Off a rural strip of State Road 206 in southern St. Johns County, a narrow path winds and twists amid feral greenery of lush vines and disorderly palm fronds before depositing its traverser onto a clear-cut plot. In the middle of this clearing, lifted several feet off the ground and ornamented with a neat row of solar panels, stands a 320-square-foot, Crayola-green shipping container.
Naturalist and boat captain Adam Morley lives here with his wife Janine and their toddler son Elon. In one of the fastest-growing counties in America — and just south of St. Augustine’s increasingly dense downtown district — the Morleys have endeavored to design a simple life for themselves on a bucolic 15-acre plot
in the rural, aquatic-based community of Crescent Beach.
“Because of the lifestyle that we’ve chosen, I don’t feel burdened and weighed down by typical daily life struggles,” Morley says at their home in late September. “I don’t have to work nine-to-five, or two jobs, in order to afford a mortgage and utility bill on a huge house. By reducing our footprint and living expenses, we free up a lot of time. To me, that’s true freedom. That’s where a lot of my enthusiasm and optimism comes from.”
Perhaps it’s his years of living and working along this stretch of Northeast Florida, which is surrounded on all sides by water — the Matanzas River, Atlantic Ocean, and various creeks and tributaries — but 31-year-old Morley has a calm, earnest way of speaking that is refreshingly devoid of the cynicism and derisiveness that often litters the conversations (especially political ones) of his generation.
Marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols recently studied how living near the water affects moods and mindsets of humans. In his 2016 book Blue Mind, Nichols wrote that “a mildly meditative state characterized by calm, peacefulness, unity, and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment,” can be “triggered when we’re in or near water.”
Though he has not always been politically engaged, in 2015 Morley watched closely as a shuffling of the state legislature — set in motion when Republican John Thrasher resigned his senate seat to become president of Florida State University — left an empty seat in the Florida House for a representative from District 24 — a district that encompasses Flagler County, parts of northwest Volusia County, and the portion of southeast St. Johns County where the Morleys reside. When a special election was set for April 2015, Thrasher’s Republican cohort moved quickly, pooling resources to support corporate attorney Paul M. Renner, who months earlier had lost a closely contested primary in Jacksonville’s State House District 15 to Jay Fant. Renner, after relocating to Palm Coast, was the favorite to win the Republican primary and, absent a Democratic challenger, had a clear path to the State House.
“It was a political power play,” Morley says, shaking his head. “And I’m against that. Regardless of what party it’s for.”
Morley decided to throw his hat in the ring.
While Renner used his Republican Party connections to amass a six-figure campaign war chest, Morley spent less than $12,000 on his bid.
With little time and a huge funding disadvantage, Morley was trounced, earning just over 5,000 votes to Renner’s nearly 11,000. (That may seem like shockingly low turnout for a district with more than 100,000 registered voters, but special elections tend to draw far fewer voters.)
“If you look at my cost per vote, I think I certainly outperformed my opponent,” Morley says, smiling.
District 24 — where the number of registered Republicans outnumbers Democrats nearly two-to-one — is like many house districts across Florida. That is to say: It is not too competitive. In fact, in 2014, the nonpartisan election resource Ballotpedia rated only 13 of the 120 seats in the Florida House “highly competitive.” In many races, after winning their primaries, candidates from either party (but more often Republicans) run unopposed in the general election. Republicans currently hold 89 of the 120 seats in the Florida House of Representatives.
Representation for the state in the U.S. House of Representatives has traditionally seemed just as predetermined, with gerrymandered maps all but ensuring that 17 Republicans and 10 Democrats represent their corresponding districts year after year.
The 2016 election may upset the status quo.
Politics as we know it has been turned upside-down. Dissatisfaction with establishment political candidates is widespread. The nation looked on (some with delight, some abject horror) as, during the presidential primary season, one “authentic” candidate caused his political party to come unmoored, while another “authentic” candidate may have mortally wounded his.
And though voters turned out for the 2016 presidential primaries in historic numbers, perhaps the best evidence of the current state of national malaise may have been that, in the wake of one of the most unpredictable presidential primary seasons in the nation’s history, Americans were left with a choice between two very unpopular major party candidates for whom only 9 percent of the voting public cast ballots.
With even perennially faultless election predictor Nate Silver scratching his head, no one knows what to expect when America (and swing-state Floridians) head to the polls in November.
Locally, similar dissatisfaction loomed large in the minds of the some 6,500 Northeast Florida voters who, leading up to the August primaries, switched parties, mostly to oust establishment Republican incumbent candidates for Public Defender and State Attorney.
“I don’t think people realize how important local elections are to the issues that really matter to them,” says the Democratic candidate for Duval County Clerk of Courts, Paula Bartlett.
Bartlett’s opponent, Ronnie Fussell, won his primary despite drawing the ire of civil rights activists (and satirical news show hosts) when he put an end to courthouse marriage ceremonies in the Duval County Courthouse. Fussell’s motivations were widely seen as his way of subverting Obergefell v. Hodges, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that made same-sex marriage legal nationwide, though Fussell himself has repeatedly denied that’s the case.
Bartlett, meanwhile, says that the “marriage issue” is “just the tip of the iceberg as far as problems at the courthouse are concerned.” Despite a significant financial disadvantage, Bartlett’s campaign has been slowly gaining momentum. With more registered Democrats than Republicans in Duval County, many insiders think Bartlett has a significant chance.
“If same-sex marriage — civil rights — are important to you,” she says, “here is an election where you can make an immediate impact.
“That’s not to say national elections are not important. But, locally, you can really make a difference this time around.”
Though Fussell won his primary handily, his underfunded Republican opponent Mike Riley included the restoration of courthouse marriages in his platform, proving that the issue is one that resonates with members of both parties.
“I think in November you are going to see people voting for the candidates more than whatever party they might represent,” Bartlett says.
Aside from the race for Clerk of Courts, several other local races featuring establishment-supported frontrunners are tightening. A new congressional district map created in 2015 after the Florida Supreme Court invalidated the maps used to elect lawmakers to Congress in 2012 and 2014 has the potential to shift the partisan makeup of the Congressional delegation. And with turnout expected to be especially high in November, underdog candidates are hoping discontent will lead to votes against the status quo.
"The authenticity of myself and my candidacy I think resonates with a lot of people,” Morley says shortly after inviting me inside his tiny home for a (granted, short) tour.
When I arrive, Morley is standing on his front porch. The porch’s light-colored wood is sun-beat and handsomely knotted from decades of exposure to the relentless Florida sun before the Morleys reclaimed it from a house in Port Orange.
His shoulder-length hair pulled back in a ponytail, Morley is dressed in jeans, tennis shoes, and a green T-shirt with the slogan “renewable energy, I’m a big fan” surrounding a pictogram of a wind turbine. Though late September, the mid-afternoon heat pushed us inside the container, where Morley pulls two folding chairs from the wall and we courteously sit sideways, with legs pointing in diametrically opposed directions to assure adequate personal space and avoid brushing knees. With the tow-headed Elon cooing and smashing toys together and Janine looking on lovingly from the pallet bed on the living room’s floor, Morley reveals what made him decide to run for State House again.
“I think I just realized that if I wanted to pursue my passions, I’d need to run at some point,” he says. “A lot of the issues I want to address, you can’t handle at the city or county level. I thought I should go to the level of government where the roadblocks are being actively put up, and be a voice to try to take them down.”
Environmental issues are clearly foremost in Morley’s mind when he talks about roadblocks. He says that he and many people he knows have been unhappy with what they view as a noticeable and documented drop in the enforcement of environmental regulations, something he blames explicitly on the policies of Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-controlled State House.
Though he is running as a Democrat, Morley’s campaign website reveals a platform that is an idiosyncratic mix of liberal and progressive economic policies and libertarian social values. He advocates tax breaks for locally owned businesses, but says such incentives should be used sparingly to lure in large corporations. And, though he says he has never smoked it himself, he has made the legalization of marijuana a key issue of his campaign.
When I mention how unusual his pot-abstinence sounds, given that he is a 31-year-old adult with long hair, he laughs and points out that he’s been subject to drug-testing since he first began operating boats for a living at age 17.
Morley’s not a seasoned politician. But, like many of the other political newbies I talked to over the last few weeks, Morley thinks he has a chance to capitalize on what seems to be an increased willingness among voters to engage atypical candidates.
“I have friends who identify as Libertarians, who say they are going to vote for me because, although I may not do everything they want me to do, I walk the walk,” Morley says. “They know I’m not just giving lip-service to issues that will
get me elected.”
Neil Armingeon says Morley was one of the first people to stop by and introduce himself when Armingeon took over as Matanzas Riverkeeper three years ago. Shortly thereafter, Armingeon and Morley worked together to create the “Litter Gitter” — a boat captained by Morley, committed to cleaning up the Matanzas River.
“It takes a really dedicated person to get involved in environmental cleanup,” Armingeon says. “You’ll go out there, spend hours cleaning up, and then come back a few days later and it’s like, ‘Did we even make a dent?’”
As the head of a nonprofit, Armingeon can’t make an endorsement, but says that any time a candidate makes environmental issues a big part of their platform, “it’s good for the river.”
“Adam is a really practical environmentalist,” Armingeon says. “He’s going to make those issues part of the discussion and make sure people pay attention to the river, at least leading up to the election.”
Meanwhile, Morley’s opponent is running a more traditional, party-aligned campaign that includes a platform of fairly boilerplate conservative priorities. Renner’s website reveals his platform as one that advocates lower taxes and regulations, limited government, and opposes abortion, while neglecting to offer any policy proposals specific to his district — though the websites mentions “Northeast Florida” several times. Rep. Renner’s re-election website also chastises “progressives who tell us that government is the only thing that we all belong to,” a public school curriculum that takes the “cynical view of leftist academics,” and focuses “on identity politics and anti-American themes that change America’s legacy to one of class conflict and recurring injustices.”
That’s not to say that Renner, whose campaign materials tout his military service, business experience and Christian faith, doesn’t firmly believe in criticisms of the federal government, or the policies he’s putting forward, but, as Morley contends, just because District 24 tends to vote Republican doesn’t mean its residents’ interests can be painted with such a broad brush.
Renner’s campaign staff did not respond to interview requests.
Though platforms like Renner’s have proved fairly sturdy with the district’s mostly rural, mostly white population over the years, in 2012, Republican Travis Hutson (who replaced Thrasher in the State Senate) barely managed a victory over Democratic challenger Milissa Holland (currently running for mayor of Palm Coast).
Of Renner’s performance thus far, Morley says his opponent “has been trying not to make waves,” citing wide speculation that Renner is being groomed for a speaker position. Morley does say he was unhappy with Renner’s vote in favor of HB-191, which allows the state to authorize and regulate fracking.
Morley points out that, like many counties and municipalities in this part of Florida, St. Johns and Flagler counties previously passed strongly worded ordinances opposing fracking. However, when HB-191 came up in February, Renner voted in favor of it, telling The St. Augustine Record that the bill would allow the state Department of Environmental Protection to study the effects of the controversial method for extracting natural gas and oil from shale rock. (Renner’s colleague to the north, Cyndi Stevenson, Dist. 17, who was previously quite vocal in her opposition to fracking, also voted in favor of the bill).
“We don’t want fracking here,” Morley says. “That’s something that Democrats, Republicans and Independents have agreed on in this district.”
Although Renner remains the overwhelming favorite to win the district, Morley is not ready to concede a single vote.
“There is a big appeal to the atypical politician this election season,” Morley
says. “Really, the challenge is to make sure people know that they actually have a choice in this election.”
Behind a large antique desk in the office of the home he shares with his partner, Dave Bruderly is buried in piles of newspaper clippings, some organized into paper-clipped stacks, some placed in boxes with labels like “St. Johns River” and “Downtown development.” He tells me about his trip to Tallahassee in late June to file paperwork with the Federal Elections Commission and the subsequent ordeal of opening a federal campaign account with Bank of America. He says he was roughly 15 minutes from missing the June 24 deadline to enter the race for U.S. Congressional District 4.
“If I hadn’t decided to run, tens of thousands of voters — Democrats and Independents — would not have had a voice in this race,” Bruderly says. “That’s
Bruderly will face former Duval County Sheriff John Rutherford in the November election. From the day he announced his candidacy in April, with the backing of the several prominent GOP donors and Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, Rutherford was more or less the presumptive nominee. Though redrawn, the new District 4 — which includes Baker, Nassau and portions of Duval County — maintains the Republican advantage that it has carried since even before Ander Crenshaw took the seat in 2001. After Crenshaw decided not to seek re-election in 2016, several prominent local Republicans jumped in the race, including Lake Ray and Hans Tanzler III. Rutherford raised nearly a half-million dollars for his primary race, overwhelming opponents on his way to acquiring nearly double the number of votes cast for the runner-up.
For our interview, Bruderly sports a faded-blue campaign T-shirt that reads “Elect Dave Bruderly: New Energy for Congress, District 4.” Having replaced a “6” some weeks ago, the noticeably catawampus “4” is evidence that this is not Bruderly’s first rodeo. He previously ran for a Congressional seat in Gainesville (District 6) in 2002. He lost that election, ran again in ’04 and again in ’06. He lost those elections, too.
While Bruderly says his opposition to the Iraq war piqued his interest in running for political office in the early 2000s, it was the lack of Democratic representation that finally pushed him off the fence this time around.
An environmental engineer with degrees from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and Columbia University, Bruderly built a successful environmental engineering consulting business before semi-retiring a few years ago. The walls of his office are lined floor to ceiling with bookshelves that hold an eclectic mix of titles — much of it historical texts — from volumes of military history to thick, weighty conservative historical biographies of former U.S. presidents to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.
“Zinn is a great political hero of mine,” he says. “I also like Teddy Roosevelt, but if I had to pick a modern politician who I have a lot of respect for, it would be Bernie Sanders.”
At various points during our conversation, Bruderly swivels around in his chair to grab papers, newspaper articles or other reference materials from the cabinet behind his desk, which is plastered with a “Bernie 2016” magnet. With statements like, “Our middle class is suffering from decades of shortsighted policies written by and benefiting multinational corporations and their well-paid armies of lobbyists,” Bruderly’s campaign website captures some of the world-weary verbiage that the Sanders campaign used to light a fire under thousands of disaffected voters during the senator’s presidential run. Furthermore, together with his bushy eyebrows, white hair, somewhat disheveled presence, and the agitated way in which he talks at length about foreign and domestic affairs, Bruderly’s appearance vaguely resembles the senator from Vermont.
Bruderly seems particularly agitated as he pulls from his many file folders an article from The Florida Times-Union carrying the headline “Rutherford Ready to Seal the Deal.” The T-U article notes how Bruderly’s Republican opponent “didn’t have much time to transition to a more regional and national mindset before entering the race.” In Bruderly’s estimation, this perfectly illustrates the need for a choice in the District 4 election.
“The article basically says that now that he’s won the nomination of his party, [Rutherford’s consultants] have to teach Rutherford how to be a Congressman,” Bruderly says in obvious exasperation. “I think the public underestimates how important these Congressional seats are. You can’t just walk in there on day one, having no knowledge of geopolitical affairs, and expect to make informed decisions.”
“Dave understands policy inside and out,” says Meredith O’Malley Johnson, a political consultant who recently joined the Bruderly campaign. “His military service, small-business experience and his knowledge of environmental policy make him a strong choice to represent this district.”
Before stepping down to serve as a political consultant, Johnson founded Jax Young Voters Coalition, a nonpartisan group aimed at increasing voter turnout in the city. Though she understands that Bruderly’s opponent is a heavy favorite, Johnson believes that the unrest caused by the current presidential campaigns could make down-ballot races more unpredictable.
“The unknowns in this election surpass anything I’ve seen since I’ve been engaged in politics,” she says. “Will soft Republicans be moved to vote for more Democrats? Will women who are disgusted by Donald Trump lean away from the Republican Party? Will people just stay home?”
“Dave’s got a real opportunity to capture the votes of those who may be wavering,” Johnson says.
Bruderly is critical of his opponent’s record as sheriff as well, questioning why Rutherford’s popularity went down over his years as top cop and noting that Jacksonville remained among the nation’s leaders in per capita murders during his time in office.
Rutherford’s campaign did not respond to interview requests.
I ask Bruderly if he’d like to debate Rutherford.
“They tell us he won’t debate me,” he says. “It’s the Rose Garden strategy. [Rutherford’s] got name recognition and he’s got demographics. So he doesn’t have to do anything to win this election.”
If party affiliation is a hurdle for Bruderly, Mark Griffin — a Republican running in the largely Democratic Florida House District 13 race — can empathize. Griffin, a pastor, entrepreneur and founder of Wayman Academy of the Arts, a charter school on Jacksonville’s Westside, is perhaps best known for his work with the Eureka Garden Apartments tenant association. Griffin is optimistic that District 13 voters will look past his party affiliation, and instead focus on his reputation as a successful businessperson and positive presence in the community when they cast their ballots in November.
“It wasn’t until I announced [my candidacy] that people in my community realized what party I was representing,” Griffin says over the phone. “I think we tend to overplay party. At the end the day, we are all the same in terms of our dreams, our hopes, our aspirations for the community. If we can ever get past labeling people because of their party affiliation, I think we could get more people involved in the political process.”
Encompassing the neighborhoods of San Marco, Arlington, Downtown and the Northside, District 13 is home to some of the region’s most impoverished communities. While the district also includes three universities, Title I schools and subsidized housing dot the landscape, and economic opportunity is scattered. The district’s residents tend to vote overwhelmingly for Democrats.
Griffin is quite familiar with the disparity that defines the district. Wayman Academy of the Arts is located across the street from the troubled Eureka Garden Apartments complex, where Griffin helped residents organize a tenants association to address issues of crime and substandard living conditions.
While Griffin says he is supportive of social programs, like welfare, that are more often championed by liberals, he maintains that it was the Republican Party’s support of school choice that moved him to switch parties some years ago.
“I’m very supportive of smart social programs,” he says. “Take Eureka Gardens, for example. My contention is, as we clean up the mold and the physical conditions, we still haven’t addressed the issue until we help ensure that the residents there no longer have to rely on government. We have to have social programs that eventually help a person become independent. In my opinion, we have not been as smart or as effective in those social programs as we can be, moving forward.”
Griffin used his business background — he was a licensed CPA and he earned an MBA from the University of North Florida — to build his ministry and its successful nonprofit ventures. He says that between Wayman Academy of the Arts, Wayman Temple and his community development corporation, he employs more than 100 people and proudly asserts that all of his employees are paid more than minimum wage.
Despite Griffin’s success and his good standing in his community, he faces an uphill battle to convince voters in his district to vote for a Republican. Only 7,000 people voted in the District 13 Republican primary, compared to 14,000 in the Democratic primary.
“Those voters who voted on the Democratic side were not able to vote for me!” Griffin counters with a laugh. “I’m no stranger to the African-American Democrats in that district. My work is well known.”
Griffin remained an underdog even as his opponent, incumbent Reggie Fullwood, was mired in a wire fraud scandal.
Unwilling to pile on his then-opponent, Griffin says he was “hoping and praying” for Fullwood. “As a pastor and community leader, my role is to lift people when they are down. I honestly believe that even without [Fullwood’s] legal issues, I am the best candidate,” he says.
Minutes after I spoke to Griffin, several news outlets reported that Fullwood had pled guilty to federal wire fraud and failing to file a tax return, two of the 14 charges against him, and filed paperwork to withdraw from the District 13 race. Days later, the Duval Democratic Executive Committee announced that Tracie Davis, a city compliance officer who came in second to Fullwood in the Democratic primary, would be the party’s new nominee, and Fullwood’s name will remain on the ballot. Though she lost the primary, Davis received more votes than Griffin did in his respective primary win.
According to the Duval DEC, those who wish to vote for Davis will be instructed to cast a ballot for Fullwood, from signs posted at polling locations. It seems more than likely, however, that voters will simply look at the letter next to each candidate’s name and vote accordingly.
Back in Crescent Beach, the sun has moved behind us and a late afternoon sea breeze is blowing, making its way from the Atlantic Ocean and across Morley’s beloved Matanzas River before arriving at his family’s compound.
In the weeks until the election on Tuesday, Nov. 8, Morley has filled his schedule with meetings with various Democratic clubs, entrepreneurial groups, and membership groups, like the Lions Club of Ormond Beach, and canvassing events. He also plans to use the occasional swing dance class (which he teaches, weekly, with his wife) to pitch his platform to fellow dancers.
“I’m a product of this district,” Morley says. “I have conservative influences and liberal ones. I don’t have Democratic or Republican values, I have District 24 values because I grew up here.”
As Morley prepares for the home stretch to election day, he’s got roughly $12,000 in campaign funds, a part-time campaign manager, and less than a month to get his message out there.
“I will represent this district,” he says. “Whether it’s this election or the one after that, or the one after that. I’ll keep running until I win.”