Shelton Hull: Losing And Purpose

April 11, 2011 25 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

This only touches on the first round of local elections on March 22, which eliminated most of the progressives from the ballot. The runoff is on May 17, and one hopes the results aren't what one expects. I should point out also that I never intended to have Democratic support, having criticized them too heavily over the years. I ran without a party affiliation specifically to express my disrespect for the two-party system. But what I discovered, as the campaign wore on, that there were very few Democrats in any race that were receiving party support. This is the real story.

How the Democratic Party Stand-Down doomed local progressives.

In a nutshell, the results of the March 22 unitary elections in Duval County followed in lock-step with the precedent set on the national level in November 2010: a brutal lurching toward fiscal austerity and civil unrest.

Full disclosure: This reporter was myself one of those progressive candidate buried at the ballot-box. I’d disengaged from deadline journalism last July to scout a candidate for City Council District 14 to represent the forward trajectory of our city. Having found none willing or able, I tossed my tam in on October 24, running No Party Affiliation (NPA). Among a field of six high-quality first-time candidates, I finished fourth with 11% despite being massively out-spent.

One reason I ran was to show people how easy it really is. Raising money is a chore almost as tedious as transcription (my least-favorite part of journalism work), but the paperwork is a breeze. Runoff contenders Jill Dame and Jim Love each pulled a little more than double my vote-totals, spending around $17 per vote; I spent $1.42, running without compromise or apology, which just goes to show that damn near anyone can do this. Hopefully progressives around the state have taken notice and are now laboring to avoid the tragic mistakes made by their counterparts here.

Voter turnout in my district was consistent with the country—under 30%. It was a total embarrassment for the city, and a slap in the face to every single person (candidates and voters alike) who made an effort to get involved in this, the most important local election in 20 years. And it was a crushing county-wide defeat for the Democratic Party, which laid down like prostitutes for Republicans emboldened and empowered by the ass-stomping delivered across Florida back in November. But the big difference, of course, is that hookers don’t lay down without a payoff, which begs an obvious question: Who runs the local Democratic Party, and why does the rank-and-file tolerate this?

All 19 City Council spots were up for grabs this year, and ten of those races had no Democrats on the ballot to speak of. A number of them attempted to run, but their ambitions were stifled by lack of funds. The party sat on funds they refused to disperse, even for candidates who could have won. Just as they have for years, the party sat back smugly and told people they had no shot, based on the word of pollsters, consultants and other hacks holding dual loyalties.

The numbers don’t lie. Democrats were out-raised by Republicans in every single race where both parties were competing, so profoundly that one of two conclusions must be drawn: either a) there are no Democrats with money in this city, or b) major party donors either stood down entirely or put their money into moderate Republicans like Audrey Moran. In fact, the only Democrat in any of the 18 contests to actually out-spend his GOP opponents was incumbent councilman John Crescimbeni.

The phrase “stand down”, which has a military basis, works perfectly in this context. The imagery of party leaders seeing a serious threat to their interests evolving over months and years, and then deliberately doing nothing to stop them, should be really disturbing to the handful of Democrats who still take their own rhetoric seriously. When the Tea Party conservatives say they’re going to do something (namely, cut everything, regardless of its impact on the community), they mean it, and they will do whatever it takes to win. Unfortunately, in Florida they didn’t really have to do much.

Not counting the five who ran unopposed (Democrats Lee, Jones and Brown and Republicans Redman, and Holland), Ten of the 18 races that went to the ballot in March had no Democrat whatsoever on the ballot. In at least four cases, Democrats tried to run, but didn’t raise enough money and withdrew, leaving the seat to be contested exclusively among Republicans. During the campaign, I spoke with several Democrats running for local office who complained about how hard it was to meet with party brass, to get access to funding sources, or in some cases to stifle Alvin Brown-style whispering campaigns designed to throw Democratic votes toward their GOP opposition.

To hear some ranking Dems tell the story, there was never any plan to challenge the Republicans. “The problem isn’t money, it’s the lack of candidates,” says one high-ranking Democrat. “Well spent, well-targeted dollars can push dems to victory in at-large seats. … Candidates and their staffers need to be brought in early (two/three years out) and given the proper tools to succeed. These include: fundraising training, field training, gotv training, media training. The knowledge gleaned from this is what produces the $$$. Dollars are a function of a candidate’s ability to promote and project himself in a positive light. [The] Party can’t do the work for the candidates, but the party has to equip the candidates to be able to do the work. The $$$ and votes garnered four years from now are a function of what happens today as we lay the ground work.”

Mind-blowing. In other words, unless the party was able to vet the candidates, they could count on no support from the party. Which raises the question of why there was no all-out effort to recruit new candidates for what everyone knew for years would be the biggest local election in a generation? The GOP got the memo, and they reacted accordingly, with disastrous consequences for all.

Ken Jefferson, who challenged John Rutherford for Sheriff, is the perfect example of how the stand-down worked. Despite being a longtime JSO veteran, and one of the better-known officers through his years as the Public Information Officer (including weekly spots spinning the “Wheel of Justice” on WJXT), even he was not perceived as good enough. Rutherford outspent him ten-to-one, raising over $220,000 to Jefferson, paltry $20,000, which reflects a stunning lack of support from his party, yet Jefferson still managed to pull 38% of the vote. That is to say, he had a really, really good chance of winning, but his party decided not to help. Why? If anyone knows, they won’t say.

The mayor’s race was perhaps the most ridiculous of all. These candidates raised millions, collectively, and they might as well have piled that cash up and burned it, for all the good it did them. The low turnout was primarily a expression of how boring, bitchy and utterly dispassionate the whole field was. Nice people, yes, and talented for sure, but politically they’re losers to a man, and the people seemed to know that. It’s a real shame to see such crappy commercials in the 21st century.

The two Democrats who qualified for the ballot, Alvin Brown and Warren Lee, raised a total of roughly $175,000. The three Republicans who qualified, Audrey Moran, Mike Hogan and Rick Mullaney, raised about $2 million combined. Even appearances by Democratic heavyweights like Corrine Brown, Al Gore and former president Bill Clinton had little impact on Brown’s fundraising totals. The last days of the campaign saw Democrats directing a whispering campaign against Brown, their only donkey in the fight, saying Brown can’t win and that Democratic votes were better-spent on Moran, who was the best candidate of all but ended up losing in part through this treachery, as some Republican supporters noticed this collaboration and pulled back.

So it’s not just that the current leadership of the local Democratic Party are professional losers, but that their touch has proven toxic to even the best politicians. Republicans, by contrast, gambled right by making no challenge to vulnerable incumbent Dems Denise Lee and Warren Jones, thereby keeping the black vote low enough to be no factor in the At-Large contests—a cold, cynical, slightly racist move that worked out perfectly. After all, it’s not like either party is responsive to the interests of black voters anyway. Republicans have no idea how to address them, and the best Democrats can do is say “Vote for us, because you have to.” Staying home is always an option.

To think that such lions in winter as Jake Godbold and Ed Austin, whose word is bond and whose credibility is unimpeachable, made their last stand on behalf of a third-place candidate (Moran) in a race where seven-in-ten voters stayed home, is a tragedy worth crying over. These men were legends, whose labors were the mortar between the bricks of Consolidation, and these pathetic punk kids and boomer trash who’ve coasted on their blood and sweat for a decade, couldn’t bother to exploit beautiful weather and short lines to vote for Audrey, or anyone else. In a word: Bullshit.

Note also that, after the shit that’s been talked about Don Redman in these pages and elsewhere, the most controversially conservative politician in this city held his seat without even token opposition. It is shocking that not one Democrat downtown, even in the bar/club district, could be bothered to challenge an incumbent whose open contempt for their interests was itself exploited for fundraising purposes. Redman could have been beaten, easily, even by a Muslim.

A huge opportunity was squandered, willfully and deliberately, by local so-called “progressives”, to the point that outside observers wondered if there were any to speak of. Whether it was the arts, music, the LGBT community, organized labor, teachers and first-responders, women’s rights groups and the pro-choice lobby, the constituencies with the most to lose were the ones who did the least, and the starkness of their silence will only encourage conservatives who ran on the promise of cutting everything, and then walked into office without resistance. Progressive values were ultimately represented best by moderate Republicans and NPA candidates, and the harsh lessons from these experiences will reverberate for years to come.

Others in and around the business were quick to spin it, but Wayne Weaver’s now-legendary outburst at Moran HQ speaks to the bitter reality: The people of this city, by an overwhelming majority, chose to stand down and abnegate their responsibilities to the elders who made this the “Bold New City of the South”, as well as their children and grandchildren, who must now mature in a community that’s being taken apart faster than filet mignon in a piranha tank. Well, we the people—all of us—must now begin paying an unspeakable price for our collective slack, and it starts with higher taxes and more fees, before cuts that will amount to a death-sentence for hundreds of our citizens.

On a generational level, this election could be viewed as a direct extension of what happened nationally last November. In a nutshell, Baby Boomer of both parties essentially collaborated behind-the-scenes to block the political ascent of new talent, forcing through draconian cuts to vital services that disproportionately affect the young and the poor in order to preserve the “safety net” largess that only they will ever benefit from. The proposed cuts to arts and cultural funding, education, amateur athletics and other areas being handed down from Tallahassee are directed specifically at those young people who will, in theory, comprise the next generation of progressive political leaders in this city. Why else would we cut things that generate profit and strong positive publicity for Jacksonville?

Why are so many “fiscal conservatives” behaving in the exact opposite way? For the same reason that 11 local candidates ran NPA: Because ideology is a crutch, and the changing economic realities here and around the world have exposed our two-party system for what it really is—a one-party state in which a handful of wealthy people monopolize the electoral process to freeze out new ideas coming in from both directions.

The Tea Party itself began as an expression of this concept of post-partisan activism, But Beltway Dems, then in control of Congress, recognized the movement as something that could quickly pull support from both parties and become a threat to all their interests, and duly directed a fusillade of verbal abuse their way (starting with the deliberate slur of “teabagger”), which had the desired result of pushing them further to the right, where they became the hammer in Sarah Palin’s hand. It’s almost exactly the same thing that was done to the anti-war movement a decade earlier; by defining them as left-wing wackos, the huge anti-war sentiment among conservatives and military experts could be dismissed, and those who didn’t fit the stereotype were alienated.

But like sunshine beaming through bullet-holes onto pavement shiny with fresh-spilled blood, there were some bright spots to this election. Any list of such must begin with the Supervisor of Elections Office, long-embattled following the debacle in 2000. Jerry Holland found his stride as leader of a dedicated batch of civil servants. Beth Fleet, Lana Self, Justin Giacone and all their colleagues coalesced into arguably the best such team of its type in Florida. The logistics of efficient data-handling in a city this size are notoriously tricky, but the process ran smooth as silk.

While the abysmal turnout surely helped, the SOE staff proved were ready for anything, including my endless questions. Of course, as the years proceed immediately ahead, questions about this joke of an election will persist. The people of Jacksonville chose to deliberately put hard times on themselves, their neighbors and their families, the impact from which will reverberate for years to come.

Shelton Hull