PerspectivesA.G. Gancarski Jacksonville Today Contributor
Mayor Donna Deegan welcomes Vice President Kamala Harris to Jacksonville on July 21, 2023. | Claire Heddles, Jacksonville TodayMayor Donna Deegan welcomes Vice President Kamala Harris to Jacksonville on July 21, 2023. | Claire Heddles, Jacksonville Today
Mayor Donna Deegan welcomes Vice President Kamala Harris to Jacksonville on July 21, 2023. | Claire Heddles, Jacksonville Today

OPINION | Why the Deegan-Biden dynamic matters to Jacksonville this November

Published on March 25, 2024 at 12:32 pm
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When things were going well for his administration, former Mayor Lenny Curry was fond of saying that politics was a “relationship business.”

Curry, who stayed above water in terms of favorability in polls throughout his two terms, used that framework to explain how his first-term City Council was so pliable toward his priorities, how the state came through to help on issues like pension reform, and even to justify his close collaboration with former President Donald Trump.

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Current Mayor Donna Deegan didn’t use that exact phrase when First Coast Connect host Anne Schindler asked about her relationship with the Joe Biden administration last week.

But Deegan made it clear that the biggest federal grant in Jacksonville’s history, $168 million for the Emerald Trail project, was helped along by her ability to communicate local needs to the presidential administration.

“It certainly does help to have a good relationship with the administration, and we have had a number of wonderful conversations, both with Secretary Pete Buttigieg and the folks at Housing and Urban Development, and a lot of different people in the Joe Biden administration. They’ve been incredibly helpful to us,” Deegan said.

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The federal relationship is especially key in light of what was a mixed year for the city and the mayor in terms of success in this year’s state legislative session.

Some suggest the future House speaker, Rep. Sam Garrison, R-Fleming Island, may be a help to Jacksonville when he finally takes the gavel, or that Rep. Wyman Duggan, R-Jacksonville – a close ally of incoming Speaker Danny Perez of Miami and a lobbyist to the city in his own right – may also be able to shepherd through local priorities. That remains to be seen.

While Duggan was instrumental in ensuring that legislative language that would have required a new Jacksonville pension tax referendum did not get passed in the end, Garrison’s big gift to Jacksonville this year was a bill banning homeless people from public sleeping, which the mayor correctly called an “unfunded mandate” and likened to “tent cities.”

It’s clear that Jacksonville’s priorities will be tougher to advance in Tallahassee than in Washington at least as long as Joe Biden is president. If Donald Trump or another Republican takes office in January, all bets are off for the D.C. pipeline, but so far, so good.

To that end, Mayor Deegan – who often talks about working across party lines – is going to be strongly incentivized to put on her partisan hat and be a capital-D Democrat down the stretch for the Biden campaign. 

It won Duval County in 2020 against Trump, the first time a Democratic presidential candidate carried the county since 1976, when Democrats were very different than they are today. 

But winning Duval a second time presents more of a challenge. 

Biden is a known quantity and swing voters may be less turned off by Trump’s chaotic approach to messaging and management than they were back then.

The old Ronald Reagan question comes to mind here.

“Are you better off than you were four years ago,” the former President asked during his 1984 re-election bid that saw him take all but a handful of electoral votes from the luckless Walter Mondale.

Jacksonville residents haven’t been insulated from inflation, of course. 

Post-COVID pressures on the dollar and an influx of residents from elsewhere during the pandemic have driven up rents and other cost of living metrics.

Deegan can’t help change the perception that locals work more for less money under Biden than under previous presidents. But what she can do is make the case that the big money for the Emerald Trail isn’t the end, but just the beginning … if voters back four more years for the Delaware Democrat. 

It goes without saying that former Mayor Curry is backing Trump, and other local officials likely do as well, including State Attorney Melissa Nelson  – who may or may not face opposition in her own re-election bid this year. 

With Susie Wiles and Brian Hughes in key roles in the Trump campaign, Jacksonville matters to them too. Losing Duval could be seen as a referendum on the political capital those two veterans of #jaxpol may hold. 

Curry himself arguably is damaged goods in light of the JEA trial, where former ally Aaron Zahn was convicted, and during which Zahn claimed the former mayor greenlit a $40 million potential payoff from a sale for the erstwhile utility executive and future federal inmate. 

Further taxing his political capital, the former mayor also has dropped f-bombs on X toward former constituents, suggesting that – contrary to George W. Bush’s famous formulation – he’s more of a “divider” than a “uniter” at this point. 

We can expect the 2024 campaign to be lit in Duval, which may surprise some who assume that Trump, who has dominated every election he’s had in Florida, may just take the state.

And we can expect Mayor Deegan — if she’s interested in continuing a relationship with the White House post-2024 – to make sure that Democratic fire burns through November.

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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