All politics, the saying goes, is local. The recent mayoral race in Jacksonville, however, may offer a different take on Tip O'Neill's famous observation — the Jacksonville race, it seems, showed that all politics isn't national.
After a primary, two candidates faced off: Mike Hogan, a Republican, counts the city's founders among his ancestors. A former city councilman, state representative and tax collector, Hogan downloaded the fiscally austere, hard-boiled Tea Party platform, looking to replicate Rick Scott's model. His opponent, Alvin Brown, a Democrat and an African-American, was an adviser to Bill Clinton and Al Gore who held a series of jobs after returning to Jacksonville, including chairman of the National Black MBA Association. His platform was, let's say, less rigidly defined than Hogan's but centered broadly on jobs and economic development.
Jacksonville is a conservative, GOP-dominated town not known for enlightened racial attitudes, and it came as a considerable surprise to many when Brown won.
What happened was pretty simple. One, Brown ran a better campaign. He didn't hide from debates, reached out to more civic groups, listened to what people had to say and emphasized his personal integrity and conservative attitudes. Hogan, meanwhile, was less visible, less articulate and appeared to be relying on endorsements from the Tea Party and state and national figures like Scott and Jeb Bush to carry the day for him.
One of the more curious things about the race was that Hogan was endorsed by both the local Tea Party and the local police and firefighters unions, whose unfunded pension costs are one of the biggest financial problems the city faces and who in many ways amount to one of the "business-as-usual" constituencies the Tea Party typically rails against.
The second major factor in the election was that a big chunk of the city's business community, including a cadre of prominent Republicans, decided to support Brown. He hadn't been their first choice, but they preferred him to Hogan, who'd left almost no leadership footprint after 20 years of public service and never showed he had anything like a clear vision for moving the city forward.
Most notable, Peter Rummell, the former CEO of St. Joe and as rock-ribbed a Republican as you can find, wrote a big check to Brown's campaign and announced his support. In his slipstream, a host of other influential Republican businesspeople backed Brown publicly and financially as well.
The local electorate was clearly unwilling to let the Tea Party use Jacksonville as a surrogate for the 2012 presidential race. Ultimately, Hogan got 38,000 fewer votes than white Republican John Peyton got when he beat former Sheriff Nat Glover, an African-American, eight years ago.
In the wake of the election, some were quick to jump to a "centrist Republicans repudiate the Tea Party" storyline, attempting to find a national narrative where there was none. Meanwhile, the state Democratic Party missed the point as well, taking more notice of the "D" associated with Brown and his victory than the conservative, pro-business ideas and attitudes that attracted support from "R"s.
Ultimately, the election was neither a bellwether for the state Democratic Party nor a referendum on the Tea Party's influence. Jacksonville residents went about picking a mayor to lead the city based on their perception of who best understood what the city needs.
Moving forward, it will be interesting to watch how Brown governs. A key player in the city's evolution will be an informal group of 50 local leaders called the Civic Council. The Civic Council is non-partisan, and while some members followed Rummell's lead, the group didn't endorse either candidate in the mayor's race. Rummell founded the council a little more than a year ago in an effort to keep the city focused on core issues that will permeate any mayoral administration but tend to get lost in four-year election cycles and the day-to-day bumps and grinds of running a big city.
The council has identified six of those issues in Jacksonville: Downtown development; race; the city's budget and pension system; keeping the Jacksonville Jaguars in town; developing its medical infrastructure; and improving K-12 education. A possible seventh issue is boosting the city's port.
Those are good, local issues that can respond to leadership, but only if influential people like the members of the Civic Council show the leadership it takes to keep the community's attention on them.
At some point, the Tea Party's cut-everything, do- nothing creed is a one-size-fits-all approach that doesn't speak to local issues and the need for a community to address them in defining what kind of place it wants to be. Jacksonville's business leaders are as conservative as ever but weren't afraid to focus first on what their community needs rather than following a one-size-fits-all script written by somebody else.
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