Person of the Year: Peter Rummell

Peter Rummell has been a prominent figure on the Northeast Florida landscape for years — as a developer with the powerful St. Joe Company, a behind-the-scenes player in the secretive Non Group (now the Jacksonville Civic Council), a rainmaker for the GOP.

None of those is the reason he was chosen Folio Weekly’s Person of the Year.

Instead, it was one very specific, if hugely consequential thing that Rummell did that put him into contention for this year’s title: He broke with his party and supported a Democrat. Rummell’s decision to back Alvin Brown for mayor was a watershed moment — and not just for Brown’s candidacy (though it was arguably the single biggest factor in his victory, and an endorsement without which Brown would not have won).

Rummell’s decision to abandon the dictates of partisan politics and fealty to the GOP instantly changed what it meant to be a Republican in the 2011 election — and has the potential to redefine this city’s political dialogue going forward. Rummell chose candidate over party, and the city’s future over the dictates of the past. And he proved that it is possible to buck the demands of the GOP and not become a pariah.

For that reason, and because we hope his example signals the beginning of a sea change in local politics, Peter Rummell is Folio Weekly’s Person of the Year 2011.

Preston Haskell remembers the day he got the call. It was about a week after the March 22 primary, and he — like a lot of local Republicans — was deeply disappointed. The field of Jacksonville mayoral candidates, which once promised a range of partisan intensity, race and gender, was suddenly, uncomfortably narrow.

Two candidates remained: ultraconservative white Republican Mike Hogan and moderate black Democrat Alvin Brown.

For moderate Republicans like Haskell, the founder of the Haskell Co. and a major player in local elections, the situation had no apparent upside. As a Republican candidate, Hogan was deeply unappealing, and even though Brown was more likable, Haskell says, “Everyone knew a Democrat couldn’t win” countywide in Jacksonville.

Republicans were stymied. Their choice: disengage from the election, or support a candidate they could not abide.

Then, the call.

“I remember very clearly,” says Hugh Greene, CEO of Baptist Health, recalling the conference call in which participants heard pollsters’ estimate of the difficult odds Alvin Brown faced. “Peter [Rummell] said, ‘So we’re just going to accept that we can can’t change this? I refuse to accept that. I refuse to accept that this [a Hogan victory] is inevitable.’ ”

By that point, Rummell had met with Alvin Brown, and decided to back him, in spite of his party affiliation. But Rummell realized that it would take tremendous effort to bring along other Republicans, and even more resources to affect the election’s outcome. After consulting with pollsters and the candidate, he concluded it would take a minimum of $300,000 to give Alvin Brown the boost his campaign needed. And money alone wouldn’t do it. Success at the polls would require the buy-in of the city’s Republicans, who were unlikely to vote for a Democrat.

A few days after that call, on April 12, Rummell arranged a meeting at the Hyatt, with a simple if unlikely goal: to convince his moneyed, influential and almost exclusively Republican friends to back Alvin Brown. Among the three dozen people there were Haskell, Greene, Delores Barr Weaver, Ed Burr, Bruce Barcelo and former Mayor John Delaney. “I invited 39 people, and 37 of them came,” he says.

Rummell paid for the room, and the open bar, and he led what he calls an “informal” discussion about their options.

“I consider myself a reasonably partisan Republican,” says Rummell, a former George W. Bush fundraising “Pioneer” and longtime Republican rainmaker (in something of an understatement). “But I would like to think people get judged on their merits and ideas.”

His goal that afternoon was to issue a challenge. Having found the GOP candidate unacceptable, he announced to those gathered that he would support Alvin Brown. More than that, he said, he would commit $150,000 to the effort, provided they would match it with their own dollars.

“I immediately put up 25,” recalls Preston Haskell. “And Delores [Weaver] put up 25, and Ed Burr. By the end of the day, he had his match.”

In Rummell’s recollection, it took until the end of the week to get the full amount. But when The Florida Times-Union announced the alliance on April 15, the news hit the city like a depth charge. “Call this a political stunner,” the story began. Longtime political observers were stunned, the Hogan camp was reeling, and the Brown campaign was, suddenly, unexpectedly viable.

For Hugh Greene, who doesn’t have quite the same financial resources as the other guests at the Hyatt that day, the meeting prompted him to respond in other ways. He committed some money to the campaign — more than he would have otherwise, he says. But more than that, he resolved to lend his name to the effort, to publicly advocate for Brown, to join the team of prominent Republicans in leaving the party path to stand behind a Democrat.

“It wasn’t so much that he provided me cover,” says Hugh Greene, who says he would have supported Brown regardless, albeit not so prominently. “But there was that sense of, ‘Gosh, if Peter’s willing to do this — to take a stand in this kind of way — I need to do ?that, too.’ ”

It was this example, Greene says, that was the impetus for others, and ultimately a game-changer in the election.

“I don’t know that anyone else could have done what he did,” says Greene. “And I’m not sure anyone else would have done what he did.”

Preston Haskell says he, too, would have supported Brown in other ways, absent Rummell’s effort. “But exactly what that would’ve been, I can’t say.”

Peter Rummell, like a lot of Republicans, barely gave Alvin Brown a thought before the March 22 primary. Brown had made an effort to reach out, stopping by Rummell’s office to introduce himself.

“But,” Rummell says, “he’s a Democrat and I’m a Republican, and I didn’t pay a hell of a lot of attention to him, to be honest.”

After the two more moderate Republican candidates — Rick Mullaney and Audrey Moran — lost, many observers (including this publication, — assumed the GOP would embrace Mike Hogan. Many did.

Rummell tried. “I went to a meeting, ?and I listened [to Mike Hogan]. And I got nervous, frankly.

“It was about a week after the primary,” Rummell continues. “And he said — and I remember this distinctly — he said he thought downtown Baldwin was as important as downtown Jacksonville.”

The statement shook Rummell, the head of the Urban Land Institute and strong believer in downtown revitalization. “I didn’t think he had a vision for the city,” he says. “And the more I talked to people, the more I realized that other people had the same concerns.”

Today Rummell has scrubbed Mike Hogan from his memory (“Who’s the Republican that Alvin beat?” he asks in a recent conversation. “I seriously have blocked out his name.”), but in late March, Hogan seemed like a shoo-in. His financing was better, his name recognition stronger, and his party affiliation the ultimate determinant in any Duval County election.

At the same time, Hogan’s intractable nature — his refusal to participate in debates, or reach out to less-conservative residents, or to entertain a vision for revitalizing downtown — struck many business leaders as dangerously short-sighted.

“I do think Hogan would’ve been a mediocre and one-sided politician,” says Haskell. “He probably would’ve shut out input from people who did not support him. And I’m not talking about self-interested input. I’m talking about issues of concern to everyone — education, river, environment, downtown redevelopment.”

Greene concurs. “His views weren’t centrist kinds of views.”

The defection of the posse of high-visibility Republicans surprised many, but they all insist it did not produce a backlash. Rummell downplays negative feedback from the party following his decision. He says local Republicans were generally respectful and supportive of his decision, though he concedes he got a few calls from GOP leaders outside of Jacksonville.

“From the statewide level, there were some questions and people were trying to understand what was going on,” he says. “But I never got one call that said, ‘What the hell are you doing, have you lost your mind?’ ”

Whether Rummell’s decision has any lasting impact on the city’s political dialogue remains to be seen. Greene is hopeful that it at least heralds a move away from the margins. “I don’t know that it signals a seismic shift,” he says. “But it does indicate moving discourse to the political center.”

Haskell, who expresses deep disappointment over political “extremism” at the national level, hopes the city’s bipartisan example inspires observers elsewhere. He also thinks it may change the way others think of the city. “I have seen in various columns and news sources that people admire what Jacksonville did,” he says. “Jacksonville has taken on a slightly different sheen and a slightly different flavor.”

For his part, Rummell refers to his support of Brown as a one-off. “This is my one venture. I still think of myself as a dyed-in-the-wool Republican.”

But Rummell is more than happy to demonstrate that party should not be the only, or even the first, consideration in local elections. “If, on a local basis, we can get Jacksonville to set that example,” he says, “then yippee for us.”