminal justice reform in addition to funding priorities such as springs restoration.

A sign of how key the Senator is: early this year, he was Gov. Ron DeSantis’ wingman as DeSantis rolled out his proposal to end the Best and the Brightest teacher bonus program.

While it’s not certain how that will play out, it’s a measure of Bradley’s stroke that he was used to run point during the launch.

3. Rep. Travis Cummings

Like Bradley, he’s termed out. Cummings, the House appropriations chair, could have been higher on this list were he running for Senate.

For one more year (expected to be a lean budget), the Orange Park Republican will be the go-to in the House on spending issues.

He has joined House Speaker Rep. Jose Oliva in making the case for the abolition of VISIT FLORIDA, the state tourism agency favored by the Senate and the Governor but shunned historically by the House.

Cummings is not typically a fiery quote, but his influence through the end of the 2020 Session will be felt.

4. Mayor Lenny Curry

2019 wasn’t the worst of times for Curry, but it wasn’t the best of times either.

Emboldened by a lack of meaningful competition for reelection, Curry made reform moves on two fronts, but neither has panned out.

The Mayor has been battling with the Duval County School Board all year regarding the timing of a referendum for a ½ cent capital sales tax. The board wanted a vote this year, Curry did not, and the City Council didn’t give it to them.

And the JEA situation … Curry has vacillated, finally landing on a No Sale position.

As the year ended, he lost control of the narrative, calling for an end to the privatization push as an X-Mas Monday news dump. It was a punt, delivered to TV media at 8:30 in the morning.

Zahn was not the only flop this year.

Consider Joe Peppers, who like Zahn was positioned as a newly-introduced agent of reform, but who was quickly buffeted by palace intrigue. Peppers was suspended pending an inspector general’s report months in the making, a glacial timeline for alleged workplace improprieties.

Curry has had the strongest political operation in the region for years, but 2019 was a year where he got too cute … and his enemies noticed.

The City Council has moved from rubber stamp status to offering significant and at times impregnable resistance, something few imagined when reserved Republican Scott Wilson ascended to the Presidency in July.

Expect the Mayor to make some splashes for candidates he supports in 2020 (Reps. Wyman Duggan and Jason Fischer, both facing Democratic challenges). Watch his political committee fundraising. But as for his beloved Jaguars, 2020 may be a rebuilding year.

5. Rep. Paul Renner

Though the state Rep. serves the Palm Coast area, he’s also a Jacksonville attorney.

Renner, poised to be Speaker in the coming years, is uniquely positioned to help Jacksonville and the region in Tallahassee.

As well, Renner is one of the most consistent fundraisers in the state, especially on the political committee level.

Though there is virtually no chance that the Republican stranglehold on the House can be broken, Renner’s fundraising prowess offers another GOP firewall.

Can’t have too many of those.

Renner has always maintained a political visibility in Jacksonville, as those who recall his razor thin loss in a 2014 Special Election primary to Rep. Jay Fant know. 

However, he hasn’t carried water for this region in a particular way, which gives him a certain ceiling on this list.

6. Sen. Travis Hutson

The St. Johns County Senator would have been higher if he were still in the Senate Presidency race.

However, there is a case made by some consultants that Hutson’s failure in that bid had lasting ramifications.

The theory: that Jennifer Bradley backing him for Senate President will make her the odd person out in future Sessions, as the race went Kathleen Passidomo’s way.

Others, meanwhile, said Bradley had to back the local guy.

Whatever the case, Hutson is still in a position of strength, if not ultimate strength, as his tenure in the Senate continues.

A strong fundraiser representing a safe seat, Hutson will play an important role in helping to ensure Senate Republicans maintain their majority. 

7. Melissa Nelson

The 4th Circuit State Attorney is easily the most high profile person to be on a 2020 ballot in this region.

Will she face a competitive election? 

Nelson, who has been a functional example of a pro-criminal justice reform conservative in the Koch Network model, was elected in 2016 after a GOP primary where she roughed up incumbent Angela Corey.

As a measure of how quickly things move, Nelson was helped along by campaign aides Brian Hughes (chief administrative officer for Mayor Curry these days) and Tim Baker (Curry’s political right hand).

All of that came after Curry made a show of “endorsing” Corey, as the other leading Republicans in the region did.

Does Nelson skate through without a primary challenge or not? 

Talk of someone running from the right has gone quiet of late. But if a challenge were to happen, it would be interesting to see if Nelson is as good on defense as she was on offense in 2016. 

It will also be interesting to see if she works with Baker again, given that her office is “looking into” matters involving the JEA sale push and related matters.

Though a functional reformer, Nelson has been cautious when it has come to getting crossways with the Mayor’s Office. However, circumstances may compel that if the JEA issue stays hot.

In 2019, some suggested her office’s timely yet slowwalked Sunshine Law investigation of Jacksonville Mayoral candidate Anna Brosche kneecapped the former Council President’s challenge to Curry.

8. Rep. Michael Waltz

Though it’s entirely possible for a Congressman from Northeast Florida to go to DC and not make an impression, Waltz (a Stanton alum whose district runs St. Augustine south) is an exception.

After surviving a primary in 2018 where he was accused of being a Never Trumper, Waltz got the President’s endorsement in the general election against Nancy Soderberg, and since then has followed in the footsteps of his predecessor, Gov. Ron DeSantis, in energetically defending the President on Fox News.

Not bad for a Congressman from a swing district.

Whereas his colleagues representing the Jacksonville area, Reps. Al Lawson and John Rutherford, are nearing the end of their political careers, Waltz is at the beginning of his.

Should a Senate seat come open for some reason, perhaps if Sen. Rick Scott runs for the Presidency in 2024, expect Waltz to make a move.

Waltz plays as much in the Orlando market as he does Duval/St. Johns, which is still a fundraising base for him. Expect him to find a way to expand his statewide profile this election year.

9. Audrey Gibson

Though Gibson, the Senate Minority Leader, is perpetually at odds with the Mayor’s Office, and carries no priority legislation for the city, she still merits a mention here.

Albeit with caveats. 

Gibson had a rocky first year in leadership, with murmurs of a challenge to her position after she stood alone in a committee with a vote against legislation that would combat campus anti-Semitism.

Republican Rep. Randy Fine placed Gibson in the tradition of “Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib,” and demanded the “Senate Democrat Caucus to hold Leader Gibson accountable for these statements.”

The caucus bristled, but ultimately Gibson just walked back her vote.

Gibson likely will limp through another 60 days. But it’s hard to think of a real highlight of her tenure leading Senate Democrats … or even make the argument she’s led them in any way but nominally.

10. Kim Daniels

Daniels may be the most misunderstood politician in Northeast Florida. She also is one of the most effective.

A Democrat by registration, Daniels is as useful as any Republican when it comes to getting her priorities through. 

She’s a key asset to the Mayor’s Office and to Republicans in the Duval Delegation, which she now chairs.

Her religious education bills, which include another try at theology electives in public high schools, are laughable to some … but garner her national publicity.

Worth watching: what happens when Audrey Gibson leaves the Senate.

Expect a fierce battle between Daniels and her House frenemy, Rep. Tracie Davis.

Davis is Gibson’s protégé.

Daniels, however, will benefit from untraceable resources that more mainstream Democrats do not.

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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