PerspectivesA.G. Gancarski Jacksonville Today Contributor

OPINION | LeAnna Cumber’s political peril

Published on February 2, 2023 at 9:17 pm
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If someone told you in 2019, when a major issue in the mayoral race was the attempted sale of JEA, that JEA would still be an issue in the race of 2023, you probably would have been surprised.

But here we are: In the intra-Republican fragging between big-dollar candidates LeAnna Gutierrez Cumber and Daniel Davis, the push to privatize the local utility is again taking center stage before the March election.

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The latest salvo was this week, when City Council President Terrance Freeman announced he’s re-opening the JEA Matters Special Investigative Committee, or SIC. The shorthand is appropriate, because this committee will be sicced on Cumber specifically.

At issue for Freeman: omissions in her previous disclosure to the committee, which came six months after most other Council members filed theirs.

“On March 2, 2021, Council Member Leanna Cumber made her disclosures regarding the ITN [a formal invitation for potential buyers], stating: ‘I have no conflicts regarding JEA and ITN.’ Documents have come to light, including emails and text messages, that contradict responses given by JEA Public Power Partners and the disclosure provided by Council Member Cumber.”

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CM Cumber’s husband Husein was considered to be hired by JEA Public Power Partners, a consortium looking to manage the company while keeping it publicly owned, during the feeding frenzy many companies participated in as privatization was first explored. Ultimately Husein wasn’t hired. 

Ultimately that doesn’t matter, though. The committee will focus on whether it was “deceived or misled” by the Cumber’s failure to disclose that exploration of services by her husband, who had been on the JEA board for years (and was the rare member retained on the board after Mayor Lenny Curry purged most of the other Alvin Brown appointees shortly after the 2015 election).

Did Councilmember Cumber attempt to use the Invitation to Negotiate process for “personal gain”? That question may not have been open before last week, but it will be opened now, by the special committee. Timing couldn’t be worse for Cumber, with the March election just weeks away and mail ballots starting to go out the day after the committee’s first meeting next Wednesday.

Husein Cumber, an insider’s insider, has deep ties to local and national Republican politics going back decades. I first interviewed him decades back, after he raised more than a quarter million dollars for George W. Bush’s re-election campaign. But those deep institutional ties, which have been beneficial for both him and his wife, are now his undoing. 

In this game of inside baseball at City Hall, historic allies of Daniel Davis are throwing at the Cumbers’ heads. 

Terrance Freeman was a former lobbyist for the JAX Chamber, where Davis serves as CEO. Freeman was the previous assistant to Aaron Bowman, the JAXUSA Partnership’s senior vice president of business development. JAXUSA, of course, is an adjunct to the Chamber itself.

Bowman, also a councilman representing a huge swath of the city’s Southside, has been drawn into this controversy, with candidate Cumber’s backers noting that Bowman didn’t file a disclosure at all. He says this week he’s “disgusted” by the implication that he was hiding any personal connection to the privatization push.

“She’s the one that must look at herself in the mirror. It’s sad that she chose to hide the truth and attack a colleague. There’s nothing in my activities or family’s background that would show any communication or interaction with any suitor of JEA. I chose to not respond since I saw it as an overreach of (the) council investigating its own members and their families, and I still do. That’s why we have the inspector general, Ethics, and fed that are trained and skilled to investigate. I’m happy to respond to them but it would be a one sentence statement: ‘I did not have any interaction with any JEA suitors, nor did my family.’ I truly feel sorry for her. It’s not the person I thought I knew,” Bowman said in a statement. 

The new four-person committee is chaired by Rory Diamond and vice-chaired by Nick Howland, the two councilmen who made the complaints about Cumber that led to Freeman’s charge. Sam Newby and Michael Boylan are rounding this out. This committee likely won’t be favorable to Cumber, who came onto Council four years ago as seemingly another cog in the Lenny Curry political machine.

This committee won’t help her chances of stopping Davis from making it to the likely May runoff election. Every news cycle that the SIC dominates will serve as an earned-media reminder that the Cumbers were very much insiders at the point the JEA sale was contemplated. Cumber’s side may call this a manufactured controversy, but it’s hard to imagine that defense resonates with most voters, who might not see the cynicism at the heart of weaponizing a special committee against a mayoral candidate as voters are already starting to vote.

And Cumber never actually had to stand for election for her seat. She began the 2019 campaign as a de facto Councilperson, drawing no opposition in District 5. It’s arguable that a lack of a race against her worked to her detriment now, when she’s up against Lenny Curry’s endorsed candidate and consultant Tim Baker, who would have run her campaign in 2019 had she actually had to run.

Cumber isn’t well-served by her political organization in this case, which is full of relatively callow local talent and outside hires from Tallahassee, such as Melissa Stone, a consultant who was enlisted to shore up JEA’s narrative four years ago, but who doesn’t seem to have a strategy for shoring up an establishment candidate that the establishment has marked for destruction. 

Lawyerly statements to the media will not make the stench of scandal go away, certainly not in time to matter to voters. And those political committee ads contending Davis wanted to privatize JEA in 2007? Sunk costs now because the issue in 2023 is what did LeAnna Cumber know and when did she know it.  

Whether that’s fair or not is ultimately an ancillary question. As Richard Nixon said about his political enemies after he resigned amid the Watergate scandal: “I gave them a sword and they stuck it in and they twisted it with relish. I guess if I’d been in their position, I’d have done the same thing.”

If the roles were reversed and Cumber had control of the Council, it’s a given she would look to exploit any available advantage, including a suspiciously timed investigation. No one hires folks like Tim Baker or Melissa Stone to run clean campaigns. They get hired to run winning campaigns.

So, with the political establishment on Council lining up with Davis, the ultimate insider is compelled to run as an outsider, as vulnerable as a hermit crab outside of its shell. Time is running short for Cumber to credibly recalibrate this narrative, and at this writing, there doesn’t seem to be a strategy to even make an attempt.

author image Jacksonville Today Contributor email A.G. Gancarski has been the Northeast Florida correspondent for Florida Politics since 2014. He writes for the New York Post and National Review also, with previous work in the American Conservative and Washington Times and a 15+ year run as a columnist in Folio Weekly.

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