Jacksonville’s mayoral race is an enigma to the outsider. Don’t worry, though—I’m starting to wrap my mind around it.
First, dear reader, let me apologize. You might recall the dramatic close of last week’s editorial, in which, after defending public education, I outed myself as a former Detroit public school teacher and promised to “unravel my pedigree,” to quote Laurence Fishburne’s Russell Stevens/John Q. Hull in Deep Cover (1992). Yes, I promised a thrilling conclusion, an enthralling, first-hand account of the subversion of our public school system.
But, alas, local politics intervened, and my pedigree has to wait ’til next week. (Cue sad trombone.) Prepare thyself now for my take on Jacksonville’s mayoral race, which got more contentious last week with Anna Lopez Brosche’s last-minute qualification, sitting City Councilmember, former council president and political nemesis of incumbent Lenny Curry.
None of this was unexpected, of course. Our own Folio Politics columnist, A.G. Gancarski, predicted Brosche’s entry—and Curry’s reaction. The mayor fired a warning shot weeks ago, when his political action committee, Jacksonville on the Rise, aired the now-infamous Jeopardy-ish ad (see Gancarski’s “Game On,” Jan. 9).
Now what? Well, the odds are on Curry, who’s more than just a mayor; he’s a political boss (see Gancarski’s “Council Conundrum,” Jan. 2). But the Republican machine pol hardly represents the Jacksonville I’ve been getting to know these past several months. Jax is funny like that.
Let’s start with the obvious: Jacksonville is trending diverse and progressive. We’re the swing city in the swing state. You can feel it in the air. It’s an exciting time to be alive in Duval. But the retreating establishment’s rearguard actions have made representation of that reality a struggle. Consolidation drowned the growing urban (read: black) vote in a sea of regressive, white nostalgia more than a half-century ago. Congressionally, the map is gerrymandered to effectively contain that same urban constituency (and make FL-04 so safely Republican that U.S. Rep. John Rutherford needn’t deign to hold a public town hall that would involve, you know, meeting his constituents).
For all these historic handicaps—“against all odds,” in the immortal words of Phil Collins—Duval County did finally join the cosmopolitan club of Florida’s Democratic-majority metro areas in last year’s midterms. The majority of Jax voters backed gubernatorial hopeful Andrew Gillum and, though their candidate lost statewide by a razor-thin margin, the outcome proved that thoughtful Duval could overcome the systemic electoral obstacles put in its way by generations of resentful, backward-looking policy-makers. And it was thanks to two forces: the enthusiasm of young, mainly Democratic voters and the flight of aging, mainly Republican voters to surrounding counties.
Of course, party affiliation doesn’t tell the whole story, especially in a region as historically complex as NEFla. You see, both Curry and Brosche are Republicans, but there are Republicans and then there are Republicans.
The ruddy-cheeked former chairman of The Republican Party of Florida (I told you he’s a political boss), Curry is a standard-issue Repub. He’s a Trump apologist. He refused to sign a bill extending anti-discrimination protection to the LGBT community. He’d rather fund unaccountable, uncredentialed charter schools than our shared public schools. And, speaking of privatization, he was implicated in the plot to sell JEA, before public outcry prompted him to distance himself from the project.
Brosche, on the other hand, isn’t your average Republican. Indeed, though she entered the political fray in 2015 as an establishment favorite (and, yes, establishment = Republican in NEFla), she’s now seen as the anti-establishment candidate, largely because Curry shackled himself to a dreary status quo.
As city council president, Brosche pushed back against the JEA privatization scheme. She championed the LGBT legislation. She’s made promising noises in support of public education. She forged a bipartisan council coalition. She recognized the embarrassing anachronism of Confederate monuments in our public spaces. And she’s a Filipinx-American councilmember in a city whose Asian-American community had never been represented by one of their own. (Yes, it matters.)
On some issues, however, both Curry and Brosche are wrong. Most important, the St. Johns River dredging is a flood disaster waiting to happen.
The run-up to the March 19 election promises to be brutal. As expected, Curry brought out the big guns immediately. Just after Brosche’s qualification, the mayor trotted out Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams and a handful of Brosche’s council colleagues, all of whom declared their fealty to the mayor. Then there’s the money. Between campaign and PAC funds, Curry is reported to have nearly $3 million in his war chest, and his ties to The Republican Party of Florida guarantee him plenty of partisan support from outside the city.
With six qualified candidates in the mix, Brosche’s only path to victory is to force a May run-off by depriving Curry of a simple majority in March. If Curry grabs less than 50 percent, and Brosche is a close second, she has a chance to consolidate the anti-Curry vote for the win in the run-off. To do so, though, Brosche will need to build a bipartisan bloc of Davids to challenge the Goliath entrenched in City Hall.