Why you should care
Because here’s a zoom in on the purplest of the purple.
It’s just hours after the formal inauguration of the newly elected mayor of Jacksonville. Exciting! And yet … apparently not so much. The man of the hour, Lenny Curry, is in his finest dad duds — a checked collared shirt, jeans, loafers. And while there’s certainly exuberance in the air, few have turned out in today’s Florida heat to express it in person. At most, a handful of families will trickle in to his reception on the steps of City Hall for the much ballyhooed tour of his office. And what do they see? Mostly his young kids making themselves dizzy in Dad’s new rolling chairs.
Go ahead and yawn, but you’d better not laugh this guy off.
Step across the street and the terrifically local merriment continues: a shindig with food stalls boasting beer, banjos and fried cheese balls. Which gives you the impression that this city of less than 1 million, with only around 200,000 voting in the mayoral election, is hardly a political power. Only we all know that impressions can mean nothing. It turns out both Jacksonville and the 46-year-old Curry are actually pretty crucial to the names-that-be in the Republican Party. Indeed, only a few months ago, you would have found just about every Republican running for office — Sen. Marco Rubio, former Gov. Jeb Bush, current Gov. Rick Scott, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry — standing behind the visually unremarkable, 5-foot-8 Curry. The whole thing felt like things often do in local politics in northeast Florida: a warmup to the true fight ahead in 2016.
With things neck and neck in terms of party presence, size, money and competition, says Susan MacManus, professor of government at the University of South Florida, “you have more interest to make sure your side has someone at a local level who can mobilize grassroots support.” And that grassroots urgency was certainly the case here, she says: Both parties lusted after this local seat, because the mayor of Jacksonville means “the whole county on their team,” which means a chance to get the grassroots mobilized. (In case you’re curious about who might lead Florida among the Republican flock, Trump had the upper hand at last count in early September.)
Local races are seen by national groups as “recruitment grounds for expanding their candidate pool.”
There are carpetbaggers aplenty swooping in and out of Jacksonville, but the mayor’s office itself is devoid of pomp or circumstance. On his first day on the job, Curry, with a flag pin (natch) on his lapel, is running a few minutes late for our meeting. In the lobby outside his office, there is a flurry among the staff; the mayor’s bathroom door is locked, and no one can find the key. His team doesn’t yet have business cards, and communications tasks don’t seem to have officially transitioned from the campaign folks to the administration staffers. When I finally get to Curry, I find that he gives off an accountant vibe — his longtime career before this — and looks the part of a relative political newcomer. This is his first time in office, after years of being behind the scenes as a volunteer and eventual state GOP chairman.
Today, as the town enjoys a lull between races, the question looming, certainly for Curry if he’s ambitious, is whether he’s enjoyed just a few brief brushes with his party’s fame, or if he can convert mayordom to something bigger. It’s the Cory Booker era for ambitious mayors, after all. And don’t forget the power of the butterfly ballot state for a rising politico’s career, says MacManus; local races are seen by national groups as “recruitment grounds for expanding their candidate pool.”
So what’s at stake for voters here in Jacksonville, upon whom pollsters are sure to cast an anthropological zoo-watcher gaze as the voting plays out? Northeast Florida, unlike the rest of the state with its high population of Hispanics, says MacManus, is about “Black/white politics … old Florida politics. The Deep South, on the one hand, and an influx of military.” Indeed, Curry’s inauguration ceremony looks something like a synecdoche of those contrasts. Exactly four pastors speak — two Black, two white; seems like an intentional balance. Curry shares the stage with the city’s new sheriff. Which means extra minutes of sappy videos full of dedication, leadership, family photos and, in Curry’s case, photos that include some chickens for good measure. Black singer Mama Blue performs while slides with possibly stock photos of AMERICA play behind her. There is talk of violence, balanced budgets, placing faith in both God and man. There is a standing ovation at the mention of Governor Scott’s presence in the front right corner of the auditorium.
Later, as Curry breaks in those rolling chairs in his new office, he tells me that getting to this room with a view of the city was “heated”: “We played offense” in the campaign, unapologetically. Curry unseated Jacksonville’s first-ever Black mayor, Alvin Brown, by around 5,000 votes. (All Curry will say about his opponent at this stage is that Brown “loves Jacksonville.” Touché; the campaign’s won.) Brown served only four years, riding in on a wave of euphoria in this city plagued by white flight and violence in predominantly Black parts of town, and fading out against Curry’s promises of fiscal responsibility (if there’s one thing an accounting degree is sexy for … ). So far, Curry has pitched a “balanced” budget, according to his press team, of $1.1 billion in spending; this time last year, Brown’s budget, local journalists reported, was in the millions. And he’s also pushing for crime clampdowns, promising to add back at least the 147 police officer positions cut under Brown; Curry’s first budget asks for 40 new law enforcement officers. (Neither Brown nor his team responded to multiple requests for comment.)
Ask local Democrats and, naturally, they’re still not pleased; Duval County Democratic Chair Neil Henrichsen calls one of Curry’s top digs at Brown — crime talk — “a total red herring,” adding that Curry “harp[ed] on certain voters’ fears.” Curry, Henrichsen adds, is “unfortunately setting up an administration that, I think, will bring us back in time” — a time when downtown (read: an area where many Blacks live) was a secondary priority. Henrichsen uses a Southern-hospitality-friendly word to allude to the race issue: He hopes Curry will be “inclusive.” And we shouldn’t assume that Curry’s win equals a Republican lockdown on the region. The funders are focused on “uniting the checks,” says bigwig state donor Michael Munz (this, again, was a warmup). Also, Curry won by a tiny margin. Obama, adds Matthew Corrigan, a professor of political science at the University of North Florida, scraped the win in 2012. This state epitomizes “too close to call.”
Curry himself grew up at a time when Florida — and national — politics flipped and flopped. He recalls “Impeach Nixon” signs in his neighborhood as a kid, alongside an early love for Ronald Reagan, whose election he remembers watching, at age 11, at a neighbor’s house. The offspring of two generations of Navy men on his dad’s side and the grandson of a Tennessee Army Ranger who fled to Key West after World War II, Curry grew up with a solid, politically blue-collar story. Pops was a TV repairman and then ran an electronics repair shop (he built their Key West home); Mom did the books for the shop. They moved to a house “one mile down the dirt road” in Middleburg, where young Lenny had both a motorcycle and a shotgun at age 12. High school wasn’t his best time — he says he graduated with a 2.6 or so GPA (his aides add later that it was a “C average”) — but he took college seriously, starting at community college and transferring to the University of Florida. He brags about graduating summa cum laude from the latter.
Religion, of course, looms large for Curry. Agnostic dad and “searching” mother had a Paul-en-route-to-Damascus moment when he was 5 or 6, becoming hugely evangelical. Curry’s father-in-law is a Lutheran pastor, and Curry and his wife do intense Methodist Bible study. At the gym, the workout fiend listens to liturgy podcasts. But Curry did discover that, on occasion, the church isn’t the right place to do the important work of life: He proposed to his wife, a fellow accountant at PricewaterhouseCoopers whom he pursued “over years,” on a Sunday morning, after a romantic plan of church plus breakfast. He figured it was the right way to win the heart of the daughter of a pastor. She said yes, but later did roll her eyes a bit: “Really? Over breakfast?” Curry recalls her complaining.
So he might not be the world’s most charming man. (He fumbles his shot at charming your correspondent when I ask about his mayoral quirk — will he ace the Instagram game? Be a secret YouTube star? He offers up that he does his own Twitter and likes to run.) And it’s far too early to see real impact on budget, crime and the other promises. But there are some parts of the political machine where the gears and levers matter more than a buttery personality, after all.
Libby Coleman contributed reporting.