The Special Election for Jacksonville Sheriff has been one of the most compelling races for that office in years, despite it happening ahead of schedule.
The snap election was set up this summer, when Mike Williams resigned after a residency violation became public, accelerating the time frame for what was already an active campaign for the 2023 regular election cycle.
Without question, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s race is the most high-profile contest on the Northeast Florida ballot, and the only one whose outcome is in doubt. How it ends will have ramifications not just for the top job, but for the relationship between law enforcement and its subjects.
Republican T.K. Waters and Democrat Lakesha Burton emerged in August from a five-person field. Waters, a former chief of investigations and the sole Republican in the race, came within a few percentage points of winning outright. Burton, a former zone commander who could be Jacksonville’s first female Sheriff if she wins this month, finished with 33% of the vote despite four Democrats running.
Waters has enjoyed a cash on hand advantage for months, and he’s gotten his share of endorsements.
Gov. Ron DeSantis gave him the field-clearing endorsement well before the August Primary, and Waters is backed by past and present Sheriffs from around the region, as well as Mayor Lenny Curry and one of the three Democrats eliminated in August.
“We need a Sheriff who will guide and lead the men and women who serve and protect us by enforcing the laws of the land, prevent crime and disorder, and make our city safer for everyone. Make no mistake: There is only one candidate that I trust to do that,” asserted Ken Jefferson, who came very close to winning the Sheriff’s election in 2015.
Burton went negative on Jefferson during the stretch run of the campaign, as a third-party political committee boosted him at her expense. The bad blood clearly lingered.
The Jefferson endorsement was timely, being rolled out in the wake of First Lady Molly Curry endorsing Burton. Mrs. Curry has not made a habit of endorsing political candidates, nor of deviating from her husband’s political positions in public. Burton found backing throughout her campaign from traditionally Republican donors, with charter school magnate Gary Chartrand even recording a video version of the endorsement.
Burton and Waters, though both have a career law enforcement, diverge in some key ways.
Burton would have the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, headed locally by former Sheriff Mike Williams, review officer-involved shootings. Waters would not. Burton also backs civil citations for some adult offenders, a bridge too far for Waters.
But the policy issues are dwarfed by the political divergence, a motif Burton has referenced throughout her campaign.
“I’ve been talking about changing the culture of the police department from the inside out. We need a Sheriff who’s not going to lead from the lens of a political lens, or a personal lens, but from the lens of the law and what’s right for the people,” Burton said during a September forum.
The internal politics of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office (JSO) are against her. She balked at attending a Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) debate, and it was no coincidence the Jefferson endorsement of Waters came at the FOP Lodge weeks thereafter. Interim Sheriff Pat Ivey objected to Burton displaying JSO-branded gear in her ads, another move seen as bias against Burton.
The candidate is leaning into it all. “No cop politics,” proclaims a chyron in a recent ad. But the question going into Election Day is one that faces Democrats in every election. Though they have a registration advantage, can a Democratic candidate win countywide?
Waters has been spending heavily. His A Safer Jacksonville for All political committee spent around $800,000 between Oct. 7 and Oct. 21, roughly half of the $1.6 million it raised. The account still had more than $300,000 on hand at last check.
Waters also had about $200,000 in his campaign account.
Burton had a similar amount in her political committee account as of Oct. 14, and a little more than $110,000 to spend in her campaign account.
In a year seemingly marked by a lack of Democratic enthusiasm, can Burton’s reform message prevail despite Waters’ institutional advantages? That’s the question going into Election Day.
The November election sets up an abbreviated term for the winner, who will finish out Williams’ tenure. The office will be on the ballot again in March 2023, and qualifying for that race is in January.