Nearly five years ago, I met with current Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry for coffee. He wasn’t the mayor at the time, though. He was a Republican challenger to then-incumbent Alvin Brown (D), and he wasn’t presented in the media as a serious threat. There just wasn’t polling to support that proposition. Curry’s strong fundraising and political pedigree (he’s a former state party chair) made him one to watch, though.
He let me know, broadly speaking, the contours of the campaign as he expected it to unfold. I hear that kind of thing from pols and consultants all the time. But Curry nailed it. He made the runoff, won in May, then spent the better part of his term trying to create budget flexibility before fixed costs choked the budget out completely.
Now Curry’s campaigning for reelection, and the opposition party isn’t even fielding a candidate. They could. Some of Curry’s moves as mayor have been controversial.
Pension reform: No one is enthusiastic at this point about reamortizing the $3-billion-plus of debt from the unfunded liability on the defined benefit plan. But without that, there would have been a very limited capital budget. Law enforcement might have survived cuts. It would have been a steady bleed everywhere else.
The JEA situation was 2018’s big drama. Many feared a hasty, lock-stock-and-barrel sale of the city’s utility company. That prospect is off the table, at least for the foreseeable future. The more conspiracy-minded among the readership, however, suspect it will return soon enough.
A plot to sell JEA in 2018 could have resonated with voters as oppo in 2019. With enough money behind it, anything is possible. But the money never fully materialized for that push.
You can go through the outrage-of-the-week list. From effrontery on the fourth floor of City Hall to marginalized members of the Council, there has been a running narrative: Everything was fine until Curry came in, and upset the amazing, unbroken period of non-partisan cooperation that preceded him. Whether or not that narrative is rooted in a real sense of history is another matter. Go back 30 years, and people mounted many of the same complaints about First Baptist Church’s control of local politics.
Go back three months, and you would’ve bet money (unless you had the inside dope) that a strong Democratic candidate would be on the ballot against Curry. Andrew Gillum, Bill Nelson and Nikki Fried: all carried Dirty Duval in 2018 races. All are Democrats. One could have envisioned the party rallying the troops to make local lemonade after state defeat. They could have launched a candidate with some sort of résumé.
What happened instead? Nothing. Everyone was scared to run, scared to lose. It’s ironic: People kvetch about Calculating Curry, the whole “plan to the end” thing. And yet, it scared them off.
Lisa King left the party chair to run ... for city council, citywide, against Terrance Freeman and others for Anna Brosche’s current at-large seat. Yes, a council seat. The same one Brosche is leaving, telling people she couldn’t fight the mayor effectively from the dais.
Brosche, of course, is one of two Republicans challenging Curry this month on the ballot. Unlike many actual Democrats, Brosche invested her political capital on the blue side of the ledger. To get elected council president, she brokered a deal for the votes of the four African-American Democrats representing what are called minority-access districts. She got the gavel. They got the Finance Committee. And they worked Lenny Curry’s team hard during August budget deliberations that had less to do with line items than with broad, sweeping philosophical critiques. (Two of those Finance Committee members have since been indicted for fraud, relative to the use of city economic incentive money. But that isn’t a big deal. If a Jacksonville pol isn’t gaming the system one way or another, that would be real news.)
There is only one televised debate scheduled among Curry, Brosche, Republican Jimmy Hill and No Party Affiliation candidate Omega Allen. The sole drama in March is whether Curry can be kept below 50 percent, forcing a runoff in May. Unless one of his three opponents magically figures out politics—and soon—it ain’t happening.
How local Democrats came to believe that their best shot was with a Republican city councilmember is completely beyond me. Why didn’t they clog the ballot? How hard is it to set up a plant candidate? Republicans are able to pull it off all the time. And Democrats are, too. But not here! Not against the PARTY BOSS from the other side. Makes no sense.
Local Democrats haven’t exactly been helping Brosche out, either, beyond taking her to a different church every 10 minutes on Sundays. Despite a year to coach up, Brosche still hasn’t figured out the kind of demagogic pitch needed to wake people up in this town. We are looking at a low-turnout election, and it doesn’t have to be that way. But when one side doesn’t play to win, that’s how it goes down.