Person of the Year

Jacksonville politics can be an enigma to the outsider (i.e., me). Census data skews average and, apart from a visible preponderance of pickup trucks, the vibe on the street is generally thoughtful, often even progressive (although that might simply be the company I attract). Yet, for all that, the Republican Party dominates, and one-party rule invariably breeds corruption. Alternatives and accountability have atrophied such that, in 2019, open graft goes unpunished in City Hall. The situation seems to incense the public, but then again, on March 19, that same public stayed at home and allowed a mere 14 percent of Duval’s eligible voters to re-elect Mayor Lenny Curry. You snooze, you lose.

If Jacksonville is to grow an institutional conscience, it’ll have to start with the apparatchiks of the ruling party. (I know, I’m skeptical, too!) Luckily there are a few good ones. Folio Weekly’s Person of the Year is one of them, a Jacksonville Republican with a conscience. Meet Matt Carlucci. Of course, many readers already know the 63-year-old Jacksonville City Council member. He’s lately made headlines by opposing the mayor on several high-profile issues: first, Duval County Public Schools’ proposed sales tax referendum and, now, the slow-motion train wreck that is the JEA privatization scheme. On both issues, Curry stands with the money while Carlucci stands with the people.

Carlucci has long had a reputation as a watchdog on the city government scene. He first entered the political fray in 1987, and is now six months into his fourth (non-consecutive) term on the City Council. During those terms, he has served as Council president and finance chair. He also conceived the Jacksonville Ethics Commission in 1992 and has chaired the Florida Commission on Ethics.

Carlucci consciously—even reverently—follows in the footsteps of his late father, Joe Carlucci, a Consolidation-era crusader against corruption, a Jacksonville City Council member and, later, a state senator.

“My father had no tolerance for anyone who wouldn’t give someone else a fair shake,” Carlucci told Folio Weekly. “He wouldn’t tolerate government that wasn’t honest. He wouldn’t tolerate government that wasn’t in the sunshine—and this was before the Sunshine Law was passed.”

For young Matt, Carlucci the Elder was an object lesson in integrity. “He said so much that has stuck with me,” Carlucci said, “but there’s one thing in particular: ‘A politician always looks to the next election; a statesman looks to the next generation.’”

Matt Carlucci was 26 when his father died in 1986, while serving his second term as a Florida State Senator. Carlucci the Younger was just about to launch his own political career. (“I was a grown man by then, but I missed him. He never saw me in public office.”) With his role model gone, Carlucci looked to his wife for support and advice.

“One of the reasons I am able to serve the public is because of my little Italian pixie and soul mate, Karen Signoretti Carlucci,” he said. “We have been married 42 years. Karen has great instincts and gives me confidence in the things that I do or try to do to make our city better for future generations.”

The couple has two sons and three grandchildren “who keep my eye focused on the future.”

To return to Carlucci’s early political career, after serving two consecutive terms in City Council, he hoped to follow his father all the way to Tallahassee; instead, he suffered his first political defeat in his bid to become a state senator.

“I’ve won and I’ve lost,” he reflected. “And I’ll tell you, every politician ought to lose at least one election. If you’re lucky enough to be elected again, it’ll make you better. Anything that deeply hurts you will—if you allow it—make you a better human being, a better person. It made me more dedicated to my father’s cause when I ran again.”

Carlucci rejoined City Council in 1999, then ran for mayor and was again defeated. He handily won back his original council seat—At-Large Group 4—earlier this year. It wasn’t long before he found himself at odds with an emboldened, newly re-elected Mayor Curry. Opposition isn’t Carlucci’s natural state, however. In fact, over the years, he has built constructive relationships with several mayors.

“Our family has a reputation for locking arms with leaders when we believe they’re right,” he said. “I did a lot of that with John Delaney, John Peyton, Ed Austin and Tommy Hazouri. But we also have a reputation for being independent and doing what we believe is right, even if it means opposing the mayor or other leaders. But it’s never personal; it’s always in a professional way based on the merits of the issue.”

Carlucci frames his difference with the city’s executive in philosophical terms: “He and I view public service through a different set of lenses. That’s not meant as a put down. We’re just different types of people. He has his way; I have my way. I’m a consensus builder. Jacksonville moves best when we move together. Right now a lot of people feel left out. The mayor needs to be more collaborative. He needs to work closer with the council in a can-do way. He hasn’t done that, and it has hurt him.”

On the personal level, Carlucci reckons he and the mayor could even be friends. “I think Lenny Curry and I could go on a bass fishing trip and get along very well,” he speculated confidently, “as long as we didn’t talk about politics!”

He wasn’t as generous on the subject of the mayor’s chief goon, Brian Hughes, whose truculence Carlucci described as an impediment to cooperation.

“I have sat down with Brian Hughes,” Carlucci said in reference to two initiatives he hoped to get off the ground, “and he basically said let’s start with ‘no’ and go from there. That’s no way to build a relationship with a council member.”

Hughes did not respond appropriately when asked to comment.

The first major issue on which Carlucci opposed the administration was Duval County Public Schools’ proposed infrastructure-tax referendum, which the School Board recommended in May and hoped to present to voters in November. DCPS calculated that the half-cent sales tax would generate nearly two billion dollars to ameliorate the physical condition of county schools—among the oldest in Florida. City elites, however, refused to let the proposal come to a public vote. It’s now stalled in court.

“Our schools are so important, and we’re so close to being an ‘A’ district,” Carlucci said, “but we have antiquated school buildings. They’re not in the 21st century. That’s why I supported the half-cent sales tax referendum so much. Why can’t we see that investing in schools adds value to our community?”

When asked another question—why so many cogs in the city’s political machine, from exalted council members to lowly hack columnists (I knew one, once), were mobilized against the referendum—Carlucci answered, “There were some heavy hitters in the political environment who really wanted newer charter schools to get something out of the deal,” he explained. “I don’t want to second guess or get into conspiracy theories, but I’ll say this: I have no clue why, when 70 percent of the city wanted a referendum, we couldn’t get it on the ballot.”

The next major issue on which Carlucci would align himself with the people against the mayor and the money was the JEA privatization scheme. The idea dates back to Curry’s first term, but it was dropped when it got too hot. Lo! After silver-tongued campaign promises, JEA is once again being jostled to the auction block—and, right or wrong, the consensus is that it’s Lenny Curry’s idea. In any case, it’s the mayor who has the most to gain from a short-term shot of multi-billion-dollar liquidity, which could wipe city debt, offset liabilities and generally make his mayoral terms appear profitable as Curry possibly positions himself for higher office. He would also ingratiate himself to the utility’s buyer, who might return the favor in a future campaign season.

This is, of course, speculation. Here be some facts. It was the mayor who purged the JEA board and stacked it with unqualified loyalists like disgraced former chief of staff Kerri Stewart and recently terminated JEA CEO Aaron Zahn. Then it was these hapless appointees who (unsuccessfully) mounted a public disinformation campaign painting one of the city’s prime assets as a liability—of which we taxpaying rubes ought to divest ourselves. You can’t make this stuff up. In any case, everyone saw through it. The dominoes are now falling, and Lenny Curry is scrambling to distance himself from the scheme and save his dreams of higher office. (Good luck.)

Carlucci suspects the plot has been in the works for a long time. “I think there has been the thought of privatizing JEA from the beginning of the mayor’s first term, when he basically cleared out so many well-meaning members of the JEA board,” he observed. “It hurt our community. Now he’s hearing the frustration of the people, and he’s trying to collaborate a bit more with City Council. What I don’t understand is why we’re even doing this in the first place. Here’s the answer to JEA: Appoint the very best actual public utility CEO you can find in a countrywide search, someone steeped in understanding of public utilities and policies. Hire the best CEO. Jacksonville deserves the best CEO. And surround that CEO with highly qualified board members from around the community, then let them do their job. Does JEA have headwinds of change to address? Absolutely. But if you have a CEO who knows how to work through those headwinds, they can make it work without charter and constitutional changes. I called municipal CEOs and asked them all these questions; that’s what they told me. The national trend isn’t privatization, but toward going back to public utilities. Home rule is priceless.”

So Carlucci has solutions. Not bad. First, however, someone has to put the brakes on the privatization process—and it won’t be cheap. (Prepare for some rapid-fire mixed metaphors.) You see, caught with his hand in the cookie jar, Curry is now attempting to pass a hot potato to City Council, but the golden goose is a poisoned chalice. Carlucci and his fellow council members will have to navigate a minefield to restore the JEA board to credibility and rescind the invitation to negotiate (ITN). From Zahn’s ridiculously robust severance payment to possible court challenges and penalties if City Council terminates the ITN, the bad actors are determined to get at least some satisfaction at our expense. Even Carlucci’s call for an investigation of conflicts of interest and other ethics violations is fraught. Always diplomatic, he expressed his full confidence in State Attorney Melissa Nelson to pursue such an investigation fairly, but the truth is that Nelson is not without ties to the mayor. (She and Curry shared campaign consultants.)

For what it’s worth, I reckon this merits federal attention. This isn’t a simple sweetheart demolition contract or a good-old-boy appointment; with a price tag of around $7 billion, if JEA were to sell under this cloud, it would be a staggering swindle, far above and beyond Jacksonville’s high standing tolerance for corruption. No, it’s not enough for patsies like Zahn to take the fall and ride platinum parachutes to an easy landing. We need to know everything.

Thus far, there’s a will—and that’s already something. Now it’s up to officials like Carlucci to find a way. But the devil’s in the details, and the veteran watchdog doesn’t yet know how best to exorcise in this instance. “Everything is fluid right now,” he admitted, only slightly exasperated.

Even given Curry’s very recent (and very disingenuous) change of heart, the fallout from the JEA debacle will be the big drama as we step into 2020. But don’t be surprised if the DCPS referendum eventually extricates itself from its current legal limbo and precipitates a pitched battle between proponents of public education and charter-school lobbyists. (My 2019 New Year’s address anticipated the year’s outburst of sectarian, education-policy violence. Señor Editor knows of what he speaks!) In both cases, all eyes will be on Matt Carlucci, who just might be able to rally a bipartisan consensus around core values like integrity.