It is Wednesday, Oct. 3. Candidate Tracye Polson, a Democrat, is in Jacksonville’s Memorial Park, about to read a prepared statement. Several police officers are positioned behind Polson. This statement is in response to a recent attack ad issued by her opponent, Republican Wyman Duggan, in a race for State House District 15. The ad features the image of a crowd burning the American flag and says Polson “supports extreme values.” The image of Polson standing with police officers is meant to counteract this accusation.
“I did not expect, and what is deeply disturbing to me, is that my opponent would suggest that my platform or values would include burning the United States flag,” says Polson. “It is simply not true. I am prepared to defend these values as a person and candidate against someone who would clearly say anything to get elected.”
Polson and Duggan are facing off in a historic race that has the potential to change the future of Jacksonville politics. The battleground for this election is HD 15. Neither candidate has ever run for political office, but both have taken up the mantle of partisan politics in this era of Trump.
Polson, a licensed clinical social worker, has a private practice that islocated in San Marco. Her political platform is focused on education. She favors raising teachers’ salaries but has shied away from criticizing school choice and charter schools. Like many of the Democratic candidates running in the midterm elections, her political ambitions are a reaction to the 2016 election of Donald Trump.
“I am one of thousands of women who—after the 2016 election—decided to run for office. I went to Washington, D.C. for the Women’s March and came home really passionate, really excited,” said Polson in an interview with Buzz TV. “When I was looking at this seat in particular, there hadn’t been a Democrat to run [for it] in six years, and there was one man who had already filed, with the expectation that this seat would just be his.”
No Democrat has ever really bothered to compete for HD 15. It is the home of Jacksonville’s left-leaning Five Points area, but HD 15 has remained Republican-held territory in state elections since 2010. From 2010 to ’14, HD 15 was represented by Republican Daniel Davis, who ran unopposed in the 2012 general election. In 2014, Republican Jay Fant defeated Independent Kerry Keith Kelly; he then ran unopposed in the 2016 election. Fant decided not to run for re-election in 2018 so that he could run for State Attorney General. Most people thought his seat would go to the winner of the Republican primary. That person was Wyman Duggan.
Duggan is a clean-cut, white-shoe lawyer from Rogers Towers, one of Jacksonville’s oldest and largest law firms. On the subject of education, Duggan favors dual enrollment, allowing students to work toward a “skilled trade certificate” while they attend high school. But his campaign has largely been about economic development and crime reduction. A staple of his platform has been the utilization of Cecil Commerce Center on the Westside for its “economic potential.”
He came under fire during the primary when his opponents sent out fliers that said Duggan was part of a lobbyist team hired by a foreign company to negotiate the purchase of Jacksonville utility company JEA. But Duggan’s endorsement from Mayor Lenny Curry propelled him to victory with 40 percent of the vote.
Everyone thought the fight for HD 15 was finished. Trump won the district in 2016 and it seemed unlikely that anyone could flip it from red to blue. But things changed. In 2016, Republicans had a 2,000-voter advantage in party registration. In 2018, the district has slightly more registered Democrats. HD 15 has 40,323 registered Democrats and 39,997 Republicans. There are 22,073 voters in the district with no declared party affiliation.
“That district is ballooning up. It’s a fairly diverse district. Some change is going on,” says Michael Binder, a University of North Florida associate political science professor. “Both candidates have been doing things right. I think whoever has a better ground game is going to win it.”
An internal poll conducted by SEA Polling & Strategic Design put Duggan up two points against Polson, but the race is far from a done deal. Polson has been raising and spending large sums of money, and Duggan has been struggling to keep up. According to the National Institute of Money in State Politics, an American nonprofit organization that tracks campaign finance data, Polson has raised $333,648, while Duggan has raised $208,294. Because Polson had no Democratic challengers, she managed to avoid a costly primary campaign and so now has more cash on hand.
“We have the power to transform Florida,” tweeted Polson on Sept. 5. “I know that together we can work toward a safer and brighter future for all Floridians.”