Words by Shelton Hull and Folio Staff
Jan. 9, 2023 was an even busier Monday than usual for John Phillips, attorney, TV personality and the now-former publisher of “Folio Weekly.” Phillips filed to run that morning, then formally declared himself a candidate for City Council District 7 at a press conference at his office in downtown Jacksonville that Wednesday. It would have been hard to imagine how Phillips could find a way to actually make himself busier, but somehow he did.
It was long speculated that Phillips might be running for office at some point. Many politicians are lawyers, or at least have been for all of our lifetimes. Only recently, with his kids all now in school, as well as a chaotic local election cycle, was the timing right. Phillips was also heavily influenced by the lack of civility in government and the vast increase in crime and murders in the city.
He goes in knowing it’s an uphill battle to bring change to governance. “In talking with former city council members, they have reminded me that I’m only one of 19 votes,” he said with a smirk. “So the possibility of enacting legislation immediately depends on camaraderie and figuring out where we can go. Now that said, there is something to be said for me being a litigator and an advocate, and representing 10,000 people, one by one.” He added, “However, from day one, we will bring compassion and action to city hall and build bridges which have been destroyed by apathy and division.”
Phillips was born and mostly raised in Mobile, Alabama. He attended public school and comes from a family of relatively meager means. Phillips was interviewed for his first job as a lawyer in 2001 and recalled sitting at The Jacksonville Landing and reading “Folio.” He moved here shortly after. He has since gotten married and had three sons, all while building his private practice in a city with a legal scene that’s very dense and very competitive. In the process, he has gained a national media profile and accumulated a huge base of contacts, which he’s now leveraging. He’s been endorsed by civil rights lawyer Ben Crump, environmentalist Erin Brockovich and his former client and now U.S. Congresswoman Lucia McBath (Jordan Davis’ mother), as well as a host of local leaders.
“It’s one thing to try cases and get justice after the fact, to take families through the civil justice system or criminal justice system,” he said. “It’s another to get it before the fact—prevent the pieces from breaking. With 1,000 murders in seven years, we can enact measures and mobilize non-profits, which can hopefully save lives pretty quick. We will activate some of these core groups and show them how to get city funding. They are walking the blocks and know these families, and we will pretty quickly generate action. We can get the business community and the underprivileged to join hands, as we’ve done, and help heal the city, unite it and develop it.”
While Phillips will continue working at the law firm while campaigning, he has decided to step down as publisher of “Folio.” He is succeeded by his wife Angela. The two set up Boldland Press in order to acquire “Folio” (and later, “EU”) in June 2020, just over a month after the publication closed up shop. They moved all the archives and files into the firm, then built a new team from scratch, led by Teresa Spencer and Rob Nicholson, along with a continuing stream of new talent. Running the paper has been a family affair from the start. Their sons helped John begin the process of sorting and digitizing the old issues, while Angela designed the original “Folio 2.0” logo. The transition has been pretty much seamless. “We could not lose an independent voice,” Phillips added, “I am not and never have run for office, been a repeated or will ever be a future lobbyist and don’t trade favors for power.” He believes the constant “next political job” has been handcuffs to most who run for office.
During those two and a half years at “Folio,” Phillips was about as hands-off as a publisher can be. He sat in on editorial meetings and participated in the read-through of the copy before it went to print, a process he was often present for, as well. Like any publisher, it was his prerogative to make assignments or establish editorial boundaries, but he generally didn’t. Personally, I’ve written dozens of articles for “Folio” under his watch, and only one—a cover story commemorating the 60th anniversary of Ax Handle Saturday—was directly suggested by him.
Phillips is clearly the most prominent public figure in the District 7 race, but he is hardly the only candidate who qualified. There are five in the race, four are Democrats, chief among them being Jimmy Peluso, whose own candidacy was inevitable until Phillips jumped in. Peluso has fought to represent Riverside, having run a strong campaign for what was then District 14 in 2015. Peluso is a rising star among local Democrats, and he’s been running aggressively since summer 2022. While Phillips has certainly come in hot, drawing many fresh eyes in the process, Peluso remains the closest thing this race has to a frontrunner largely due to the fact he’s been running in parts of the district for half a decade.
Kim Pryor is a solid sleeper candidate. Her “Pryorities” (great branding, by the way) reflect her long standing connection to Springfield, whose political fortunes are now tied to those of Riverside, thanks to redistricting. This election is kinda like a shotgun wedding between very different communities, and the eventual winner will spend much of their time playing counselor for this arranged marriage.
Joseph Hogan is the only Republican in the race, but he brings a political pedigree, being the son of Mike Hogan. His father held a variety of positions in local and state government, including eight years on the Jacksonville City Council, four years in Florida House, eight years as Duval County Tax Collector and eight years as Duval County Supervisor of Elections, a tenure that ends in July. He also narrowly lost to Alvin Brown in the 2011 mayoral race, the closest in Jacksonville’s history.
Parrish King is the only person running NPA (no party affiliation) in this race, but his politics lean strongly libertarian. He is probably the most avowedly outsider candidate to qualify for any election in the current cycle, and he brings a bit of mirth to a process that’s generally humorless.
In an effort to provide the most balanced view on this race, we offered interviews to candidates. Only Phillips was recorded. I prepared a list of questions for all the candidates. Some of the questions were the same for all, while others were tailored to areas of specific interest. Hogan and Pryor opted not to participate, but the full interviews with Peluso and King are included in this issue.
The role of fundraising in local elections is, frankly, way overhyped. The idea that interest follows the money, to the cent, is a fiction cultivated by political media, which is the main beneficiary of these funds, in the form of flacks, fixers, handlers, strategists, consultants. (The coverage of the mayoral race reflects such bias, as local media fixates on the petty bickering between LeAnna Cumber and Daniel Davis, while mostly ignoring Donna Deegan, who was first to declare for the race, and who is better-known than both her competitors, combined.) Money is not nearly as key a factor in the council races, but it’s actually somewhat instructive here, since the political dynamics of this newly formed district are still being defined in real time. The most recent disclosures show Peluso slightly ahead of Phillips with both well over $100,000 raised, Pryor way back with about $15,000, while Hogan and King have yet to break $10,000.
“This is the second time that I’ve ever had to raise money, and it’s super awkward,” Phillips said. The first time was a multi-year effort for Real Men Wear Pink, an affiliate of the American Cancer Society, which ultimately led to Phillips briefly wearing a pink mustache. “There’s certainly some conflict in that because I’m also for campaign finance reform. You’re darned if you do and darned if you don’t, to some extent, because you gotta get out there, you gotta send mailers, canvassing, yard signs, all of that costs money. As a pre-candidate, I didn’t understand why they needed to raise $200,000 for a $45,000 a year job. That’s a crazy situation, and then you extrapolate that to the mayor’s race, and you’re talking about millions.”
“We, as a family, made the decision that we could self-fund this campaign,” he added, “That can be a dirty word, but let’s look at statistics. With the housing crisis, with inflation, with the crime and joblessness in some communities, a lot of people just can’t afford to give me five dollars. They can vote to decide if the investment in me is worth it.”
According to the most recent demographic analysis by the Supervisor of Elections Office from November 2022, District 7 has 44,328 registered voters. This only ranks 10th among the 14 regular council districts, but the numbers don’t reflect the district’s sheer physical size. District 7 runs as far north as Martin Luther King Boulevard, and as far south as Ortega, as far east as the Mathews Bridge, and as far west as Cassat Avenue. The space in between encompasses much of the Northside, Eastside, Westside, Downtown, Brooklyn, LaVilla, Riverside, Avondale, Ortega, Murray Hill, the stadium and entertainment district, the entire Northbank Riverwalk, and six of the city’s nine bridges. The official legal description of its boundaries runs 672 words. It’s a massive, unwieldy labyrinth of races, religions, nationalities and general cultural cues. It’s majority-Black, majority-female, and 60% Democrat. This new District 7 is a rare slam dunk for local progressives, but the logistics will surely prove problematic to whomever ultimately wins this race.
“The thing about me,” said Phillips, “is I stand eye to eye with millionaires and billionaires in my practice, but I stand eye to eye with people who have their backs against the wall. I have represented—and united—both. I’m a different voice. I’ve had so many arrows in my back, some deserved, that I don’t care anymore. I’m not beholden to anyone. I don’t need donors, but I want them!”
A substantial uncertainty in this race will be whether anyone utilizes the services of Tim Baker or gets the Lenny Curry and Brian Hughes endorsement. Phillips said, “Mayor Curry publicly called me a media whore and a chump for simply asking him about Kent Stermon, corruption and nepotism in Jacksonville. It’s not personal, but I don’t want their support.” Phillips then loosely referred to the “Curry-Crat” in the race and directed us to many friendly exchanges between Peluso, Curry and his allies, including tweets by Peluso praising Curry’s handling of Confederate monuments. Phillips points out this will be perhaps the most important case of his life and one where his enemies will be actively working with Peluso because he is the favorite and is close friends with Rory Diamond and others who have run around city hall.
The first election is scheduled for Tuesday, March 21. As always with local elections, the top two vote-getters will then face off in the General Election, scheduled for Tuesday, May 16. It’s anyone’s guess who will claim those two spots, but it seems clear that no candidate will be able to score the 51% total needed to obviate the runoff and take the seat outright. Whether Phillips wins or not is entirely uncertain, but we know that, win, lose or draw, he’ll get up before the crack of dawn the next morning and get back to work, as he’s done for years. The only question is, what job will he do next?
Questions for Parrish King
You’re running NPA, but do you have a general party affiliation?
No. I typically vote Republican these days, as a safer vote. I voted for Obama twice. I voted for Yang in the primaries because of his stance on circumcision. I’m for women’s rights over their body. As I’m for men’s rights over their body, specifically at birth, but that’s a little advanced for the average American. The left is becoming too soft and weird. The right can be close-minded and slow. We’re way ahead of these parties. Time will tell.
Who were your last choices for mayor, governor and president?
For mayor, I voted for Lenny Curry. The guy who kept Jacksonville free during the pandemic. Who brought Street League Skateboarding here, the UFC, and made building the skatepark under the Fuller Warren bridge in Riverside by the world’s premier skate park builder a NECESSITY in the park budget plans. For governor, DeSantis. For president, Trump. Once again, these guys aren’t on my level. These guys are not my leaders. The lesser of two lames.
Who is your pick to be the next mayor?
I’m picking Al Ferraro currently. This can change obviously. He has a humble, trustworthy vibe about him and carries himself well at the council meetings. Runner ups are Omega Allen and Daniel Davis. Still undecided.
What are the general advantages and disadvantages of running NPA in a city where party affiliation is such a big deal?
Well, 25% of ALL registered voters in Jacksonville are registered NPA! That’s a lot. They just need a guy they can get behind. Advantages are people don’t slam the door as hard when they find out you’re not a member of their party.
Is your campaign a “serious” campaign? Do you really want to win or just shake things up a bit?
LOL. I love this question. I really want to win. I’m prepared to win. But I get it. LOL. I’m calling my opponents and critics out to a friendly cage fight. I’m not concerned about who I offend. I call out religions. I call out hospitals. I call out corruption. I have no professional help. I’m self- funded. I’m running because I know for certain I’m the best possible candidate. Realistically it’s a long shot to win. This is about principles and my own personal conscience, as well as potentially winning. Of course I’m going to shake things up a bit. Let the people know Parrish King is out here. And build my base for what’s to come.
How do you overcome the fundraising disadvantage?
With local elections, we have the ability to reach out to every single home in our district. I’m like $6,500 in so far of my own money, and I’m not begging anyone for money. No one has hit the streets harder than me. I know many of you have gotten my door hangers or flyers I passed out personally. I work all day, then pass out flyers. Almost everyday. I would have the entire district canvased, but the redistricting delayed my game plan. Some neighborhoods may be left out.
Are there any of the other candidates that you find completely unacceptable?
LOL. “Folio” trying to start some beef? We share a common goal, so for that it’s all love. My primary critique is, they’re not me. I’ve had to endure immense struggles, poverty and hopelessness. My mom and little sister have been put out on the streets from evictions multiple times. We’ve stayed at Hubbard House. My aunt’s house over and over. I rode the city bus for years. I’ve eaten many meals at Sulzbacher. Everything that comes with addiction in the family. But the poor continue to vote for rich liberals, who’ve never endured actual struggle, and can’t solve their issues. Another critique is that we have grown adults here, running for office, who haven’t figured out we live in a genital cutting culture, separate from the rest of the developed world. Like little bots walking around without any critical thinking skills.
“They know, deep down, subconsciously… there’s a new King in town.” CM
Questions for Jimmy Peluso
How would you describe the current physical boundaries of District 7 to the casual reader?
The district goes from Ortega to Riverside-Avondale, Murray Hill, Mixon Town, New Town, EWU, Springfield, Eastside, Brooklyn and Downtown.
How dramatically have the boundaries for the district changed because of the redistricting?
Substantially. We are now in a more compact and Democratic leaning seat that is far more diverse. The district contains all of the oldest neighborhoods in Jacksonville, many of which have not received much funding in years. To have such a mix of both wealthy and historically disadvantaged neighborhoods will mean this is a seat with very different needs.
What sets your candidacy apart from the others?
As someone who works in government affairs (I am both a registered state and city lobbyist), it means I understand a lot about our local government that my opponents may not. I am also on a number of boards throughout the county: Changing Homelessness Continuum of Care Board, Northeast Florida Literacy Alliance, Veterans Council of Duval County, Memorial Park Association and the Riverside Avondale Preservation Committee on Infrastructure. Sitting on these boards have been enlightening and helped shape my policies and relationships. I’m eager to bring my knowledge and policy focus to city hall.
How have you evolved as a politician since your last campaign? What was the most important thing you learned?
The idea of being a “politician” feels so wrong. However, the most important thing I learned was to do a lot of work before ever thinking of running again. I had no intention of running until Councilwoman DeFoor said she wouldn’t run again (back when I lived in D14). During that time, I had been working for years on the boards listed above and in the community. Both Councilwoman DeFoor and Sunny Gettinger taught me the value of being involved without it being political. It feels much more freeing to do good work in the community without thinking politics are in play, and when the D14 seat randomly opened up, people immediately asked me to run. And as mentioned before, sitting on those several boards helped guide the policies that my campaign is pursuing.
Does the overall chaos among Florida Dems in 2022 have a negative impact on local elections in 2023?
I think that it could, especially in May. I fear the Florida Democratic Party is low on resources, whereas the RPOF and DeSantis are quite flush. Though if this race becomes a referendum on DeSantis (you know he’ll end up endorsing the emerging R for mayor) being able to call in national figures, such as Senator Warnock, Michelle Obama and President Obama could make this a key race in Florida. It’s unfortunate we don’t have major state leaders who can encourage voter turnout, but at the national level we have some heavy hitters.
Who’s your pick for mayor this year?
Donna Deegan. Though as someone who worked for Senate Victory in 2018 to push for a Democratic majority that would install Senator Gibson as Senate President, I have a lot of respect and admiration for her.
What kind of voter turnout do you expect to see in March?
In the city? Perhaps as high as 33%. In District 7? Likely less.
What areas do you consider your current base of support? In what areas do you need to see more growth?
I live in Riverside-Avondale, and I hope to do well there.
How important is the active duty and veteran military vote in this district, and the city in general? What percentage of the voters are military? How did the redistricting alter those proportions?
I don’t really know how large the percentage is in the new D7, but I believe the city’s electorate might be 15-17% veteran.