There is a difference between a reputation and a brand. We are built by a reputation — or a lack of one. A reputation takes years and sometimes decades to build and can be destroyed in an instant. Compare that to a brand. A brand is more a product of marketing, salesmanship and ad campaigns. Branding takes money more than time. Sometimes people confuse the two. That
is dangerous.

Businesses and even cities also have brands. The city of Jacksonville was long ago branded the “Bold New City of the South.” This brand was coined in 1967 when Jacksonville and Duval County consolidated. We see “Bold” in our beer, our restaurants, and the word is even associated with the Jaguars. This brand has also become a reputation. We have an amazing city of almost a million diverse people.

Jacksonville has not had a very bold reputation of late. Instead of following the law and welcoming our LGBT brothers and sisters to marry, our clerk of courts shut down the courthouse chapel. Instead of having a discussion about art in public places when a local artist painted on traffic boxes, police arrested him in front of his children and put his mugshot on Facebook. Instead of exhibiting fine art in an art museum, a “boob” causes controversy about whether museum funding should be pulled. Human rights debates, the prosecution of children, bullying and violence problems in Jacksonville have all made recent national news.

So now, in 2015, we look to elect a new brand manager and reputation builder for Jacksonville. We need it now as much as ever.

Where reputation is earned one brick at a time, these days a brand can be built and spread overnight — especially in politics. For instance, a 30-second attack ad can misconstrue facts and logic and rewrite years of decision-making. To the contrary, a good newspaper article or “feel-good” campaign ad can brand a candidate as wholesome and what Jacksonville needs. Neither tells the whole story. This type of branding should be irrelevant, as it is done by well-paid, biased outsiders who have been vetted by political parties and come in and do what they need to do to win. These outsiders substitute their branding for hard-earned reputation, and we don’t even realize it.

With all due respect to Omega Allen, we have three serious candidates for Jacksonville’s next mayor: Lenny Curry, Alvin Brown and Bill Bishop.

Mayor Brown is the incumbent. If you are satisfied with Jacksonville’s brand and reputation, he certainly has held the position and knows the job. He has the Democratic Party behind him and has some ads of his own, but we don’t have to trust the ads, as we have lived through his governance.

Bill Bishop has served on the City Council for a long time, including as its president. Before that, he advocated successful referendums including a tree-protection ordinance and a billboard-removal ordinance, and has used his time on a host of boards and committees to address Jacksonville’s financial health, affordable housing and racial inequalities. He has a reputation, and he has helped Jacksonville’s reputation and brand. He doesn’t have the out-of-state political money or campaign hit men, so Bishop’s personal brand isn’t plastered in our conscience. He has run a clean campaign on a shoestring budget.

And then there is Lenny Curry. Originally, I liked what I saw from Curry’s brand managers. He is a feel-good candidate with a beautiful family, and he seems nice. But then I took a deeper look. The only thing that came up was strict Republican rhetoric and cronyism with Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, Rick Scott and those who stand on the far right of the spectrum. He is a politician’s politician. I didn’t see any reputation as someone who has dealt with actual issues in Jacksonville. Instead, he has been circling the state making sure mostly white, male conservatives get elected.

I could not find one specific thing Lenny Curry plans to do to make Jacksonville better. When asked, he frequently comments about studying the problem or forming commissions or seeking audits before making a decision. Heck, he’s seeking the highest office in Jacksonville and can’t even get the bridge on his logo right. Those bridges are a big part of Jacksonville, as they are collectively crossed about a million times a day.

Team Curry’s negative ads sell fear over function. Apparently, it is solely the current mayor’s fault that the police force is smaller, and a few more officers across Jacksonville’s 800-plus square miles might deter murder and rape. Neither of these crimes is the kind generally deterred by any number of officers, and the budget is more complicated than that, but fear trumps logic when it comes to political branding.

Since I couldn’t find what he stood for on TV or the Internet, I checked Curry’s Twitter account, as that is as close to a “dear diary” as we all have these days. I finally found a Jacksonville issue he was clear about: He really stood for getting Tim Tebow to the Jaguars even after GM Dave Caldwell said no. He also loved taking photos with players and coaches and posting them with or without an actual endorsement. He once claimed that the Democrats were trying to “enslave” his America. He said “Boom” a lot. Voter suppression was compared to drunk driving, in that sometimes the sober are inconvenienced, but the analogy was to get the “drunks” off the road even if a few people can’t vote in any given election.

Curry seemed to believe that President Obama has never made a correct decision and is unfit personally and professionally. Overall, he liked to use the words “grace” and “peace,” though his angst for all things non-GOP was really neither graceful nor peaceful. 
I didn’t see a single opinion on gay marriage, gun violence, bullying, local education reform, 
the Downtown revitalization plan or anything that resembled a local issue.

There’s an old adage about the voting public, that it doesn’t care about the steak as much as its sizzle. The steak is reputation. It is why we choose one restaurant over another. It’s the difference between a five-star meal and fast food. The sizzle may certainly turn heads, but if the steak itself is terrible, it will be sent back no matter how exciting it sounded coming to the table.

With politics, it’s the opposite. We only have time and resources to hear the sizzle. Two million dollars have been spent on Lenny Curry’s sizzle, and another million-plus has been spent on Mayor Brown. History shows we too often vote based on sizzle, and if we don’t like the steak, it is too late. We are stuck with it for years.

As we prepare to vote, we need to think about steak and sizzle. Which of the candidates has brand and which has reputation? Which is using Jacksonville as a stepping-stone versus the actual prize?

I have carved into the steaks as much as possible and reached a decision. Whichever candidate is right for you, I pray you will show up and vote. Our reputation depends on it as a city and its individual citizens. Be Bold.