Update: After this issue went to press, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry named Brian Hughes his chief of staff.
We are in the midst of the holiday season, and in terms of politics in the Sunshine State, stakes are high.
And there’s reason to believe that the statewide sturm und drang could accumulate in NE Florida this winter … and beyond.
The big story at the moment, bigger than the primary races, the upcoming legislative session, or anything else: the accusations against State Sen. Jack Latvala.
Six women came forth to Politico with stories that Latvala had sexually harassed them in the workplace of the Florida Senate where, until last month, Latvala held the powerful appropriations chairmanship.
One of those women, senate staffer Rachel Perrin Rogers, is the wife of Brian Hughes, a notable local figure.
Her identity was an open secret, until Perrin Rogers was forced to come forward to defend her name, removing herself from the cloak of confidentiality that is theoretically afforded her by the senate investigation.
Hughes, of course, has been half of the leading political consultant team in this market since he and Tim Baker helmed Lenny Curry’s successful campaign for mayor. From there, Baker and Hughes scored other political victories, including Melissa Nelson’s rout of State Attorney Angela Corey, and the pension reform referendum in 2016.
None of that was easy.
In a time when the local Republican Party has been in ongoing disarray and dysfunction, Hughes and Baker have overcome GOP fratricide with a model that opponents have yet to effectively counter. As they did in the Curry campaign, they message hard and aggressively, with a sophistication others can’t quite match.
With the war between Latvala—still at least nominally a candidate for governor—and Hughes ongoing, there are some who suggest that Latvala may want to get dirty in Duval.
Hughes and Baker have a lot of candidates in the local market: Wyman Duggan for State House District 15, and Rose Conry, Rory Diamond, Randy DeFoor, LeAnna Cumber and Ron Salem for Jacksonville City Council.
And we might as well mention political committee work for Mayor Curry, Sheriff Mike Williams and State Attorney Nelson.
Mainstream Republican candidates are people who may serve up rhetorical red meat for the base from time to time, but tend to be pragmatists in the end.
In terms of the politics of the possible in Jacksonville, where the religious right plays in city politics in a way not done in other major cities, their candidates are often best-case scenarios for the business community.
Whatever you might think of the Jax Chamber or the donor class, they are acutely aware that Jacksonville is running behind other major cities as far as development and other quality of life indicators are concerned.
While the equity bubble and the housing valuation bubble are going to pop sooner or later, creating another economic tsunami like the post-2008 malaise, Hughes/Baker candidates are generally the best equipped to govern during the coming shitstorm, given the intellectual moribundity of so many in the local political class.
There may be headwinds coming for the Hughes/Baker machine.
The big enchilada is Latvala, who piled up $5 million for a race for governor that’s all but dead now.
What will Latvala do with that money? Some suggest a chunk of it may be deployed, via Latvala’s political committee, against Hughes/Baker clients.
Money is one thing; the ability to actually make it work is another. But dropping $20,000 or so into a 2019 council race to push some oppo, or more money in races involving candidates for state offices in 2018, seem like good bets.
I don’t think Hughes and Baker are especially worried about this—Hughes has very powerful allies, including Gov. Rick Scott, who’s now in his own blood feud with former ally Latvala.
But what this illustrates, again, is the particularly pitched nature of internecine Republican warfare. In a gerrymandered political world, the most pitched drama in Florida politics generally involves Republican-on-Republican brawls.
It’s hard to see how Latvala survives this in the senate. It’s hard for me to see why he continues to drag Perrin Rogers through the mud, leaking text messages and the like. And it’s inevitable that Hughes is going to exact his revenge; what man wouldn’t when his wife is being defenestrated in the press?
It’s easy, too, to see this war playing out via dark money in local races, in ways no one would’ve forecast before Rogers came forth with her charges against a man who was once one of the most powerful Republicans in the state.
It may be Indian Summer outside. But winter is coming.