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Tallahassee Turf War

Local players, statewide impact

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People of a certain age (read: older than you, if you’re in the target demographic of our advertisers) recall when Jacksonville and Northeast Florida dominated the state. That was some decades back. And while we aren’t going to grow like Orlando and Tampa and Miami—at least not yet—we actually are well-positioned to win appropriations battles in Tallahassee.

Even if we don’t have any huge asks this year, compared to some others.

It’s worth noting that both budget chairs, Travis Cummings in the House and Rob Bradley in the Senate, are from Clay County. This can help on the margins. UF Health, with its Aaron Bean connection, is worth watching for a come-up. We could use funds for JEA’s septic tank phase-out (a hit that could be a billion dollars), not to mention storm hardening, river dredging and so on.

Not all of these may be your priorities, of course. The dredging issue illustrates like nothing else the gap between the business class and those of us who work for it. King tides, for example, will be more interesting to watch in the next few years, as will the composition of the river itself.

The paradox is that Republican governance aligns well for the priorities of the city’s decision-makers. Not just any type of Republican, mind you, but the pugnaciously pragmatist variety embodied in Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Both are scrappy overachievers from working-class backgrounds who, at every turn, had to out-hustle the scions of capital. Social issues don’t drive them. They speak the language because it has currency. But they are fine with the eclipse of the Christian right. It was never the cleanest fit anyway. These are interesting times.

Our Duval delegation’s most interesting story is on the Senate side: Democratic caucus leader Audrey Gibson. Stop me if you’ve heard this one, but Gibson and Mayor Curry don’t get along. There was a time when they could stand being in the same room together, but that seems to have passed. When Gibson was listed as endorsing the pension reform referendum in 2016, she took umbrage, calling a press conference that ended with a run-in with Tommy Hazouri (a Democrat supporting the effort). Gibson has noted her frustration in figuring out what city priorities are ever since.

The Gibson/Curry dynamic is an interesting, overtly partisan contrast to the non-partisan way things work at City Hall. We saw that illustrated in the Sunshine Law issue, where Curry ally Sam Newby was calling Katrina Brown who was calling Garrett Dennis who was calling Anna Brosche. While no one is saying anything about what, if anything, was said on those calls, they crossed party lines.

Gibson sees Curry as the party boss, the Republican Party of Florida chair, perpetually thumbs-upping at a Trump rally. And Curry doesn’t reach out to her to push legislation. Others complain likewise: They don’t know what Curry wants, because he doesn’t reach out.

One of the most successful legislators in Tallahassee, in terms of getting her bills through, is Democratic Rep. Kim Daniels. Sure, establishment Dems may not want her around, but she is uniquely able to hold a dialogue with Republicans. A key trait right now.

Wyman Duggan and Jason Fischer are both linked closely to the Curry political machine. The mayor’s endorsement helped both get elected, and they will align on key issues.

Unlike in previous sessions, where Jacksonville had a Big Ask (pension reform, then the Hart Bridge renovation), there isn’t such push this time around. Part of that may be a function of the calendar. Our local elections overlap with the Legislative Session this year, and if the mayoral race were more competitive, Curry may not be able to work legislators in person to achieve his priorities. In recent years, Curry has made efficient trips to the capital, meeting with dozens of committee chairs and influential lawmakers to try to leverage the local position. It’s harder to do that, however, when you’re going through the mechanics of an election, such as rallies, fundraising and all the rest.

With the local dance card underwhelming beyond the usual appropriations asks, some big picture issues are worth watching. What comes of the quixotic push to “ban sanctuary cities” in a state that doesn’t have any? Can Tallahassee figure out medical cannabis? And are Republican lawmakers ready to consider Democratic bills pushing adult, non-medical use? Does DeSantis play to the right on abortion and other issues, as his State of the State address suggested? These are interesting times, and we will know more in May than we do now.

@aggancarski

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