JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA — Much has changed since 2015, when the city of Jacksonville last had a competitive mayoral race. Ron DeSantis was still a freshman Congressman and Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence was a low-profile 15-year-old high schooler.
With Republican Lenny Curry now termed out after eight years as mayor, the office is up for grabs again. Five candidates are considered serious contenders at this stage: Republicans Daniel Davis, Leanna Cumber and Al Ferraro; and Democrats Donna Deegan and Audrey Gibson. Independent Omega Allen and Republican Frank Keasler are both long shots whose names will also be on the ballot.
Given the difficulty of any candidate claiming more than 50 percent of the vote with such a crowded field, a subsequent runoff is all but guaranteed. In that case, the two top vote-getters on March 21 would face off against each other on May 16.
FIREWORKS IN THE GOP RACE
The de facto primary election in March has prompted an onslaught of negative campaigning between Republican candidates – most notably from Davis, CEO of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce, and Cumber, a member of the City Council.
“This is a very competitive race among the Republicans,” said Rick Mullaney, a mayoral candidate in 2011 and Founding Director of the Public Policy Institute at Jacksonville University. “The Democrat side has been relatively quiet. The Republican side has been far from quiet.”
Davis and Cumber combined to spend over $2 million in the month of January alone, according to Florida Politics. Davis boasts the largest war chest of any candidate in the race and he’s forked out for numerous attack ads in recent weeks.
“Davis has been very aggressive in going after Cumber and even Ferraro to some extent, but he hasn’t been doing a lot in public, in person,” said Dr. Michael Binder, Professor of Political Science and Faculty Director of the Public Opinion Research Laboratory at the University of North Florida. “I’m not sure some of the attacks are reflective of reality.”
Davis’ campaign has gone after Cumber early and often this year, calling her “liberal” and accusing her of “lying to cover up her JEA record.” City Councilman Rory Diamond, a supporter of Davis, is leading a special investigation into Cumber’s alleged failure to disclose a conflict regarding her husband’s role in the failed JEA sale. Councilman Sam Newby said the investigation looks like a “witch hunt.”
DAVIS UNDER FIRE
Earlier this month, Cumber attacked Davis in an ad highlighting the Chamber’s funding of JASMYN, a LGBTQ youth organization that repeatedly promoted an obscene card game for young teens. Davis sued the stations that aired the ad, which also alleged he “took money from a strip club owner” and “opposed reforms to keep kids safe.”
Another negative ad alleged “Davis took over $300,000 payments from JEA to promote privatization” and suggested “he’s gearing up to do it again.”
Meanwhile, conservative activist Billie Tucker Volpe filed a lawsuit against the Chamber in January, claiming Davis’ half-million dollar salary – which has received a curious boost in public funding from Curry since Davis took over – should not continue while he campaigns for mayor.
FERRARO RUNS RIGHT
It appears that Davis has not written off the more modestly funded Al Ferraro yet, given recent negative ads from Davis’ Political Action Committee (PAC). A recent St. Pete Polls survey of likely voters showed Ferraro second among Republicans – ahead of Cumber and behind Davis.
Both ads accused Ferraro of being a fake conservative and charged him with excessive spending as a member of the City Council. However, as Florida Politics pointed out, Ferraro “was never on the Finance Committee, and therefore never had much input on the budget.”
Ferraro, a Councilman since 2015, has the most conservative résumé of any candidate. In 2017 and 2020, he voted against expanding the Human Rights Ordinance (HRO) to outlaw discrimination based on sexual preferences and gender identity. The HRO expansion, sometimes referred to colloquially as the “bathroom bill,” was opposed by many conservatives at the time and remains controversial.
More recently, he proposed to have voters decide the fate of the city’s confederate monuments – a resolution that was ultimately voted down. In both instances, Ferraro found himself at odds with fellow Republicans on the City Council and the Left-leaning local media.
DEMOCRATS PLAY NICE
Unlike the GOP, campaigns from Democrats Donna Deegan and Audrey Gibson have maintained a much lower profile. Neither Binder nor Mullaney recalled seeing any intraparty attacks between the two candidates.
“They’ve been very friendly to each other and to be honest they’re probably friendly with each other off the campaign trail,” Binder said.
Deegan made her name as a broadcast journalist in Jacksonville and unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 2020. A three-time breast cancer survivor, she started her own non-profit in 2003 to fight breast cancer, The DONNA Foundation. The Foundation’s national marathon event that boasts “millions in economic impact to Jacksonville.”
Binder said Deegan has the benefit of “essentially universal name recognition,” but remains hard at work with traditional campaign tactics in the field.
“She’s been working pretty hard for a long while now,” Binder said. “She’s been doing the work behind the scenes, showing up at the local committee groups, having small dinners, working with donors, local party groups, doing the coffees and all those kinds of things.”
Gibson spent two decades as a state lawmaker, serving as the Senate Minority Leader in 2019. Her priorities include investments in affordable housing and public transportation. She also promises to “work with the sheriff on a budget that includes ‘old fashion’ policing.”
Deegan led all candidates in the St. Pete Polls survey, with 35.2 percent of responses, while Gibson finished fifth overall with 10.2 percent.
The turnout is expected to be far lower than general elections for higher ranking positions, such as governor or president. Voters who vote in the mayoral race are likely to be more informed than those who show up at the poll once every four years.
“This is one of those weird races where supervoters matter,” Binder said. “There’s a lot of undecided voters as of yet."