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In elections, police backing is nothing more than a prop

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With every other problem of note solved in Jacksonville, the City Council will turn its attention to election ads soon. A new bill from Councilman Garrett Dennis, introduced April 23, would bar the use of city resources in campaign ads.

“It is legal for anyone to express their political opinion,” Dennis told WJXT, “but what I have a concern and the citizens of Jacksonville, they have a concern [about] city employees using city resources, whether it is uniforms [or] cars paid for by taxpayers’ dollars to campaign for any candidate.”

This is in reaction to a mini-trend in local political ads, one of relatively recent vintage (as, you’ll recall, nearly every election in recent years has been fought in the “public safety” arena). In 2015, then-candidate Lenny Curry used the issue to score points against then-Mayor Alvin Brown. He was assisted by then-Sheriff John Rutherford, who kept saying that he and Brown did not have a strong working relationship. In the business of politics, Rutherford played a key role, one central to these campaigns: that of a third-party validator, above the fray of the campaign. Curry, running as not-a-politician back then, was nonetheless able to benefit from a meaningful endorsement from a sheriff, one who was never really out of uniform.

In 2016, then-State Attorney Angela Corey was in what would be a doomed battle for re-election against Republican primary challenger Melissa Nelson. Corey was heavily endorsed by virtually every Republican office-holder of note, but those endorsements weren’t moving the needle. She cut an ad inside the State Attorney’s Office, starring uniformed police officers. Nelson spokesperson Brian Hughes (the ubiquitous) wondered if he could film an ad at the same rate and in the same location. Did the Corey ad matter? Voters didn’t buy it. Hughes and Tim Baker, on behalf of Nelson, kneecapped Corey at every turn. The media was with Nelson, after eight years of Corey working to embody the caricature of a tough-on-crime state attorney at the expense of other considerations.

Corey was toxic, but she and her campaign knew that third-party validators were key. The then-incumbent bet that ads showing her as the avatar of the legal system would trump all the oppo hits being shopped. Public safety unions backed her. It didn’t matter. It’s almost as if the simple act of using badges and guns in ads isn’t a “get re-elected free” card.

Yes, cops made the difference, statewide, for Ron DeSantis against Andrew Gillum in the 2018 governor’s race. They also helped drive Ashley Moody’s run for attorney general. But it wasn’t all biscuits and gravy: Cops were with DeSantis only because their preferred choice, Adam Putnam, didn’t make it through the primary. And their previously preferred choice, former Florida Senator Jack Latvala, was submarined by scandal before he got out of the gate.

Moving to 2019, cops have again been featured in ads. Now mayor, Curry branded heavily around police backing in his television buys. Some quibbled when it was clear one of those featured was reading his lines. No matter: Those ads were an effective counter to the #CurryCrimeWave motif pushed by the Anna Brosche campaign and affiliates. It helped that Brosche had voted for Curry’s bills to spend more on police and equipment, including the pension reform that bought the city a few years of fiscal stability. But if Brosche had her own seasoned Tallahassee operatives like Tim Baker and Brian Hughes, or at least some competent locals handling her messaging, it might have been a different outcome.

The 2019 campaign is in its endgame, with just five Council races limping to conclusion. There is one ad out right now with cops: Democrat Lisa King’s spot has led, predictably, to Republican calls of hypocrisy, especially in light of the bill filed by ally Dennis. King’s buy: roughly $13,000, meaning that the impact of earned media about the commercial means more than the diffused spend. King is hampered by running opposition to Curry, but the real impact against her will be felt in mailers and other media bought by Tallahassee political committees whose donors see King’s Republican opponent, Terrance Freeman, as ideal for their purposes.

Chekhov said that if a gun is introduced at the beginning of a play, it must fire by the end. When it comes to police—politicized by nature, given the way laws and economic interests intersect in our carceral industry—they too are props. A candidate’s police endorsement, or a shot of you walking with police, won’t win the campaign for you. Campaigns are won by money and oppo in amounts significant enough to break an opponent’s will.

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