There are career politicians, and then there is former Jacksonville Mayor Jake Godbold, whose passing has occasioned the deepest imaginable reservoir of grief.
Politics wasn’t his career; it was his lifeblood. As instinctive for him as breathing itself.
Much of the most vocal grief and the mourning is from people who weren’t alive, or in Jacksonville, when he was last Mayor in 1987. Or when he last ran in 1995.
No surprise there.
In a time when politics on both sides of the spectrum are relentlessly focus grouped, Godbold represented the opposite: the unvarnished, the real.
The sort of thing people seek when they shout DUUUUU-VALL, a feeling of real community.
Godbold, who died Thursday at age 86, was a product of the Northside, a product of a different time in Duval County, when people had slightly different accents depending on what part of town they were from.
And his mayoralty, all eight years of it, was of a different Jacksonville than today.
When Godbold was Mayor, Mandarin was woods below 295, JTB was an autobahn, the Town Center was a fever dream, and the Landing was going to save Downtown. A different city then. He was of his time and place in a way most in Jax today will never know.
Regency Mall was a destination, not a no-go zone. And First Baptist Church called all the shots downtown, as opposed to liquidating blocks.
The tolls, the paper mill: the familiar earmarks of the city, along with weekly Championship Wrestling from Florida at the Coliseum.
And during his era, the Jacksonville Bulls came and went. And of course, there was Colts Fever.
These are all historical footnotes. Godbold’s relevance, in the modern day, is that he always stayed engaged.
And he engaged his audiences.
In 2015, endorsing Mayor Alvin Brown for reelection at a senior center, Godbold spoke to his peers, mobilizing them politically.
“I’ll always love you until the day I die… We don’t have to be young to want to be loved,” Godbold said.
Godbold would be back at the senior center, endorsing Mayor Lenny Curry‘s pension reform proposal.
Riding to a “Yes for Jacksonville” event at the Eastside’s Mary Singleton Center with Councilman Tommy Hazouri, we noticed an SUV parked provocatively by a curb … and not exactly legally.
But it didn’t exactly matter. The driver’s side window rolled down. And as the glass descended, the face of Mayor Jake Godbold — chief of #jaxpol from 1979 to 1987, and a mainstay on the City Council since before consolidation — appeared.
Godbold, 82 years young, had a cigar roughly the size of a Jimmy John’s sub.
Hazouri asked him where he was parking.
Godbold’s response? “Wherever the hell I want.”
Godbold went on to engage the audience again.
“I want you to be the Mayor’s army to help him,” Godbold said. “If I’ve got this army, and I’ve got the firemen, I can’t lose.”
The referendum carried with almost a full supermajority, arguably the high point of the Curry era thus far.
Godbold, unlike some who dance around the issue, was out front about some of the failures of the consolidated government he helmed.
Godbold, Mayor from 1979 to 1987, noted that there was a point during that process a half-century prior when he served on two separate City Councils, with one running the city and the other restructuring local government.
There was, said Godbold, “a lot of corruption” in that pre-consolidation government — but there were also electoral concerns.
“We were going to be a black city,” Godbold said, adding later “we didn’t think it was going to pass,” which was why the Beaches and Baldwin got to have their own Mayors.
Godbold also noted that tax cuts in the early days of consolidation forced the government to run “on the cheap” and “spend a lot of time catching up.”
“We spent a lot of money and a lot of time on downtown, but out in those core neighborhoods we have not kept our promises. Out in those poor neighborhoods, they’re still living in crap like [before consolidation],” Godbold said, drawing applause from the crowd.
Godbold always maintained his independence, and as most noticed, he took a strong stance against JEA privatization early in the process.
This, from April 2018: “As a former Mayor, every day I communicate with a lot of people in this community. The public disagrees with selling the JEA, something you should know from your PAC’s polling.”
Godbold knew the limits of manufactured consent and continued to be a critic of the sale process. In the last days of his life, he wrote an op-ed lauding City Council President Scott Wilson for starting an investigative committee into JEA
Expect Godbold’s funeral to be among the biggest in Jacksonville history. Expect a lot of eulogies that will border on oratorical canonization.
Don’t expect him to be replaced, even as some will look to appropriate his legacy.
It’s not so much that the politicians have changed, so much as the city that gave birth to Godbold and will now host his eternal rest has long since changed from the place that unironically called itself The Bold New City of the South.