PerspectivesA.G. Gancarski Jacksonville Today Contributor
Ron Salem is a member of the Jacksonville City Council. He was reelected in March 2023. | Will Brown, Jacksonville Today

OPINION | In defense of Ron Salem

Published on October 23, 2023 at 8:00 pm

Nearly every City Council president has some controversy that muddles his or her year atop Jacksonville’s legislative branch.

Usually they involve a city issue such as Confederate monuments, expansion of LGBTQ+ rights, redistricting, crowd control at Council meetings, and so on.

For Ron Salem, however, the issue has been one of personal identity itself.

Salem, a Republican of Palestinian descent who is now in his second term in office, continues to take hits for his no vote against a City Council resolution offering uncritical and early support for Israel as it prepared to retaliate against Hamas attacks and mobilize against Palestinians.

When I asked him about his no vote the day after, his answer was terse, but said enough: “I mourn the death of Israeli and Palestinian people in this conflict.”

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This is an on-point thing for someone who has been a member of the Ramallah-American Club since 1995 to say. Could he have said more?

Sure, but it wasn’t his obligation to do so. 

With all due respect to Finance Chair Nick Howland, who introduced the resolution, no one was really looking for the Jacksonville City Council to weigh in on this (or any) foreign war. Not given the local issues repeatedly neglected or given short shrift. We don’t go to City Hall for foreign policy, just like we don’t go to the U.S. Capitol to complain about local zoning issues. 

The resolution, whether intentionally or not, put Salem in a box, where he was forced to essentially repudiate his own heritage if he voted with the Council, or where he could vote his conscience, as he did.

Salem seems to be taking the most criticism from the right-wing Eye on Jacksonville, which called for his resignation. In terms of straight news coverage, Action News Jax has focused on the issue in two stories at this writing, including a review of the Council President’s emails following the no vote.

Salem had responded to one constituent who mentioned “the suffering the Palestinians have endured at the hands of the Israelis” with, “God bless you. Appreciate your comments.”

UNF pollster Michael Binder addressed the controversy in that story, saying Salem’s vote makes a “little bit of sense” because he’s Palestinian, adding that he didn’t “know what was in Salem’s heart when he cast that ballot.”

The reality is this: We never know what is in any politician’s heart when they vote for anything.

We know their impassioned, rehearsed speeches. We know their rhetorical flourishes and logical fallacies. But we also know that most votes are a matter of political expediency. And if we pay attention to the process for any length of time, we also know that we wish they would vote what they actually believed.

Ron Salem did just that. And it likely will have consequences for his political future.

As a Council president, he has attempted to be an honest broker, while dealing with a Donna Deegan administration that seems still to be figuring out how City Hall works and how far a strong mayor can actually go. He was instrumental on budget night in keeping Deegan’s plan as intact as possible, resisting his fellow Republicans to that end.

It’s been a balancing act. But compared to dealing with foreign policy blowback that finds people attacking him for his identity, Budget Night was easy. 

Salem’s no vote preceded a predictable ramping up of rhetoric against Palestinians on the state level also, with Gov. Ron DeSantis leading the way.

DeSantis has made it a feature of his stump speeches to bash Palestinians as inherently anti-semitic on quite a few occasions already. In the unlikely event he is elected president, he has vowed not to take in refugees from Gaza.

Meanwhile, he has ramped up DeSantis Airlines in recent days, with the state paying for charter flights from Israel to Florida, with at least some of those making a pit stop in Greece to pick up people.

Though DeSantis launched the program as a way to evacuate Floridians, he has since admitted to an expanded mission where people from outside the state also get flights to Florida at the expense of Florida taxpayers. The governor’s reasoning for doing this all for free is that the State Department, in rolling out its evacuation program, has said people need to sign promissory notes – sort of like the ones on student loans that DeSantis has said should not be forgiven because, in his mind, it would lead to truck drivers’ paying for gender studies degrees.

Florida’s infamous flights of undocumented immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard cost $12,000 a head, according to 60 Minutes. In his multiple interviews boasting about the flights from Israel, the governor hasn’t given a sense of cost estimates for the program, and he likely won’t offer that information (if the migrant flights are any indication) for many months to come. 

Writing as someone who accompanied DeSantis to Israel and was steps behind him and other state officials as they walked through Yad Vashem and saw the horrors of the Holocaust, I have no doubt that this is an issue the governor feels strongly about. I would also say that his response to this issue is exponentially more emphatic than his malign neglect we saw for months as white supremacists and neo-nazis projected and demonstrated on behalf of toxic and hateful ideologies, on occasion with pro-DeSantis signs.

It’s ironic that Ron Salem, who hails from a people who have been dispossessed like few populations in this world, is at least on this issue a Man without a Country. This issue won’t change him into a reliable vote for left-wing causes and issues – he’s still the same small-c conservative, level headed and rational leader he has been.

In this political climate, though, that comes with disadvantages. And in a city steeped in Middle Eastern heritage, with a mayor of Lebanese descent, multiple judges with Palestinian heritage, and a deep history of settlement from the region, it is a damning indictment of this city to have a Council President who has been threatened for voting his conscience on an issue he has much more of a personal connection to than his detractors, both the public ones and those who move in the shadows. 

It’s all but certain that at Tuesday’s meeting of the City Council, this issue will dominate public comment. Here’s hoping that Salem’s colleagues understand what they have wrought by passing a resolution that is far outside the scope of local politics, one that only serves to divide people at the expense of our sense of community, which is often proven to be all too fragile.

Lead image: Ron Salem shortly after taking over as Council president | Will Brown, Jacksonville Today

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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