SALE OF THE CENTURY

Lenny Curry’s pension tax referendumgot through Tallahassee. Both houses pushed it through. The governor signed off.

None of those were guarantees a few months ago. Having accomplished them, the question now becomes one of selling it to the people of Jacksonville.

That, more so than the Tallahassee machinations, may be the true heavy lift.

The obvious analogue, in terms of taxes sold via referendum, is obviously the Better Jacksonville Plan from 2000.

That got through with 57 percent of the vote. John Delaney, mayor at the time, told me last month that if there hadn’t been a rainstorm in Mandarin, it could have gotten 60 percent of the vote.

Delaney described the 57 percent as a landslide victory. And a number of contributing factors led to it.

One factor: energized support from engineering companies, road building companies, and contractors of all sorts that gave Delaney sufficient ammo to make the case.

Team Delaney expected half a million dollars. They got two million. And it’s easy to understand why; donors wanted a piece of the action.

Because there clearly would be, and was, action.

Another factor: Delaney had political capital that would be unimaginable for anyone who has held the office since.

At the time this went through, Delaney had over 80 percent approval in the polls… with Republicans and Democrats.

Very rarely does any politician see approval ratings at that level. The Bushes at the beginning of their respective Iraq wars had them. And in the words of Bush 43 (that’s the W), “What good is political capital if you don’t use it?”

So Delaney, with four times the money he expected, and with stratospheric poll numbers, managed to pull 57 percent of the vote for the Better Jacksonville Plan.

A third factor worth mentioning was that there was no sustained opposition to the BJP.

Yes, radio host Andy Johnson was against it. There may have been critical articles in this publication. But those were guerrilla efforts which, when compared to mainstream media effectively giving earned media to Delaney for a few months, weren’t able to stem the tide.

John Delaney was able to make his case over a few months because he built his brand for years before that. When originally elected to office, he got in with few Democrat – and fewer black – votes. In certain precincts, he was shut out entirely. He then spent his administration building bridges, running what effectively was a second campaign in his first year of office, which included a number of high profile appointments and a commensurate number of Sunday church visits.

Sure, he was Republican. But he tailored his branding to a city that didn’t see itself as Republican. 

And even after doing all of that, the referendum came in 23 points under Delaney’s poll numbers. A “landslide,” yes. But one that goes to show how much political capital is expended to push forth an agenda item.

Moving into the current era, there are, as Donald Rumsfeld or Three Six Mafia might say, knowns, unknowns, and most known unknowns.

We don’t know, for example, where Curry stands in polls. Why he’s been in office this long and we haven’t seen a single public poll on this is a mystery. Is Curry at 80 percent with Republicans? With Democrats? 

The first nine months of the Curry administration, recall, have been fraught with the mayor wading into partisan waters.

What was an extended period of public debate on the HRO expansion issue died, not with a bang but with a whimper, when Curry issued a directive banning employment discrimination in city employment or among city vendors… before saying that further action on the issue, such as passing even the LGB version of the HRO, wouldn’t be “prudent.”

I’ve heard people connected to the HRO expansion effort say that their support for the sales tax is conditional on an HRO getting through. That’s likely not happening until the presidential election is over.

The board moves, which saw the JEA board remodeled to look more like Curry’s donors, and which saw Dems like Lisa King and Joey McKinnon removed from the Planning Commission? The Dems tell me those were partisan. Curry rejected the suggestion those were partisan moves, saying instead that he “led and made decisions.”

Is Curry at 80% with Dems? For that matter, is he there with Republicans?

Curry endorsing Marco Rubio, which included a TV spot and robocalls, unleashed the floodgates in his inbox. Space precludes extended quotation of the emails, but they were flush with invective toward the mayor and the senator both. A few of them said things like “I’ll never vote for you again.”

This referendum will prove how many people felt that way.

Curry’s team seems to believe they will need $3-$4M to sell the referendum. His team can make good use of that money with targeted mailers and appeals. But will the donor class go that deep ahead of a global recession without a guaranteed payoff for them?

These questions, and more, will be central to the debate.

About EU Jacksonville

october, 2021

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