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Class politics in Jacksonville’s 2019 local elections

By Dave Schneider

Jacksonville, FL – With 58% of the vote, Republican Mayor Lenny Curry outright won re-election as mayor of Jacksonville, Florida on March 19. Sheriff Mike Williams, also a Republican, garnered about 62% of the vote, easily trouncing Democrat challenger Tony Cummings. Republicans also won Property Appraiser and Tax Collector by sizable margins.

But that wasn’t the only bad news to come out of the city’s 2019 elections. Republicans won 11 of the 19 city council seats outright, giving them a simple majority on the council. Democrats won just three seats of the twelve they contested. Five council seats will go to a runoff election in May 2019. Districts 8 and 10 will pit two Democrats against each other. In the runoffs for at-large seats 1 and 3, along with District 14, a Democrat will face off against a Republican. If the GOP wins just two of the three runoffs, Mayor Curry will have a supermajority on the city council to impose his agenda at will.

Mayor Curry wrongly interpreted the results as an overwhelming popular mandate for his right-wing pro-business agenda. By the numbers, that isn’t the case at all. Just about 147,000 people – 24% of registered voters – turned out to vote, compared to the 380,000 that voted five months ago in Florida’s gubernatorial election. Indeed, only 14% of registered voters cast ballots for Curry, but with such low turnout, that 14% was enough to propel Curry to another four-year term.

Curry’s first term saw rising poverty, skyrocketing rent, rampant police crimes, crumbling public schools and a wave of violent crime. Life has gotten worse for the majority of people in Jacksonville. Why was turnout so low that just 14% of registered voters put walking disasters like Curry and Williams back in office?

Dixie Money wins in Jacksonville

Campaign finance regulations in the U.S. are a joke. The 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court ruling made it even easier for corporations and big business to openly buy elections, allowing them to pour millions into political action committees (PACs). In U.S. elections, the candidate with the most money wins most of the time, and the ruling class wins every time.

This ‘democracy for the rich’ was on full display in Jacksonville’s 2019 elections. In 18 of the 19 city council races, the candidates with the most money received the most votes. Only in the heavily conservative District 6, which pitted two Republicans against each other, did the winner narrowly get outspent by his losing opponent. Big money ruled the day, even in determining the candidates in each of the five runoffs.

Nowhere was the influence of the city’s ruling class stronger than the mayor’s race. In hard cash, Curry’s campaign out-raised his nearest challenger, fellow Republican Anna Brosche-Lopez, $650,000 to $195,000. But this was the tip of the iceberg. Since taking office four years ago, Curry built a $4.6 million war chest through his “Jacksonville on the Rise” PAC. Records available through the Florida Division of Elections show that every major section of Jacksonville’s capitalist class gave generously to Curry’s re-election effort – bankers, commercial and real estate developers, retail magnates, insurance and finance groups, logistics and construction, and utilities companies, hoping Curry makes good on his plans to privatize JEA.

The other major force in Jacksonville that backed Curry was the police, both individually and collectively. Hundreds of officers with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office (JSO) donated hard cash to Curry’s campaign, while the Fraternal Order of Police gave $25,000 to his PAC.

Curry amassed this small fortune by faithfully serving Jacksonville’s ruling class. His enormous budgets included generous handouts to developers. He approved and leveraged city money to back large re-development projects, particularly in downtown. He shifted the burden of propping up the Police-Fire Pension Fund onto the working class through a regressive sales tax. Most of all, Curry dramatically expanded the JSO, hiring more than 100 new cops and raising their budget to encompass a third of all city spending.

The unity of developers and the police

In many big U.S. cities, commercial and real estate developers control local politics. Jacksonville is no different. For years, developers had their eye on downtown Jacksonville and the ‘urban core’ neighborhoods around it, which have struggled with poverty and dysfunction for several decades.

As Jim Crow and segregation ended across the South, Jacksonville’s ruling class of Dixie capitalists feared losing their power. African Americans made up 44% of the city’s population and would likely become a majority within a few years. Officials pushed city-county consolidation in 1968 to dilute Black voters with rural whites and proceeded to economically strangle the disproportionately Black urban core and north side. Bridges across the Saint Johns River allowed them to move capital and direct investments towards the wealthier, more suburban south side.

In a few decades, Jacksonville’s once-thriving downtown became more of a ghost town, increasingly inhabited by the city’s large homeless population. The predominantly African American north side, along with many urban core neighborhoods, experiences greater poverty, worse infrastructure, and higher crime rates to this day.

More recently, commercial developers have tried to ‘reclaim’ these long-abandoned areas. Jacksonville has continuously lagged behind other major Florida cities in tourism and development, largely due to these racist economic policies. With the backing of Jacksonville Jaguars owner and multibillionaire Shaid Khan, developers began an offensive to gentrify these areas. It means driving the homeless out of downtown and pushing out the current residents, mostly working-class African Americans. Where the market and rising property values won’t do the trick, developers rely on the repressive force of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office (JSO) under the banner of ‘getting tough on crime.’

To these Dixie developers, Lenny Curry represents an aggressive, pragmatic and authoritarian approach to city politics. Originally a business accountant, Curry rose through the ranks of the Duval County Republican Party before running for mayor in 2015. Having endorsed both President Donald Trump and Florida governor Ron DeSantis early on in their respective elections, Curry’s impressive portfolio of political connections opened the doors to federal and state funding. Unlike his opportunist predecessor, Democrat Alvin Brown, Curry could whip the city council into line through threats, intimidation and patronage, all while balancing the interests of individual developers. And as a staunch supporter of the JSO, he came as a package deal with Sheriff Mike Williams, who would carry out the repressive agenda of developers without hesitation. No wonder they threw so many millions behind him.

Anna Brosche’s doomed campaign

Despite his popularity among the ruling class, Curry’s re-election was far from certain. Violent crime – the issue that brought Curry to office in 2015 – skyrocketed during his four-year term. Meanwhile, the JSO left 70% of homicides unsolved and cleared just 17% of all reported crimes, making them the second-least effective police force in Florida. Objectively, the mayor’s most recent budget, which allocated a staggering $0.33 of every $1 in city money to the JSO, can only be described as a total failure. The growing movement for community control of the police and several high-profile news investigations into JSO misconduct put both Curry and Sheriff Williams on the defense.

Beyond the police, though, Jacksonville’s working class suffered greatly under Curry. During the mayor’s term, child poverty rose 12.2% and more than half of all students in Duval County Public Schools are ‘low-income’, qualifying for free and reduced lunch. Rent costs are the fifth fastest growing in the country. Wages lag $2 per hour behind the national average, and even further behind in major occupations like nursing and construction. Scant public transportation leaves some workers cut off from better jobs, and many Black neighborhoods on in the city’s northwest quadrant lack basic sewage infrastructure.

Despite Curry’s obvious vulnerabilities, the Duval County Democratic Party declined to field its own candidate for mayor. Anna Lopez Brosche, the Republican former city council president, stepped forward at the literal last minute to challenge Curry on a centrist platform calling for “transparency.” Most of the local Democrat leadership flocked to support Brosche.

Like her opponent, Brosche is also a business accountant-turned-Republican politician. As city council president, she loyally voted for the budget every year and supported most of the mayor’s initiatives. Brosche began showing some independence from Curry in 2018 when she created a task force to look at taking down Confederate monuments. In the final months of her term as city council president, she began attacking Curry over a “lack of transparency” and “back-room deals,” which became her signature issue in the 2019 campaign.

Transparency is a loser issue in Jacksonville. It wins no points with developers, who actually prefer less transparency so long as they benefit from back-room deals and patronage networks. To the struggling working class majority, all the transparency in the world won’t put food on the table, raise their wages, or solve their countless immediate problems. Brosche’s call for ‘transparency’ resonated with no one except a handful of middle-class politicos and city bureaucrats, who, like herself, ran afoul of the Curry machine and found themselves blocked from power.

She lost splendidly to Curry, earning just 24% (around 35,000 votes) on election day. The money tells the whole story. Brosche’s “A New Day” PAC had just 17 contributions, mostly from friends and retired CEOs with a hobby-level interest in ‘transparency.’ She never stood a chance.

Catastrophe for Duval Democrats

Besides ceding the mayor’s race to Republicans, Democrats only contested 12 of the 19 city council seats – and only four of the five at-large seats! While fielding no candidate for the At-Large 4 seat, five Democrats ran in District 8, and four ran in District 7. Any one of those seven redundant candidates could have contended at-large, but none did.

Why did the Duval Democratic leadership fold like a cheap suit to the Republican establishment? They had momentum coming out of 2018. Democrats already have about 20,000 more registered voters than the Republicans, and Andrew Gillum, the Democratic candidate for governor, won the city just five months earlier.

Jacksonville does not have a competitive two-party system. For the last three decades, the city’s Dixie capitalists have largely congregated around the Republican Party to push their racist, right-wing agenda. The Democrats are also a capitalist party whose policies in action are remarkably similar to their GOP counterparts. But their liberal centrist politics have little support among the hardened right-wingers that make up Jacksonville’s ruling class. The result is a dysfunctional party that constantly struggles to fundraise.

Worse, the Duval Democrats also struggle to turn out African American voters or rank-and-file union members – their mass base. Democrat leaders in town are mainly business owners, professionals or aspiring career politicians, and the party pushes a moderate pro-business platform with nothing to offer the working class. On the city council, they vote with the Republicans most of the time. They cozy up to the JSO and largely avoid challenging the racist inequalities faced by the Black community. Democrat city councilman Tommy Hazouri’s decision to endorse Curry shocked many party activists, but it shouldn’t have. Hazouri acted in his class interests!

The few Democrats that win elections in Duval County are mainly African Americans in the city’s four majority-Black districts. But the right-wing has had a lot of success removing those who fight back even a little (council members Katrina Brown and Reggie Brown were both brought up on spurious corruption charges after challenging Curry’s budget) and bringing others into the fold, like former mayor Alvin Brown.

In 2018, Duval County turned blue for the first time in 30 years because Andrew Gillum’s platform spoke to the needs of working people. It proposed concrete ideas to make our lives better, like a $15 per hour minimum wage and expanding Medicaid. Duval Democrats, on the other hand, didn’t just lack a pro-worker platform; they didn’t have a unifying platform at all, nor a full slate of candidates to challenge the GOP. Of course working people didn’t turn out to vote. This was a losing strategy, and it worked.

In the last five years, Jacksonville has experienced an upswell in progressive activism and growing people’s movements. So far though, this has not translated into a more progressive government. Dixie money still reigns supreme at City Hall.

The Democratic Party isn’t up to the task of challenging the Dixie capitalists’ power, the poverty they cause, or the racist inequalities they enforce. It will take stronger people’s movements, fighting unions and a strategic alliance between the working class and Jacksonville’s Black community as a whole. The 2019 local election results are a challenge to socialists, progressives and activists to keep organizing.

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