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A Seasoned Competitor

Donna Deegan makes her move

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In politics, as in sports, a fast start is just as important as a strong finish. Donna Deegan nailed the first part, and the rest remains to be seen. After years of gentle prodding by friends and fans, she has finally decided to go all-in on a bid for political office. The official announcement was made November 14, amid a whirlwind round of local media stories that effectively spread the word to all of Northeast Florida in a matter of hours.

Deegan’s first day as a political candidate began on the air with Melissa Ross, her former colleague at First Coast News who now hosts First Coast Connect on WJCT, and it ended with a fundraiser at the home of Kevin Clair and Tracye Polson where she set a record by raising more than $85,000 on her first day. But the main event was her announcement, which came immediately after the radio spot. Deegan, a graduate of Bishop Kenny High School and FSU, credits a class visit by Deborah Gianoulis with inspiring her own move into journalism. She started at WTXL in Tallahassee back in 1984. From there, she moved on to WTVX in Fort Pierce and WPEC in West Palm Beach before returning home to WTLV in 1988. She became a familiar face in a city known for its emotional investment with local television reporters.

Her three battles with breast cancer—in 1999, 2002 and 2007—were documented on-air, and viewers followed her journey the way they would a member of their own family. Deegan did a lot to strip away the stigma of that disease, becoming a lifeline for thousands of others who have since shared their own stories. Surely we all know someone who has been touched by these efforts; indeed, you may have been.

Credit must also be given to Deegan’s former colleague, Jeannie Blaylock, who started the Buddy Check 12 initiative in 1994. This effort to encourage self-exams by women has expanded to dozens of other television stations around the world, in the process saving more lives than anyone has ever attempted to count.

Deegan, 58, retired from full-time broadcasting in 2012 and shifted her focus to advocacy for breast cancer survivors through the DONNA Foundation, which has dispersed more than $5 million into research and education efforts, while helping support more than 12,000 families since its founding in 2003. She’s probably best known today for (literally) running the 26.2 With Donna Marathon, which draws upwards of 10,000 runners and fans from more than 20 countries and all 50 states; the next race is scheduled for February 9. Practice runs take place all over the First Coast and have proven as useful for networking as they have for cardio.

From humble beginnings, the marathon quickly grew into one of the most prestigious distance-running events held anywhere in the world, but that is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The DONNA Careline provides 24/7 financial assistance and advice to people fighting breast cancer and their families. There’s also The Players 5K, presented by the Nimnicht Family of Dealerships, where nearly 2,000 participants traverse the terrain at TPC Sawgrass, and the Jags Give and Go, where folks can buy football tickets through the foundation, with a portion of proceeds going to support cancer survivors.

Deegan moves fast, as one would expect of a runner. Within three weeks, she had begun crafting her platform, prepared her social media accounts, commissioned her logo, put in orders for her promotional gimmicks and built a small but potent campaign staff: Communications Manager Kevin Cate has worked with Nikki Fried, Andrew Gillum, Charlie Crist and Barack Obama. Campaign Consultant Scott Arceneaux held director gigs for the state’s Democratic Party here and in Louisiana. Phil Perry, a VP at Asana Creative Strategy, who also worked for Obama, leads Deegan’s digital communications operation. Political Consultant Jane Rayburn has campaign experience in Boston and Chicago—two of the all-time great Democratic territories. Augmenting that core are several hundred folks lined up to volunteer already, a group that includes a number of prominent activists spanning the ideological spectrum. “I have a kitchen cabinet that probably has as many Republicans on it as Democrats,” Deegan said, laughing. “My whole goal here is to make this very inclusive, bipartisan effort.”

Team Donna is led by Campaign Manager Erica Connor, a youthful veteran of local politics who also serves as president of the Ponte Vedra Democratic Club and a director for a statewide political committee called Journey Forward. “The response has been very positive,” said Connor, who currently holds elected office herself, as a supervisor for the St. Johns County Soil & Water Conservation District. Both women played key roles in cultivating the infamous “Blue Wave” that delivered Democratic victories in conservative territory last year.

It was Andrew Gillum who inspired Deegan to make her initial foray into political life, and it was Deegan’s deep base of personal connections that helped bring him closer to the Governor’s Mansion than any Democratic politician in a quarter-century. “He is a dear friend,” Deegan said, “and he has taught me a lot about the dedication needed to run for an office like this. I believe that he is one of the most authentic people that I’ve ever had the privilege to witness in the political space.”

The two remain close, and Gillum was one of many, many, many people over the years (long before 2018) who encouraged her to run for office in her own right. His was perhaps the most credible voice saying so, having personally witnessed the response she drew from around the First Coast while introducing him at rallies, not to mention her boundless energy (which is just crazy, even by Andrew Gillum standards). “I’m just awed by the opportunity I had to do that,” Deegan says, “and I think that a lot of how I proceed in this race will be modeled after his hard work ethic.”

Just five hours after Deegan’s announcement, Gillum also became her first high-profile endorsement, issuing a mass email through her campaign website. “Donna is committed to making sure everyone has the right to health care, she believes in science, and she believes that universal background checks are needed to help stop gun violence,” he writes. “She’s the candidate that will get it done—and flip this district from red to blue.”

Deegan is a member of the Democratic Party, of course, but as a daughter of the South, her influences run the gamut. In these increasingly polarized times, she has no problem reaching across the aisle. “One of the things that Ronald Reagan knew very well was that there has to be a win for everyone, or it is not sustainable. Compromise has got to stop being a dirty word, because we are not going to get to anything sustainable unless people feel like they are being heard. I think that’s the way forward, regardless of what our opinions are about things. We’ve got to understand that we don’t always get everything we want.”

“I’m not in this because I want to be a politician. I have no interest in being a lifelong politician,” she says. “I think Tillie Fowler had that right. She was an amazing, visionary person, and she was absolutely spot-on, in terms of term limits. That’s the biggest problem we have right now. Unfortunately, our politicians don’t spend a lot of time listening to us. What happens is, the special interests get involved, and no one wants to give the other side a win, and here we are.”

Insiders were already buzzing, queued-up and clued-in, by the time Deegan made the 15-minute drive from WJCT across the river to the gorgeous Avondale home of Wayne Wood and Lana Shuttleworth, where Deegan delivered her first speech as a candidate for the U.S. House, Florida’s District 4. (Her initial plan was to announce at Friendship Fountain, but that was scuttled due to an obscure rule prohibiting use of that space for political events. However, we brought her back there to shoot the photos that accompany this article.) Volunteers at a table out front gave out t-shirts, buttons, signs and the all-important petitions, while Deegan watched the crowd growing from inside the living room. This was a long time coming.

“Everybody else has been thinking about it. I really wasn’t,” she said. “I wanted to support other people, and be part of the grassroots movement and all that. At the end of the day, what happened was that I just kept saying to myself, ‘Here we are at the edge of this cliff, and if we don’t back off of this cliff, we may lose our democracy.’”

There was no magic moment, no dramatic tipping-point. Deegan has never really been prone to impulsive behavior. Rather, it was a series of gradual shifts, a game of inches. “I decided it was better than throwing things at the television,” Deegan said. “If I can do it, and I have the ability to do it, and the passion to do it, and I believe that I can speak with people and listen to people, then I should do it.”

The podium was posted up on the front porch. Connor, Dr. Parvez Ahmed, Toni Hernandez and the candidate’s husband, the iconic local weatherman Tim Deegan, preceded her to it. They all got visibly emotional while touting the courage she’s shown as a three-time survivor of breast cancer, a fight that began 20 years ago. If she wins, Deegan will join an entire delegation of cancer survivors in the U.S. Congress.

The mutual animus for the disease is a rare area of bipartisan sentiment, but it’s unclear what exactly government can do to win this fight. As you might expect, Deegan has a few ideas. “I love the moonshot idea,” she said. “I think we need to invest a lot more in cancer research. But really, primarily, what they can do is get out of the way on healthcare. People are dying every day, every single day. I was talking to a woman two months ago, who said to me, ‘I’m sitting here with stage four breast cancer, and I may lose my life, because I did not want to be a financial burden to my family.’ Now, how much more will that cost the system than it would have cost just to take care of it at the very beginning?”

In terms of policy, Deegan’s primary focus is on healthcare, an area that she has surveyed from every conceivable perspective throughout the years. Few issues get as much attention in politics today, and few politicians know the issue as comprehensively as Deegan does. “I don’t know how many people remember this, but the Affordable Care Act was originally a construct of the Heritage Foundation,” she said. “It was considered a compromise to what a lot of people on the left wanted, and now it’s vilified as this sort of far-left crazy thing.” While others fixate on the nuances of policy, rushing to formulate plans they can name after themselves, Deegan takes a holistic approach to a complex subject.

“Listen, anybody that is looking at the costs of healthcare, and the morality of not providing healthcare in this nation, is for universal healthcare. That is a no-brainer,” she says. “We just have to figure out a way to get there. I don’t care how we do it, but everybody has to be covered, period.” Leaning forward into the verbiage, there is no sense of recitation. The words flow smoothly and seemingly spontaneous, though of course they can’t be. Her television career was all about stylized study, hard work rendered effortlessly, and she’s taken that method into a new arena.

Tim Deegan was especially moved—and moving—when he told the story from his perspective. He has witnessed her struggles more closely than anyone, and he knows better than anyone how much she risks by taking this step. The Deegans met as rising young stars at WTLV, and their whirlwind romance became arguably the most talked-about love story in local history. Time noted that some of their first real conversations at the time revolved around politics, but their own views were a closely-kept secret until only recently. (His still are, since he remains a fixture in local media. One might assume his views to be as fully simpatico in politics as they are in every other aspect of life, but you never really know, especially these days.)

For 20 years, the Deegans have reigned among the region’s major power couples, and as their power accrued, with interest, folks wondered aloud what the next step would be. Now we know. Everyone knows, especially the incumbent, Rep. John Rutherford. The former sheriff slid into the spot vacated by the great Ander Crenshaw, taking a seat that had always been effectively written-off as GOP property. Deegan’s entry makes the district immediately more competitive than it has been since its grand gerrymandering after the 1990 census. Rutherford’s campaign staff have smartly kept quiet about the challenge so far, but they began prepping their defense before his supporters even knew there was anyone to be defended against. “The Congressman has no comment on any one of the number of candidates that have filed to run in the fourth District,” says campaign staffer Tim Baker. “He looks forward to running a vigorous re-election campaign focused on his record of results for the citizens of Northeast Florida.”

For her part, Deegan credits her opponent for helping motivate her decision to run. “One of the things that really helped me make up my mind is that I heard Rep. Rutherford on [Ross’] show,” she said. “And he said, ‘I’m not gonna have any town hall meetings, because I don’t want to be part of the dysfunctional process.’ He doesn’t want to give people their 15 minutes of fame. But to me, that’s part of your job as a representative, to take those uncomfortable meetings, to take those darts that are going to be thrown at you, to listen to people who disagree with you. That’s how we learn; that’s how we move the country forward.”

Deegan is a kind person, but politics is not a nice business, and she is gearing up to fight a whole different type of battle than anything she’s fought to date. She’s ready for the heat, ready for the drama. “That’s part of it, but that can’t stop good people from running for office,” she said. “It has stopped good people from wanting to run but, look, cancer hasn’t killed me, so I guess this won’t kill me, one way or the other. As long as my husband loves me, and my kids love me, I’m good to go.”

Taking the makeshift stage in an off-white tailored dress, Deegan hovers just above five feet, even with her ever-present heels. She had a box positioned near the podium, so she could be better seen, but she didn’t need it. Some politicians are lucky to get a standing ovation, but in this case, folks just stood up the whole time. She seemed to almost levitate above the fray as she told her story, energized by an electric crowd response that lit up the sky on that cloudy Thursday morning. History was being made, and so, perhaps, was the future, but that remains to be seen.

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