PerspectivesA.G. Gancarski Jacksonville Today Contributor
Donna Deegan celebrates with supporters at Estrella Cocina after winning the Jacksonville mayoral election Tuesday, May 16, 2023. | Dan Scanlan, Jacksonville Today

OPINION | Donna Deegan needs a political machine

Published on December 18, 2023 at 8:00 pm
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We’re approaching the six-month mark of the Donna Deegan administration, which is a sentence that not many observers who weren’t part of her 2023 campaign effort expected to read.

So far, divided government — with a Democratic mayor and a supermajority Republican City Council — has presented a mixed bag of results.

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Deegan has been denied the carte blanche Lenny Curry enjoyed when taking office, with her first picks for general counsel (Randy DeFoor), Neighborhoods Department head (Al Ferraro), and federal lobbyist (Langton Associates) meeting resistance.

DeFoor and Ferraro couldn’t get the votes. And Langton, which got a no-bid contract earlier this year to replace Ballard Partners (which is connected to the previous mayor and which backed Daniel Davis during the campaign), led to Finance Chair Nick Howland’s introducing a “transparency” bill that would give City Council more oversight of such contracts.

With three-and-a-half years to go in Deegan’s administration, it’s apparent that she could use more political cover on the City Council, but it’s simply not coming.

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She benefits from collaborative-minded Council presidents in Ron Salem (and likely Randy White, who is the odds-on favorite to take over next July), as well as administration-friendly Republicans like veteran politico Matt Carlucci, crossing party lines as efficiently as Tommy Hazouri did way back when for Lenny Curry.

That’s arguably enough for now. 

But it won’t be going forward.

And that’s why Donna Deegan, who made a convincing case that she was not just another career politician in 2023, needs to start thinking like a politician with a long-range plan for 2024, and beyond. 

Consider the reality of the City Council. Duval County has a Democratic plurality of roughly 21,000 votes in an electorate with nearly 639,000 registered voters. 

Why then does that translate to a 14-5 GOP split on Council?

Part of the reason is that Democrats have gone 0-for-5 in pursuing at-large seats.

And another part of the reason is, outside of Districts 7-10, which are historically Democratic, and District 14, where Democrat Rahman Johnson overcame two Republican political veterans to pull what seemed like an upset at a time, Republicans dominate the map.

It could get worse also: The aforementioned Matt Carlucci, Deegan’s staunchest ally on the GOP side of the ledger, is done in 2027.

With this in mind, the mayor needs to engage her political operation with the idea of identifying and cultivating and supporting candidates who will support her on the dais during what will be, if Jacksonville history is any guide, a difficult second term should she be re-elected.

Thus far, there is little evidence she’s thinking about her political future, or about doing the work long-neglected by Democrats (whom she leads right now) to build the bench. 

In the last quarter of fundraising, which ran through September, her Donna for Duval political committee raised just $5,030, with $5,000 of that from the Associated Industries of Florida — a lobbying group that realistically will back a Republican when the election gets here in 2027, given its long history of backing GOP committees and causes enthusiastically.

Her committee has roughly $80,000 banked, meanwhile, which isn’t real money in a single campaign, much less when trying to do the work of gassing up a political machine.

Deegan needs capable at-large candidates to run. She also needs candidates to make more aggressive plays for GOP-controlled Council seats. And to that end, she’s going to have to be the kickstarter.

The mayor won election, of course, with support from independents and crossover Republican voters — as evidenced by a GOP turnout advantage that didn’t do much for Daniel Davis. That was a function, in part, of a bitterly divided Republican Party, splintered between Davis, Ferraro, LeAnna Cumber, and another minor candidate. 

She can’t count on that dynamic in 2027.

She also can’t make the mistake that former Democratic Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown did. Throughout his one term, Brown was a strong local partner to Gov. Rick Scott (who thanked him by endorsing Lenny Curry) and even made a pitch to the Tea Party before the 2015 election. While it’s unclear if that play to the hard right earned him votes, it clearly wasn’t enough, given Curry won by simply bringing Republicans who thought Mike Hogan was too far right in 2011 back to the GOP ledger. 

Davis made a lot of tactical errors in his campaign, including running to the hard right through May and not debating Deegan more than once. Any Republican in 2027 who wants to win will learn from those failures of strategy and will insist upon taking the fight to a mayor who will have a record to attack. 

Yes, lots of big-ticket and big-picture city issues are coming up, including the Jaguars’ stadium deal. But that’s only part of the job for Deegan, who must realize that if she doesn’t end 2024 with a political apparatus gearing up for 2027, then it may be too late.

To this end, it may be a good idea for the mayor to talk to Pat McCollough, her former campaign manager who just resigned as her chief of staff, and get her to helm this effort. McCullough was Deegan’s unsung hero of her bid for office, and she may be the secret sauce for a political path ahead. 

Programming note: I will be discussing this and more with former Mayor Alvin Brown’s Chief of Staff Chris Hand and Florida Times-Union columnist Nate Monroe Tuesday, live on X (formerly Twitter), starting at 8 p.m. 

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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