Changing of the Guard

Local elections happen next month, or at least that’s what the calendar says. However, there are just five races to go, and while we’ll discuss them here, it’s hard to imagine much drama. We basically know what local government will look like, barring anomalies, through mid-2023.

One more piece of the puzzle came into view Thursday, April 11, when Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa announced his retirement. Chief of Staff/interim Downtown Investment Authority head Brian Hughes, who understands Mayor Lenny Curry as well as anyone, will assume that role. Meanwhile, expect a few termed-out City Councilmembers to relocate to Suite 400. Ex-Council President Lori Boyer is a good bet to take Hughes’ DIA position. And ex-president Greg Anderson could be useful as well, if he wanted to move.

Mousa’s departure puts a wrap on the first-term staff. CFO Mike Weinstein left last year, after having shepherded pension reform to completion. Past Chief of Staff Kerri Stewart moved to JEA more than a year ago. Former spox Marsha Oliver has transferred over to the private sector. Mousa, quite likely, will do the same. The majority of Mousa’s non-governmental experience has been with connected contractor J.B. Coxwell.

In a press release announcing Mousa’s departure, Curry said that he expects to continue working with him in a different capacity. The current City Hall team (Mousa is going to be hanging around for a while longer) is a tight-knit group. Mousa, Hughes, Curry and General Counsel Jason Gabriel drink together and whatever daylight may exist between them never makes it to press quotes.

Curry’s second term, meanwhile, will see Brian Hughes in a lead role. There will be some changes worth watching. Curry has a unique opportunity to transform local government. Permitting can be quicker. Zoning can and should be updated. Government can and likely will be retooled.

Some people will complain, but it’s not going to matter. The mayor called his critics’ collective bluff, having learned lessons from predecessors who hadn’t set the narrative and paid for it. Curry has gone after political opponents and unfriendly media repeatedly, in a manner his immediate predecessors wouldn’t have dared. He trolled and goaded opponents, who have flailed in the face of fairly obvious psy-ops. He cowed local Democrats into not running a mayoral campaign. He baited Anna Brosche into the race, and his team clowned her to such a degree that the main question quite a few people asked me at the end was, “Does she really want to win?”

Curry is an exponent of machine politics; the Democrats called him a “party boss” in 2015, and he’s lived up to that. With one or two exceptions, the mayor has a functional slate. The Republicans line up with him philosophically. And the Democrats? Just happy to be there, going along on the votes that matter.

The slate of City Council races to be decided next month reflects the certain consensus. The one race that has a better-than-even shot of a capital-D Democrat winning is the battle in District 10, where it looks like former School Board chair Brenda Priestly-Jackson will capsize the Chamber-endorsed Celestine Mills in the runoff. Priestly-Jackson filed an ill-fated court challenge to the appointment of Republican Terrance Freeman, and though she lost that case, she parlayed it into a political relaunch. Expect her and newly re-elected Garrett Dennis to be on the losing end of some 17-to-2 votes in the next few years.

The other four races are set up well for people rowing in the same direction as the mayor. Former Democratic Party chair Lisa King is up against Freeman for the At-Large seat Anna Brosche vacated to challenge Curry. Can an eviscerated Democratic party compete with the unlimited and untraceable money that will come in for Freeman from around the state? The question answers itself.

Meanwhile, At-Large Democrat Tommy Hazouri, who endorsed Curry to the consternation of what’s left of the local party, is set to roll over Republican Greg Rachal. Hazouri is the sole Democrat in the city with real-deal name ID. His goal is simple: to be council president in the next couple of years. His path will be cleared for him by the mayor’s office. Quid. Pro. Quo.

Appointed Councilwoman Ju’Coby Pittman, a nominal Democrat, hasn’t said or done much worth mentioning since taking the District 8 seat. So don’t expect Suite 400 to take her proverbial oar away. She can be counted on to help row.

In District 14, Randy DeFoor got 40 percent in March, and the FIS executive looks poised to down Democrat Sunny Gettinger. Gettinger is one of the most thoughtful and smart candidates to run this year, but it’s the wrong year for a non-machine candidate to get traction.

A second term can be a static time for chief executives. But not this CEO, given the convergence of aggressive leadership and the legislative branch’s lack of resistance.