The move was as cynical as they come. Last week, in the run-up to a mayoral election, incumbent Lenny Curry settled a longstanding city real-estate stalemate. He bought off Toney Sleiman. He did so to his political advantage and at taxpayer cost, by buying Sleiman Enterprises out of The Jacksonville Landing for $15 million.
For his part, Sleiman had been looking for an offramp—and a paycheck—for years. He hit city leaders for not obliging him, too. The two parties had been feuding in the courts and in the press for years. Sleiman’s company took control of the struggling shopping and entertainment complex in 2003, but the land is technically owned by the city. According to Sleiman, the city had been an unreliable partner in terms of investment and redevelopment. According to the city, Sleiman was a slumlord.
That’s all water under The Landing now, though. Curry and Sleiman love each other. They’re all thumbs-up thanks to that $15 million check. It’s a small price to pay for Curry—first and foremost because it’s not his money. It’s yours. Second, Curry kills multiple political birds with one taxpayer-subsidized stone. He’s silenced a critical voice—and a source of donations to his opponents. And, if it’s true that The Landing is to be razed and replaced by a green space, Curry has effectively taken a valuable plot of waterfront property off the market, thus steering “Downtown” development bucks a full mile from the heart of Downtown, to his buddy Shad Khan’s East Jacksonville playground. (Note: not Downtown.)
If it was a small price to pay for Curry, it was an even smaller one for Sleiman. He didn’t have to pay anything at all. I reckon he’s the real winner here. The upcoming election gave Sleiman the leverage he needed to finally get everything he ever wanted from a vulnerable Curry. You see, Curry is not performing as well as he would like. Yes, friendly media have all but crowned the man. And, yes, in last week’s UNF opinion poll, he enjoyed a comfortable, 37-point advantage over his nearest competitor, city councilmember Anna Lopez Brosche. All that gives Curry is an overwhelming plurality in an election that requires a solid majority. Right now, at 52 percent, his majority is all-too-tenuous. If Brosche and the other mayoral contenders continue to drive his negatives up and put Curry under 50 percent on March 19, the contest goes to a May runoff in which Brosche will consolidate the anti-Curry vote and give him a run for his (our) money.
The run-off scenario is especially dangerous for Curry if the recent explosion in gun violence continues to undermine his law-and-order narrative (see A.G. Gancarski’s “Murder Was the Case”). From where I stand, however, Curry’s biggest liability isn’t crime. It’s the baldly political, transactional nature of his administration, as evidenced by this very stunt. There’s a word for such behavior: corruption.
I’ve written before of City Hall as a lagging indicator, the last bastion of the Jacksonville Establishment. Although Duval is palpably trending thoughtful from the ground-up, old-school cronyism and ratf*ckery remain the order of the day at the highest levels of city government. Any potential critic within reach of the incumbent is either bought or bullied.
Look at the Democratic Party. At the grassroots level, the Duval Democrats passed a unanimous resolution officially opposing Curry’s reelection. But—surprise!—any Democratic politician with something to lose—or something to gain—seems to have endorsed the mayor (see this week’s Backpage Editorial).
With the nominal leaders of the opposition thus caught currying favor, only the voters are left to call corruption by its name. Will they?