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No Days Off

Garrett Dennis in theory and practice

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The fourth floor of Jacksonville City Hall was essentially a ghost town when “the Folio crew” (as the receptionist dubbed us) met with city Councilmember Garrett Dennis. It was the first Monday of February, balmy and beautiful, definitely not the kind of day you’d want to spend at work—but there he was, working. It seems like he’s always working. The 45-year-old father of two has been working in some form or fashion since he was a precocious pre-teen; his mother became disabled, and he became the man of the house.

After shooting photos in Hemming Park, we sat down for a wide-ranging conversation that lasted longer than an hour. We began by discussing his childhood. He was born in what is now UF Health on Eighth Street on November 14, 1974, and grew up in the Sherwood area. “It was the place to be,” he says, looking back on an era that is now long gone. “It was still a tight-knit community, unlike today. People’s lifestyles are different. It takes two incomes to make ends meet, and people are more mobile than they used to be.”

To be a young black man growing up on the Northside of Jacksonville in the 1980s was to have more than a passing familiarity with the political leadership of that community. Ironically, we both grew up running flyers for candy cash. For me, the patron was Denise Lee, who inherited the seat vacated by the death of Sallye B. Mathis and controlled District 8 for 24 years. Young Garrett Dennis, however, got his start in politics under the tutelage of future state Senator Tony Hill.

“We lived on the same street,” Dennis recalls. “A few of us kids were out, playing football in the street. Tony came up and said, ‘Hey, y’all wanna make five dollars?’ We got on the back of the truck and passed out those flyers. That was the first taste of politics and campaigning—eight or nine years old, on Dallen Lea Drive. So I don’t take for granted chance encounters with people, because you never know how that chance encounter might set you up for the future.”

Dennis graduated from Jean Ribault High School in 1992, then matriculated at Florida A&M University, class of '97, before returning to the old neighborhood for a new beginning. Today, roughly four decades after that flyer run, he’s a year into his second term representing District 9, a position that Dennis initially pursued back in 1999. He finished third in that first competitive six-person race, behind Audrey Gibson and eventual winner Reggie Fullwood, who both went on to pursue notable careers in local politics. Dennis was a teacher at that point—first at Kirby-Smith Middle School, then Lee High—but the allure of public service was inescapable. Within a couple of years, he was working at the Office of the Supervisor of Elections under the late John Stafford, who paid him a visit in the classroom to administer the hard sell in person.

“He said, ‘I’ll be honest with you: After the 2000 elections, the black community thinks I’m the devil. I need an articulate African American to come in and help me rebuild credibility.’ It was a tough four years; during that time, the stress basically killed him.” Stafford had been essentially scapegoated for widespread shenanigans in Florida’s election system—issues that helped elect George W. Bush to presidency in 2000 and which, by some accounts, helped beat Andrew Gillum in 2018. Stafford resigned in October 2004. His premature death, two years later, ended one of the saddest and most shameful chapters in local history.

Dennis, meanwhile, continued under Stafford’s successors, Bill Scheu and Jerry Holland, working as an educational specialist and director of community outreach. In those roles, Dennis helped train more than 10,000 poll workers while getting some 55,000 students registered to vote. Some of them would end up voting for him; some did so twice. Working at the SOE office gave Dennis an insider’s perspective on how the system works and how it doesn’t. “I saw a lot of good people come in who should have been elected but didn’t,” he said, “and a lot of bad people who should have never gotten elected but did. So, over that 14 years, I became a student of the process.”

Soon enough, the game was afoot, and Dennis left the SOE office to make his second run for the District 9 seat in 2015. He took 60 percent of the vote, defeating former Councilmember Glorious Johnson on the first ballot. His predecessor, Warren Jones, is a legend in local politics, having served seven terms in the council, dating back to 1979. Dennis respects his elders, and the elders respect him; Jones even called in during the interview just to say hello. “I tease Warren all the time,” Dennis said, “because he spent 28 years on the council, and I’m like, ‘How did you do this for 28 years?’ Because you’re at 100 miles an hour all the time and there is no letup at all.”

“When you first come into office, everyone wants to meet with you,” Dennis said, “from lobbyists to people who want to do business with you. I have a standard line: ‘Listen, this is how I play the game. I don’t believe in pay-to-play, I don’t believe in kickbacks, I don’t believe in money under the table or any of that stuff. So if you approach me [like that], I will never meet with you again.’ I don’t know what other people do, but everyone who meets with me has heard the spiel.” As the owner of his own contracting company, Dennis is keen to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest, which has made him almost obsessive in matters of disclosure—a quirk that has probably saved him from the kind of trouble that has decimated the city’s black leadership in recent years.

The jigsaw puzzle-like patterns of council districts are reflective of their shifting demographics. Boundary lines are set roughly based on population, not physical size, so they’re all about 65,000 to 70,000 people each. Dennis’ district is one of the city’s largest, in terms of square mileage. “I bought a truck in 2017, brand-new, with maybe eleven miles on it,” he said. “Now, it probably has about 116,000 miles on it, and I’ve been out of town twice.” He oversees a district of growing economic strength but whose political power is at a low ebb compared to its glory days in the 1980s, when fellow Northsider Jake Godbold ensured that the black community had consistent seats at the proverbial table. The flag was at half-staff all month in honor of “Big Jake,” who died recently and whose shadow looms over city hall as persistently as that of the flagpole itself.

“The district is very, very diverse,” said Dennis, displaying an almost encyclopedic grasp of the city’s internal geography, rattling off neighborhood names like a line cook reciting buffet items. “The northern part is, like, Grand Park, Paxon, EWC, Beaver Street, North Riverside, Robinson Edition. That part is heavily Democratic, heavily African American. And then you have parts of Murray Hill, Cassat, San Juan, Lane Avenue, Hyde Park, Hyde Grove, Sweetwater, Cedar Hills, Confederate Point. Those areas are probably majority white, more Republican. And then you have the southern part of the district: Blanding, Wilson, 103rd, Townsend, the plantation area, 295 and Collins Road, Duclay, the Timuquana area. That’s a mixture, because you’ve got the military and things like that, so that’s kind of 50- 50. So it’s all diverse, in terms of race, party and people’s needs.”

Dennis’ first term was defined largely by tension and tumult, due primarily to the public feud he’s waged with Mayor Lenny Curry. It’s a battle that has played out in restaurants, elevators, office suites and, of course, the council chambers themselves. Their mutual animus has been documented extensively in print, on camera and occasionally under oath, but the average citizen knows of all this mostly through Twitter: an indispensable tool for pols of the modern era and one that the two men use in very different ways. Dennis still expresses some shock at how relations have deteriorated, given their early collaborations on behalf of residents at Eureka Gardens. To this day, Dennis figures that he’s supported about 85 percent of the mayor’s proposals. But when they disagree, they really, really disagree, as the community has seen during the past year.

Ultimately, members of the council must develop their own dynamic with city hall, with the mayor and various departments, and with their own constituents; there’s really no blueprint, no magic formula to speak of. “Some councilmembers spend more time here than others,” said Dennis, one of only a handful of his colleagues in the office on this Monday afternoon. “I think district members spend more time here than at-large members and especially if you’re in districts like 7, 8, 9 or 10, because we’re their advocates for the district. And then if you’re in a minority district, where there are more challenges than others, we have more constituent needs, so they want to interact with us more. But it all depends on how engaged you are. I’ll be honest; some councilmembers are not engaged at all. It’s just a title for them, whereas for others, this is our mission field; we take it seriously. There’s a lot of work to be done.” And with that, it’s back to work for Garrett Dennis. No days off. Not now, not ever.

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