PerspectivesA.G. Gancarski Jacksonville Today Contributor

OPINION | The debate we deserve

Why Kent Justice needs to change the game plan Wednesday night.
Published on March 5, 2023 at 4:08 pm

The amorality and transactionality at the heart of the 2023 Jacksonville mayoral race is off the charts, even by comparison to previous cycles. Much of the drama has been on the Republican side of the race, with dark money political committees driving advertising that is relentless and often a funhouse mirror, distorting the truth.

The rule of thumb: The more cash a campaign has, the more likely it will spend money on this dissociative agitprop. The worst offender of late has arguably been the political committee of Daniel Davis, the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce CEO who, polls say, is headed to a runoff against Democrat Donna Deegan, assuming something radical doesn’t happen to change voter preference even as early voting has already begun.

Of late, the attacks have been against the most proven social conservative on the City Council, Al Ferraro. Ferraro, who is polling too close to 10% for the Davis campaign’s druthers, is now being smeared in BOGO fashion along with his Council colleague LeAnna Cumber. The indictment includes a recurrent charge that they’ve voted for budgets that have increased city spending.

Fact check: Half True. Left out of the blasts of the “liberal” Cumber and Ferraro is the inconvenient truth that those budgets they supported were introduced and pushed by Mayor Lenny Curry. Curry is backing Davis, who is using Curry tactics and political operatives to run a campaign as the endorsed successor to the mayor who just happens to be offering non-specific third-party trash talk about the budgets Curry got through Council. 

In response to this theater of plausible deniability, Curry seemed to offer a defense of his legacy being trashed, along with the other tactics employed in this orgy of consultant invoicing that has been this sad pastiche of a Republican mayoral race thus far.

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“You can’t govern if you don’t win. Step in the arena and you accept the rules. Hate the game, not the player,” Curry tweeted. 

People in the replies from both the left and the right did not accept this premise. The Venn diagram between game and player has a lot of overlap. And there were those who argued that the desire to “win” has impeded the ability to “govern” in the last eight years. (And one can go back farther than that, looking at how Democratic Mayor Alvin Brown’s triangulation on LGBT rights via his inability to back an expansion of the Human Rights Ordinance submarined his support with white liberals and even ended up with people working for his re-election sandbagging him in the end).

Is Jacksonville winning? Boosters point to whatever Shad Khan is doing at and around the sports complex, including an eventual Four Seasons, as proof that it is. But 99% of the people reading this can’t afford the Four Seasons. Hundreds of thousands of people in this city can’t afford rent. 

With these paradoxes in mind, mayoral candidates are headed to a debate this week, courtesy of WJXT, host Kent Justice, and Jacksonville University. What can we expect from this debate?

Not much, sadly.

For one thing, seven candidates will be on stage, a larded field reminiscent of the 2015 campaign for Jacksonville Sheriff that saw a host of former cops looking to succeed John Rutherford. Even WJXT’s own writeup of the event suggested it was of limited use to voters: “Due to the number of candidates, it was a rapid-fire discussion, but allowed each candidate a chance to answer questions on different issues posed by moderator Kent Justice: violent crime, officers on the street, racial issues, minority recruitment, juvenile crime and gangs.”

In the current field, we have two candidates (NPA Omega Allen and Republican Frank Keasler, Jr.) who polled at 1%. LeAnna Cumber, despite spending millions so far on ads highlighting the City Council’s not adding 40 community service officers in 2006 and House floor votes cast by Davis a decade ago, is at 5%. Al Ferraro and Democrat Audrey Gibson are closer to 10%, meanwhile. 

So in other words, we can expect: “Due to the number of candidates, the stage was too crowded for anyone to move beyond glittering generalities yet again, as it would be rude to exclude various non-starters who haven’t mounted competent campaigns despite having months and months to do just that.”

Expect clunky and leaden intros, full of aspirational language, and attempts at heartwarming or trenchant closing statements; these will chew up 15 minutes of the clock. From there, expect questions about hot button issues that won’t be so hot button in application. Confederate monuments and stadium funding will consume another 30 minutes, followed by the perennial focus on CRIME (Spoiler alert: They all are not fans of it). 

Add to that a few minutes Cumber and Davis will have carved out to respond to each others’ slanders and libels, and that’s a wrap. 

Curry’s advice not to “hate the player, hate the game” speaks to a fundamental corrosion at the heart of our political discourse. Cumber’s campaign continues to tell people how dangerous Daniel Davis is for Jacksonville, with out-of-town operatives’ getting rich off soaking what they see as the local rubes. Davis is using more known commodities who at least live here, but it’s still the Tallahassee playbook brought in for the 2015 campaign and not updated since. The Cumber/Davis show has been reminiscent of the meme where Spiderman is fighting Spiderman, except both have the wizened face and hoary and hackneyed tactics of vintage Rick Scott. 

There won’t be enough time on stage or in this campaign for someone polling in low single digits to catapult themselves in some game-changing performance worthy of a Disney movie or a Joel Osteen sermon. We are deep into the fourth quarter of this contest. Garbage time. 

So in that context, what should Kent Justice do for an hour? Maybe knock these campaigns off their talking points. Ask the low pollers about their strategy now that the clock has all but struck midnight on their vanity campaigns. Ask Cumber and Davis why they have spent ridiculous sums of money on distortive attacks that don’t hit with voters or track with reality. Ask Donna Deegan how she’s going to handle the Republican machine that has been mired in internecine warfare coming after her.

These may be meta or process questions, but at least they are new, and they are relevant to the “game” that Mayor Curry correctly says is being played. Whether that “game” or its “players” is in Jacksonville’s interest is another question candidates should all get some real time to answer under TV lights and in front of the biggest audience of this campaign to this point. 

author image Jacksonville Today Contributor

A.G. Gancarski's columns were a staple in Folio Weekly for nearly two decades, and he has been the Northeast Florida correspondent for Florida Politics since 2014. He writes about the intersection of state and local politics and policy.

author image Jacksonville Today Contributor

A.G. Gancarski's columns were a staple in Folio Weekly for nearly two decades, and he has been the Northeast Florida correspondent for Florida Politics since 2014. He writes about the intersection of state and local politics and policy.

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