Here are the Top 10 Jacksonville political stories of 2023
Image via City of Jacksonville.

Deegan Harris
They encompass politics, policy, personalities and literal matters of life and death.

Jacksonville saw political changes this year, with one era in City Hall ending and another one beginning.

But what news was the biggest from a momentous 2023?

We take a look here at the 10 biggest stories of the year. They encompass politics, policy, personalities, and everything that goes into this business.

Given the serious nature of many of these, we’re not going to “rank” their importance. For whatever reason, many of this year’s stories were literal matters of life and death, reflective of major issues in our political culture specifically — and arguably, in our culture writ large.

Redistricting shuffle

A federal judge closed 2022 by ruling in favor of a plaintiff’s challenge to Jacksonville City Council maps that she saw as a “failure to address Jacksonville’s 30-year history of racial gerrymandering.”

And in doing so, it changed political plans for a number of people, including state Rep. Angie Nixon, who considered leaving Tallahassee to run for the City Council, and for then-Council member Brenda Priestly Jackson, who decided not to run for re-election at all rather than face off against fellow Democrat Ju’Coby Pittman.

The judge’s objection was to four minority-access districts in North and West Jacksonville, all of which were heavy with Black voters and which diluted their voting share in other parts of town. 

The end result of these changes could be seen in May’s elections. 

One of those traditionally Black districts — District 7 — was remapped to include Riverside and Avondale at the expense of the Westside, allowing Jimmy Peluso to get to the Council in his second try. District 14, which was an Ortega-centric district under the old maps, flipped Democratic under the new schematic — benefiting Rahman Johnson.

But despite those changes, the Council is still predominantly White and Male, and now has fewer Black members than it did under the previous map. 

So while “the unconstitutional racial gerrymandering which packed excessive numbers of Black voters into four bizarrely shaped districts in northwest Jacksonville, limiting the voice of those voters to those four districts, and continuing the racial classification that undermines the quality of the representation of those voters” that Judge Marcia Morales Howard decried is gone, a familiar hierarchy still remains.

The next redistricting is next decade, so that’s a matter for future legislators to fix.

Democratic double play

Rumors of the death of the Duval County Democratic Party, which did not field a candidate for Mayor in 2019, were apparently exaggerated, given the surprising-to-some wins of Donna Deegan and Joyce Morgan in the races for Mayor and Property Appraiser, respectively.

The former broadcast newscasters overcame Republicans Daniel Davis and Jason Fischer, respectively, in the May election. Both were endorsed on paper by Gov. Ron DeSantis, though with a lack of practical help down the stretch as DeSantis was focusing on starting up his presidential campaign in May when voters were voting. 

Jacksonville has a voter registration advantage for Democrats, with 40% of the electorate registered Democrat and just 35% Republican, according to the then current L2 voter data. But Republicans, as typically happens in local elections, won the turnout battle Tuesday, with a 7,100-vote advantage translating to an R+3.25 map.

Yet despite the GOP turnout advantage, it was clear that crossover Republicans and no-party voters turned out for Deegan and Morgan, with the DeSantis endorsement apparently not being a factor to unify the party after a brutal March election that saw four Republican candidates for Mayor and two for Property Appraiser — and no apparent attempts to unify the party before May.

DeSantis offered paper endorsements, but never came to Jacksonville to help the candidates he backed. Nor did he offer a robocall or other material support.

On Truth Social, Donald Trump said Davis lost because he didn’t chase Trump’s endorsement.

“In a big upset, the DeSanctimonious backed Republican candidate for Mayor of Jacksonville, Florida, LOST. This is a shocker. If they would have asked me to Endorse, he would have won, easily. Too proud to do so,” Trump said. “Fools! This is a BIG LOSS for the Republican Party.”

Gator growl

Good news came to Jacksonville last Spring when Gov. DeSantis committed to allowing $75 million of state money to go to a University of Florida (UF) campus in Jacksonville.

The Governor said “a lot of the people in the private sector have been really supportive of this initiative and I think that there’s a lot of potential there.” Among those supportive parties: Mori Hosseini, a prominent donor from the Daytona area who happens to be on the UF Board of Trustees.

The $75 million matches $50 million in local funding, the first $20 million of which was authorized in March by the Jacksonville City Council. That money is contingent on securing firm commitments from private-sector donors.

According to the legislative funding request, the money will facilitate “world-class, interdisciplinary, professional graduate programs facilitating the creation of a state pipeline of highly trained students and enabling the connection of invention/innovation through solutions-based programs developed by UF Health and UF’s colleges of Business and Engineering, which will boost core competencies in biomedical technology and AI, patient quality and safety, health care admin, fintech, and more.”

The money is intended to “support the initial phase of development of urban core location in downtown Jacksonville potentially including classroom, multi-use space, student center, and related facilities. State funds could be used for planning, design, construction, lease payments, and other eligible purposes.”

Questions remain, meanwhile, about where the campus will go (one potential site could be near the Jaguars’ stadium). 

Meanwhile, fundraising continues. Mayor Deegan told the Jacksonville Daily Record of “more than $60 million raised so far in private gifts for the project” this month. And UF President Ben Sasse believes the campus could be bigger than the original concept of 15 acres and 1,000 grad students. 

Jaguars’ demands

While that capital project is moving along, another one still has some details to work out. And we’re not much closer to knowing how it goes now than we were months ago.

By this, we mean the renovations for the NFL stadium and the surrounding district, a priority of Shad Khan and the league itself.

After nearly five months of the Deegan administration, we know little more than we did at the end of the Lenny Curry era.

The effort ultimately could include more than a billion dollars of city investment and up to four years of stadium renovation impacts (and potentially five years of construction total) in what is billed as a “re-imagination of the entire stadium and adjacent property.”

The Jaguars and the Shahid Khan vehicle “Iguana Investments” envision a total investment that could cost as much as $2.068 billion, a number that could include stadium improvements costing between $1.2 and $1.4 billion, as well as between $550 and $668 million for development of a “sports district.” That sports district essentially could be a reboot of the Lot J concept rebuffed by the City Council earlier this decade.

Overall, this would be a 50-50 cost share between the city and the team, according to a document dated May 11 — just days before the mayoral election.

The stadium cost would be largely shouldered by the city government, which could be on the hook for anywhere between $800 and $934 million — two-thirds of the overall price tag. The city share would be more than the $760 million Nashville is spending on its $2.1 billion domed stadium, with the state of Tennessee adding $500 million — an option the state of Florida will not offer.

Mayor Deegan has attended all home games this year, though she has told media she hasn’t been in Khan’s suite. She also has prioritized getting to yes on this stadium, noting that while a majority of people say they don’t want to spend the money, a similar majority doesn’t want to lose the Jaguars — two mutually exclusive propositions. 

We also know NFL President Roger Goodell has met with Deegan to ensure the project’s on track.

Locals won’t get a chance to vote on this, and it’s going to be interesting to see how the City Council treats the proposal. Do they give the Democratic Mayor a big win, one bigger than any the team has had on the field? 

That’s a question for next year’s Top 10 stories, no doubt. 

VP vexed

The national furor about Florida’s new social studies standards including the assertion that slavery had an upside to the enslaved brought Vice President Kamala Harris to Jacksonville to decry state officials’ “lies” twisting public education.

“They are building in a handicap for our children, that they are going to be the ones in the room who don’t know their own history when the rest of the world does,” Harris said in a fiery, 22-minute speech at the Ritz Theater, in the LaVilla area of the city, a historically Black neighborhood dating back a century. 

The country’s first Black Vice President also touched on state Republicans’ other “extremist” measures. She referenced the state’s Parental Rights in Education Law, dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by critics, which prohibits classroom discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity, as another example. The project is simply un-American, she said. “They insult us in an attempt to gaslight us and we will not let that happen, we will not let it happen,” Harris said, to rising applause from the crowd.

Harris’ trip was a last-minute affair — and she lamented that she had to make it at all. The state’s extremists are raising issues that do nothing but divide people, she argued, adding that the effect of slavery on the enslaved should not even be up for debate.

One standard in the 216-page set of guidelines that the state Board of Education adopted, which created a firestorm of controversy, says, “Instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

“Adults know what slavery really involved — come on!” she said, her voice rising. “It involves rape. It involves torture. It involves taking a baby from their mother. It involved some of the worst examples of depriving people of humanity in our world. It involves subjecting people to the requirement that they would think of themselves as less than human.

“So in the context of that, how is it that anyone could suggest that in the midst of these atrocities, that there was any benefit to being subjected to this level of dehumanization?” she added as the crowd applauded even more. “That in the midst of these atrocities there were some benefits?”

While Harris wasn’t able to change the DeSantis administration’s mind, she was able to send the message that the Governor is out of step with both history and the mainstream — which would have been especially meaningful if he had run a better presidential campaign and was poised to be the GOP nominee in 2024. As it was though, Duval County was the epicenter of a national debate in a way no one imagined before Deegan took office.

Racist rampage

A Jacksonville Dollar General was the scene of a mass murder, leaving four people dead five years to the day after a mass shooting at a video game tournament at the former Jacksonville Landing, and one day short of 73 years from Ax Handle Saturday, a day on which White marauders attacked Black shoppers downtown.

Yet another day will live in infamy.

“All of the deceased victims are Black,” said Jacksonville Sheriff T.K. Waters at a press conference, at which Mayor Donna Deegan and other local and regional officials were on hand.

“Plainly put, this shooter was racially motivated and he hated Black people,” Waters said. “He wanted to kill n——. That’s the one and only time I will use that word.”

The shooter, who was from Clay County, used a Glock and an AR-15 with a swastika on it, Waters said, calling it a “dark day in Jacksonville’s history.”

Mayor Deegan said she was “heartbroken.”

“So many times, this is where we end up,” Deegan said. “This is something that should not and must not happen in our community.”

Waters briefed DeSantis, who addressed the incident from Iowa, condemning the “scumbag” who committed the murders.

“This shooting, based on the manifesto that they discovered from the scumbag that did this, was racially motivated,” DeSantis said. “He was targeting people based on their race. That is totally unacceptable.”

“This guy killed himself rather than face the music and accept responsibility for his actions,” the Governor added. “And so he took the coward’s way out. But we condemn what happened in the strongest possible terms.”

That explanation wasn’t enough for Nixon, who is often at odds with DeSantis.

“It’s kinda hard to believe DeSantis and his ‘condemnation’ of the shooter, when he continually pushes anti-Black policies. A White man in his early twenties specifically went to kill BLACK PEOPLE. The Governor of our state of Florida has created an environment ripe for this,” Nixon said in a statement.

Ballard bounced

In one of the first major moves of the Deegan administration, the city of Jacksonville terminated its contract with Ballard Partners effective Monday, July 31.

Federal and state “Consultant Contracts” between Ballard Partners and the City of Jacksonville were ended “for convenience,” according to emails from Dr. Charles Moreland to Brian Ballard and Jordan Elsbury of the firm’s Jacksonville office.

Ballard offered its own statement via Justin Sayfie.

“Ballard Partners has been honored to represent the City of Jacksonville and is proud to have assisted the City to secure more than $14 million in appropriations and a change in Florida law that allowed the city to avoid massive budget cuts that would have been needed to cover the city’s $2.6 billion unfunded pension liability. We are grateful for the opportunity to be helpful and wish the city’s administration great success in its service to the people of Jacksonville.”

Despite the affable statement, the move from the Deegan administration had consequences, specifically regarding the federal contract. They chose to replace Ballard with Langton Consulting, members of which supported them during the campaign (though it should be said the Davis-friendly Ballard did pony up for and fundraise for the inauguration).

Finance Chair Nick Howland said the no-bid contract “reeks of a sweetheart deal for a political supporter” and introduced his Transparency for Taxpayers Act to “help put a stop to these contracts and provide much needed oversight of the mayor’s office.” The bill would give the City Council oversight over these arrangements.

The Council will consider it next year, but those with long-term visions might consider it to be one of the first debates of the 2027 mayoral race. Howland is politically ambitious and he could make a move. 

Stermon denouement

Nearly a year after the December 2022 suicide of Kent Stermon, Northeast Florida officials offered real insight into the events leading up to the shocking incident in which a man once named “Citizen of the Year” by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office took his own life amid controversy that got global attention.

Stermon, a 50-year-old man who was connected to Jacksonville-area Republicans and who played a major role in the political ascent of DeSantis to the Governorship, was under confirmed investigation from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office (which started in November 2022) when he took his own life at the Mayport Post Office last year.

Rumors swirled for months, though it ultimately took until the end of September 2023 to align all the facts.

Per a report from the office of State Attorney Melissa Nelson, Stermon engaged in a scheme to seduce a young woman, enticing her with the promise of backstage passes for a Taylor Swift ERAS Tour concert to “show her breasts to him,” to “perform certain acts for money,” and to “send him photos of her breasts through a bizarre and fraudulent scheme, even using a fake email account” in which he pretended to be a security staffer for the concert tour.

“Stermon also continued to communicate with (the victim) from his personal cellphone through both text messages and telephone calls. Stermon instructed (her) to buy the concert tickets and told her he would reimburse her. After (she) purchased the tickets herself, Stermon told her to come to his office to collect the money for the tickets — it was here where Stermon solicited (the victim) and refused to allow her to leave until she complied with his demand that she show her breasts to him,” the report reads.

Despite the elaborate nature of the scheme, Nelson’s Office could find no evidence that there were other episodes where Stermon tried similar gambits with other victims. However, the report found grounds for charges of “Solicitation for Prostitution, False Imprisonment, Theft by False Pretenses, Unlawful Use of a Two-Way Communication Device, and Obtaining by Trick, False Representation, Etc.”

Stermon, who was 50 years old, had been dealing with serious health issues before his death. Stermon told Florida Politics just hours before he was found dead that he had suffered a stroke days before but was upbeat.

“I am stepping about as far from politics as I can right now,” Stermon texted, in what would be some of his last words to anyone. “My prognosis is positive and I just got discharged from (the) hospital but I have a ton of work to do to get healthy.”

In a sign of how close he was to DeSantis, Stermon served as a Board of Governors member of Florida’s State University System, on the Florida Highway Patrol Advisory Council, and was Chair of the Governor’s Public Safety Transition Advisory Committee. The Board of Governors called him a “champion of higher education and student success in Florida” when he passed away.

Stermon had a unique role in regional politics, making connections — particularly for DeSantis’ once-unlikely path to the 2018 Republican nomination for Governor.

Stermon, who rented a home to DeSantis while he was in Congress, helped build a bridge to the Northeast Florida establishment in both fundraising and endorsements.

Israel impetus

The Republican Party of Duval County brought foreign policy to the front door of Jacksonville’s City Hall as October came to a close, with GOP legislators from federal, state and local levels standing united for Israel’s military offensive against Hamas.

U.S. Reps. Aaron Bean and John Rutherford were on hand, as were state Sen. Clay Yarborough, state Reps. Jessica Baker and Dean Black (the party Chair), Sheriff Waters and City Council members Ken Amaro, Michael Boylan and Howland.

The rally comes in the wake of a Howland-sponsored City Council resolution “in Support of Israel as It Defends Itself in the War Launched by the Terrorist Organization Hamas.” The measure stipulates that the Council “stands unequivocally allied with Israel” during its military operations.

The sole “no” vote on the Council resolution was President Ron Salem, a Republican who is of Palestinian descent and who dealt with security challenges for a while after his vote against the measure. 

Various of the speakers offered remarks, none more memorable than the fiery Bean, who tied in the 80 degree weather with the situation in the Middle East.

“I know it’s warm. I know it’s uncomfortable. But guess what? Sometimes when you have to confront evil, it can get a little hot to face down people that have no idea what they’re talking about. It can get a little uncomfortable,” Bean said, as people chanted pro-Palestinian messages in the park across the street from City Hall.

English leather

Florida’s Governor held an event in Duval that showed him as a global figure, engaged in statecraft well beyond the state’s borders.

Among the figures DeSantis hosted during a presser at JAXPORT rolling out a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between Florida and Great Britain: Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch, who DeSantis credited with supporting his “war on woke” in comments to the British press this Spring, with a tweet lauding her as a “strong, outspoken leader.”

While DeSantis said Badenoch blamed the United States for “exporting” woke at the time, the conversation at JAXPORT largely focused on the more conventional trade and commercial ties between the state of Florida and the United Kingdom.

That said, political ideology did pop up in the DeSantis preamble remarks.

“The Secretary and I have also done work in our own spheres on making sure that our institutions and our society are governed by sound and not some of the outlandish ideology that we’re seeing,” DeSantis said.

Badenoch lauded Jacksonville as a city built on “free trade, free markets, and freedom itself,” and credited DeSantis with facilitating the “most efficient” MOU in her experience. Britain has signed six other MOUs with states, she said.

The Messenger noted the MOU covers “space, financial technology, medical tech, supply chains and logistics, transportation, infrastructure and cybersecurity, legal services, agricultural biotechnology and semiconductors and photonics.”

A.G. Gancarski

A.G. Gancarski has written for FloridaPolitics.com since 2014. He is based in Northeast Florida. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter: @AGGancarski


9 comments

  • MH/Duuuval

    December 26, 2023 at 11:30 am

    UF insiders have been going about colonizing areas of the state with boutique academic ventures, such as the one that was dropped on Duval. This is all to the glory of Gatorland, but not so much Duval. There is no pressing need for a stand-alone graduate B school extension.

    What Duval and the state could use — for all the money being thrown at the project — is another dental school. Enough with the business hocus-pocus: More dentists is mo’ better!

  • Richard Russell

    December 26, 2023 at 12:04 pm

    “Racist rampage” – Granted law enforcement pre 1965 was lenient on white crimes against minorities. But the preponderance of those crimes were few and far between in comparison to the number of today’s graphic attacks on whites by minorities. In those mostly “Blue” (ie Democrat led) communities, the perpetrators are provided a revolving door, if they are ever caught. Doing so creates an atmosphere of hate and distrust between the races. The worst of this goes back to that famous statement by our esteemed President Obama: “if I had a son, he would look like Travon Martin”! Travon was a young hood who had the attitude that embolden many to act like tough guys, feeling they are entitled to be as bad as they want to be. But Obama used it to gin up racial division, as he did on many occasions. Now its “kid gloves/slap on the wrist for the minority criminal and the full weight of the law for whites!” A favorite method of Democrats pandering to get minority votes!

    • JD

      December 26, 2023 at 2:09 pm

      Oh please. I wager you don’t have stats to back any of that up, and what you do have is cherry picked and coaxed.

      • MH/Duuuval

        December 26, 2023 at 4:22 pm

        JD: Hear, hear!

  • Sonja Fitch

    December 27, 2023 at 5:21 am

    Duval County is the bright star of Florida going Blue and working with all politicians to make our county the “bestest “ . Thank you Deegan and TK Wayers for being examples of Common Good!

    • MH/Duuuval

      December 27, 2023 at 12:00 pm

      TK is only marginally responsible to the voters. Once in office — thanks to his roughneck MAGA buddies and below-the-belt politicking — he is in charge (except where the FOP is in charge).

  • MH/Duuuval

    December 27, 2023 at 2:40 pm

    No mention of the Laura Street Trio, a financial disaster awaiting local taxpayers. After the Jags are done rifling Duval pockets, there might not be much left for the Trio developer who proposes to make taxpayers his soft landing. Glad to see Jim Citrano speak out against this deal, but all the rest — including Howland — can’t wait to hang taxpayers out to dry.

  • MH/Duuuval

    December 27, 2023 at 5:01 pm

    “I know it’s warm. I know it’s uncomfortable. But guess what? Sometimes when you have to confront evil, it can get a little hot to face down people that have no idea what they’re talking about. It can get a little uncomfortable,” Bean said …

    My first thought was that this must be a comment by Bean at the memorial service for the mass shooting near EWU. But, I was wrong — it was about COJ Council foreign policy initiative.

  • MH/Duuuval

    December 30, 2023 at 1:51 pm

    Good summary of the year’s event, AG — take the day off on Sunday and Monday.

Comments are closed.


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