When ballots are counted in the May 16th election, either Republican Chris Miller or Democrat Charles Garrison will have completed their ascent from behind-the-scenes political player to an at-large member of the Jacksonville City Council.
Theirs is the only City Council race of the seven on ballots this month in which every Duval County voter can participate.
Miller and Garrison emerged from a six-person jungle primary for the at-large Group 5 seat in March. Miller, an aide to U.S. Rep. John Rutherford, R-Jacksonville, earned 36.7% of the vote — a higher percentage and number of votes than Republican mayoral candidate Daniel Davis received in March.
Garrison, a former executive with a local construction company and current member of the Jacksonville Environmental Protection Board, earned 25.8% of votes in the March election.
Both are military men who grew up outside of Duval County: Garrison, from Clay County’s Middleburg, served in the Florida Army National Guard for four years. Miller is a retired Army colonel whose military service brought him to Northeast Florida.
In separate conversations with Jacksonville Today, the two candidates expressed mutual respect for the other, lamented the low citywide voter turnout in March and acknowledged a need to connect with all corners of Duval County to be successful on the City Council.
On bringing constituents into the process
Miller says he commits to respond to calls and emails to his office within 24 hours if elected, something he learned in Rutherford’s office that he would bring with him to City Hall.
“City Council members have all kinds of people coming at them with their perspective,” Miller says. “That’s how you learn how someone from Moncrief, the Beaches, Mandarin or the Westside (thinks). That’s how you learn. You listen.”
Garrison believes following through on the commitments he makes to constituents will foster trust and encourage more people to become engaged.
“I want to get on the dais and help my neighbors and meet them where they are,” Garrison says. “ We have to show that engagement equals power. Power for them, power for their neighbors, power for their family. You know who knows that? Unions (and) business groups. …That’s why they are doing the hard work to get legislation passed.”
On partisanship in city races
Naked partisanship has been a staple of national, statewide and even the Jacksonville mayor race. Garrison, the Democrat, says the two major political parties create an “us versus them” mentality that pushes people on the left and the right to the fringes. He says he is focused on finding commonality with people regardless of party affiliation.
Miller, the Republican, says the ideals the GOP has historically stood for — smaller government, lower taxes, wiser spending, less “government intrusion” — are his values.
“I will always take into consideration everyone’s opinion when we are considering what position to take or what legislation to introduce to the City Council,” Miller says. “I’m representing everyone, not just Republicans. Yes, I am a Republican. The basics of my approach to things are coming from that perspective. At the same time, I represent all people of Jacksonville, regardless of party.”
Regardless of who wins the citywide race, the Council will have a Republican supermajority.
On crime and public safety
In a recent UNF poll, more than a third of respondents (36%) said crime was the biggest issue facing Jacksonville. Though Jacksonville Today spoke with the candidates prior to the poll’s release, both Miller and Garrison made a commitment to fund public safety.
Miller’s approach isn’t exclusively for law enforcement and prosecution. He believes supporting job training for middle and high school students as well as skilled laborers and tradespeople are methods of prevention.
Garrison advocates for a Jacksonville where all feel welcomed. Doing so, he believes, will create a more inclusive community and reduce some of the poverty that is the genesis for crime.
“Our neighbors are so resilient,” Garrison says. “It’s that resiliency, that drive to continue to make the place where we live, work and play better not only for now, but our future, our children, our grandchildren so they don’t have to move away to have a better job or feel welcomed or have something to do on weekends. When it comes to representing (Jacksonville) I don’t care if you’re black, white, Asian, Jewish, Muslim or Catholic. The common thread is this is where we live, and we want to see Jacksonville be the best damn city it can be.”
Garrison, who has served as a board member for nonprofits, like JASMYN, and city agencies like the Jacksonville Environmental Protection Board and the Jacksonville Housing and Community Development Commission, plans to invest in human and physical infrastructure.
“It’s talking about our infrastructure, our neighborhoods, our people,” Garrison says. “(When) I’m talking about affordable housing, I’m not just talking about workforce housing, I’m talking about transportation programs that work for everyone (as well as) after-school programs, supporting our local nonprofits (and creating) business vibrancy.”
Miller highlights his tenure as a Base Support Battalion Commander while stationed in Germany — a position he compares to being like a city manager for 17 military installations or bases — gave him experience working with police, fire, local politicians and understanding the needs of a wide array of people.
“I have already done the things and made the tough decisions that city leadership makes on a daily basis,” Miller says. “When (people) compare that experience, and also my inspector general experience throughout Europe, Israel and Florida as well as assessing and improving organizations… I did all those things.”
The two candidates also answered the Jacksonville Today candidate questionnaire. Read their answers here.