Despite what the naysayers might claim, Democrats do have life in the State of Florida. Big city mayors and city council elections have long been a key to the party’s revival in the state. It could be argued however that Democrats have done little with this assembled bench as the hole the party faces seemingly gets deeper and deeper at the state level.
The Jacksonville’s Mayor’s Election provides a unique opportunity. Should Alvin Brown be reelected, Democrats would likely have a statewide figure of note even without holding a statewide office. A reelected African-American Democratic Mayor in a city that was long characterized by racial politics would be a story of national importance. Brown led yesterday’s Primary and will face off with Lenny Curry, the former RPOF Chairman in May’s General Election.
Jacksonville was long Florida’s most important city politically. Unlike Miami, it wasn’t completely out of step ideologically with the rest of the state, and produced Democrats who were in some regards progressive on economics but held the established party line on racial matters and social issues. Eventually the South Florida city eclipsed Jacksonville in import beginning with liberal Miami Mayor Robert King High’s 1966 Democratic Primary victory over Governor Haydon Burns who had been a moderately conservative Mayor and then Governor (and of course a segregationist). High lost the General Election to Republican Claude Kirk then of Jacksonville, and in the process became the first Democrat to lose a statewide election in Florida since the Reconstruction era.
But as Florida embraced progressive Democrats and environmentalism in the 1970’s, Jacksonville lost its political clout. Miami began to dominate the statewide cabinet and the Democratic Party. Eventually, Jacksonville was eclipsed by Tampa as well. Steve Pajcic, a then liberal State Representative and prominent Trial Lawyer was nominated for Governor by the Democrats in 1986 – and he represents the last serious statewide Democratic candidate from what was once Florida’s leading city.
In time, Tampa became the vogue political city for Democrats as Miami and Jacksonville shifted to the Republicans while liberal Broward and Palm Beach counties were well out of the statewide mainstream. Central Florida shifted from the state’s most Republican region to more Democratic. Miami has begun to shift back, but often Jacksonville gets forgotten.
In the 1980’s Jacksonville’s electorate became remarkably racially polarized and white voters began shifting towards the GOP en masse even at the local level before most southern cities. While it took a long time for voter registration among whites to shift to the GOP, by the late 1980’s Jacksonville had only a few white Democrats left in office and by the mid 1990’s virtually none were left. The city also became a place where candidates associated with big business and the insurance industry could thrive.
But here is what has happened in Jacksonville since 1995 – Nat Glover’s 1995 election as Sheriff allowed the city to overcome some of its racial demons while Mayor John Delaney also elected that year provided a more responsible and governing style of conservatism than what many Republicans wanted. Younger, trendy white communities like the Riverside area have become more progressive and provide a base for Democratic candidates.
Jacksonville isn’t quite like the other urban areas of the state yet, but the demographic shifts and changes in attitudes that have taken place make the city a potential problem for Republicans. Brown’s strong showing in Tuesday’s Primary indicates that Jacksonville is well on its way to becoming a permanently competitive two-party city. If the Mayor can hang on to his office come May, the Democrats will have made an area Republicans must win in much more volatile electorally.