Seven Jacksonville mayoral candidates squared off Monday in the first debate of the 2023 campaign.
On hand were Democrats Donna Deegan, former Sen. Audrey Gibson and Theresa Richardson, Republicans LeAnna Gutierrez Cumber, Al Ferraro and Frankie Keasler, and no-party candidate Omega Allen all made their pitches to the local Rotary Club.
Most of the speakers, whether conservative or liberal, talked about the need to reform city government, even as they disagreed about what was wrong.
Ferraro discussed “civil unrest” driving him to run, expressing discomfort with moves like the attempt to sell JEA and the problem of violent crime in the city.
“I remember when I used to be able to go outside and not lock the doors,” Ferraro said.
Keasler, running even to the Right of Ferraro, bashed incumbent Mayor Lenny Curry for taking down a confederate statue in 2020
“Dear God, what kind of city have we become,” Keasler said, calling the monument removal an attempt to “placate” the Black community.
Gibson, a former Democratic leader in the state Senate, talked about the importance of diversity in the Mayor’s Office that mirrors that in the city.
Richardson, describing herself as a “servant of the citizens,” lambasted policy decisions such as the half-cent sales tax increase passed to fund local infrastructure.
Candidates discussed education, not a usual purview of the Mayor’s Office, and offered a range of responses ranging from advocating “parents’ rights” and “traditional teaching” from Ferraro to advice from Deegan to “support our duly elected school board.”
“Our school system is failing our kids,” said Cumber, a former teacher who warned that reading aptitude scores have troughed in recent years.
Law enforcement, which makes up more than half of the city’s budget, was also on the agenda. All candidates agreed that the police need to be “fully funded.”
“Breaking the code of silence is something we have to do. Not all areas of town look the same,” Ferraro said, vowing to “go out into these communities just like the police are” and saying that prisoners represented a potential “labor pool” to get work around town done.
Business development and the seemingly perpetual need to revitalize downtown was also a topic.
“Used to be we had lights, camera, and action here,” Richardson said. “Why can’t we be like Orlando and have Disney World? Why can’t we be like Atlanta and have Six Flags?”
Gibson emphasized the importance of “small businesses” to stabilize neighborhoods, and said that economic incentives would be better situated to that purpose, with an eye toward driving business development funds to minority groups.
“It’s all about quality of life,” Deegan said. “Infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure.”
Cumber bashed the decision to spend gas tax money on the Skyway, a position backed by Mayor Curry and more than two-thirds of the Council, while emphasizing the importance of “school choice” to attract parents.
“Downtown is the heart of any major city. Jacksonville has heart trouble and is in need of a transplant,” Allen said.
“I’m interested in the people who are here now, not the people who are coming here,” Ferraro said, regarding ways to deal with St. Johns River environmental issues.
The first election in the race pits all qualified candidates against each other. That vote is in March, so these candidates have months of debates like this ahead before voters have their say.
This first debate in the race comes as nearly half of respondents in a recent poll don’t know who they back. Deegan is the only candidate with even double-digit support according to the University of North Florida survey.
JAX Chamber CEO Daniel Davis, who had more than $4.5 million on hand at last check, was not on hand. Candidates, including Allen and City Council member Cumber, remarked on the absence of Davis particularly at various times during the event.
Independent candidate Darcy Richardson also did not debate.
November 21, 2022 at 3:57 pm
Daniel Davis thinks he will win, just because he has lots of money. He will not win, because he does not connect with the real people of the city. Those who work for a living. Davis is controlled by the establishment, chamber of commerce. And Southerners will not vote for someone who wants to destroy history, period.
November 22, 2022 at 10:22 am
Davis is controlled by the BAKER establishment and will tell his client to not show up, just like all the other clients. Half of Baker’s clients look like they got bullied in high school and run for office so their life has meaning. Vote EM OUT.
November 25, 2022 at 6:13 pm
Why did you ignore Donna Deegan? Surely, she had something to say.
Your lack of fair reporting is shameful! And, it will influence how I perceive your writing in the future.
I am very interested in her opinions about how to run the City government.
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