Tommy Hazouri (left) taking the oath of office / Florida State Archives

The Life of Tommy Hazouri

Tommy Hazouri held nearly every political office you could in Jacksonville, he passed away on Sept. 11. 

In some ways, it was very on-brand for Tommy Hazouri to die on a Saturday morning, his loss somewhat overshadowed by the 20th anniversary of 9/11. In fact, his final social media post, mere hours earlier, paid tribute to the Americans lost that day. Just as so many aspects of the former mayor’s life managed to slip under the radar, so too does his death come with much less fanfare than some of his peers. Hazouri (1944-2021) never was one for fuss. Although quite adept at tooting his own horn (as one must be in that business), it’s not like he was up before dawn, polishing said horn every single day. 

No, generally-speaking, Hazouri let his work speak for itself. The man loved to work––some might say that he loved it too much, and that he might still be here if he had just retired. Instead, we saw a septuagenarian with new lungs sitting around in a stress-filled City Hall that can be the stuff of nightmares for a germaphobe, even on a good day. There were no good days in 2020 and 2021. Several council-folk were struck ill by the pandemic. Thankfully, everyone survived, and thankfully Hazouri somehow never caught covid himself, which is a minor miracle. But, then again, minor miracles were his specialty.

 Jacksonville, Florida in the 1980s was a very different city than it is today, both in terms of the physical landscape and its political culture. These are two things that Hazouri had a huge effect on, and that effect will continue to be felt for years to come. The Jackson High and JU grad spent his last years helping to shepherd the city into the next stage of its evolution. Local news outlets have covered his life and death exhaustively, and you should read it all. Hazouri was very good at cultivating personal relationships with the media, some of whom knew him for more than 40 years, so pretty much everyone has their own unique perspective, including me.

Tommy Hazouri was born in Jacksonville in 1944. His family was an early part of the city’s Lebanese-American community, whose influence can be felt in almost every aspect of public life, from the law to business to, of course, politics. There are around a million Americans of Lebanese descent, and Florida has the country’s third-highest concentration, behind Michigan and California. His ethnicity was a factor when running for mayor in 1987, but voters didn’t care, and he became the first non-WASP to ever assume the position.

Hazouri’s political career began before most of us were born; he was practically a kid himself. He was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 1974, at the age of just 27, representing District 20. He served there until 1986, when he began making plans to run for mayor. The incumbent, Jake Godbold, was restricted by term limits, but in many ways, he never really stopped being the boss of this city. Hazouri’s efforts to moderate that influence was, by some accounts, the impetus for what some have called a “blood feud” that ran hot and cold for 30 years, only achieving mild status as both men began wrestling with their mortality.

Hazouri served as the third mayor of consolidated Jacksonville (the 61st since the city’s founding in 1822) from 1987 to 1991. His term was short, but eventful. He closed down the paper mill that was the source of the city’s notoriously noxious atmosphere, and he removed the toll bridges. The latter effort was funded by a half-cent gas tax increase. Such a middling sum, along with a $96 increase in the garbage fee, would prove to be his undoing, further exacerbating his already-contentious relationship with a business class that, as you know, will go above and beyond in support of their interests.

 Hazouri was beaten by Ed Austin in 1991. He would be the last mayor elected as a Democrat until Alvin Brown, 20 years later. He would run again in 1995, losing to John Delaney, and then again in 2003, when he lost to John Peyton. His time on top ended prematurely, for reasons largely not his fault. Hazouri was caught up in the shifting demographics that changed local politics forever. He could have mailed a $100 bill to every voter in Jacksonville and still got housed by Austin in the primary, and there is no shame in that.

All five mayors who followed Hazouri came to rely on his instinct, his insight, his imprimatur, as did two generations of political talent on both sides of the aisle. Whether it was Austin with the River City Renaissance, or Delaney and Peyton with the Better Jacksonville Plan, or the Super Bowl, or the HRO, or the recent efforts on behalf of Afghan refugees, Hazouri was there, in word and in deed, indeed. His willingness to do business with Lenny Curry (particularly on the pension deal in 2017) helped ensure that there was no real possibility of a Democrat beating him a couple years ago, but he still used his council spot to help advance progressive causes in a variety of areas.

           

 

The September cover of Folio

     

Whereas most politicians, especially from the executive branch, would settle down into a dotage defined by corporate boards and big-money speechifying, Hazouri spent the remaining 30 years of his life finding other ways to serve the people. He eventually returned to elected office, serving on the Duval County School Board from 2004 to 2012. During that time, he served as board Chairman and Vice Chairman, restoring some credibility to a board that had suffered through constant controversy and upheaval that dated back seemingly to the Bronze Age, and which continues to this day.

After that, he ran for City Council, which was unusual, to say the least. While his fans viewed it as a selfless and a well-intentioned step backwards, cynics viewed it as a sad, desperate grab for relevancy.Hazouri positively thrived in that situation. His final year in politics was spent as City Council President in the 2020-2021 term. It would turn out to be one of the most tumultuous years in local history, defined mainly by the social justice protests that led to name changes of six local schools and a number of public spaces. 2020 was also the year of the pandemic, and it was the year in which Hazouri’s health began its final downturn.

A lung transplant in July 2020 didn’t keep him down as long as it would most people, but the transplant didn’t seem to take, which led to his final illness. Hazouri spent a few days fighting complications at the Mayo Clinic before opting for home hospice care near the end of August, and that was the last that most of us heard from him. While some colleagues privately expressed hope that he could recover and return to the chamber, it was not to be. In the end, Hazouri chose to go quietly, almost discreetly. He chose dignity, on-brand.

Hazouri’s death leaves John Delaney as the senior partner among our former mayors; all those who served before 1995 are now gone. There was talk of him maybe running again in 2023, but given his age, his health and family problems, that was not meant to be. If Hazouri had been ten years younger, he would’ve probably run again, and his odds of winning would be a firm 50/50. Instead, we have three main contenders whose own political careers were all shaped by Hazouri’s influence. Daniel Davis, Al Ferraro and Matt Carlucci served on the council with him; both are former council presidents, and the latter served under him when Hazouri was mayor. All three face an insurgency led by the great Donna Deegan, longtime news anchor, former congressional candidate and a cousin of Hazouri himself. If she wins, they will be the first set of blood relatives to ever hold the top position in local politics, and that seems entirely possible.

Who was Jacksonville’s greatest mayor? That’s a subjective question, with no real wrong answer. But there is no question that Tommy Hazouri was our greatest ex-mayor, in the same way that Jimmy Carter is our greatest ex-president. No one leveraged the credibility of the spot to consistent political gain, across the 30 years he spent doing other things. 

The death of Tommy Hazouri (preceded by his predecessor, Jake Godbold, less than two years ago) closed the door on an entire chapter of local history. The bare-knuckle scraps and the backroom brawls that shaped our political culture four decades ago are now over, and with the benefit of hindsight, we can now look back and declare a clear winner: Tommy Hazouri, who carried our city’s ambitions on his back, until he could do it no longer. RIP.

From the Publisher:

P.S. comes from the Latin postscriptum, which literally means “written after.” It’s a thought that comes after a letter has been completed. 

Our team at Folio learned that Tommy Hazouri passed away after this issue was closed and headed to the printer.  After hearing the news, I messaged our longtime writer Shelton Hull and asked that he prepare something to honor the life of Mr. Hazouri.   Shelton poured his heart and soul into the attached piece. When I first announced Folio 2.0, one of my goals was to continue independent and local storytelling.  And there is no deadline or story more important than the loss of such a fine man. 

This month’s letter from the publisher is about losing a good friend. I couldn’t let it stand alone without this postscript. Jacksonville lost a good friend, a stoic leader and an all out legend. I knew and respected him greatly. 

Tommy and Burne were similar in their final wishes. In the City and family’s announcement, it said, “As we grieve Tommy’s passing…we ask that you honor his memory by doing something good today…There are infinite opportunities to help each other in our daily lives, but only a finite number of days to do.”

I could not have put it better. Love and compassion to his family, his friends and everyone who knew him.

About Shelton Hull

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