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Jacksonville’s dismal runoff results point to need for Labor-Black community alliance

By Dave Schneider |
May 21, 2019
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Jacksonville, Florida's massive port, which employs more than 9,000 workers and handles billions of dollars in cargo each year. (FightBack!News/Staff)

Jacksonville, FL - The outcome of Jacksonville’s 2019 runoff elections looked remarkably like the general election back in March. Even fewer people participated in the runoff, which saw voter turnout sink from an already dismal 24% in March to just 14.35% two months later. By all accounts, Republicans came out on top. Dixie money ruled the day again, with the candidate who raised and spent the most money winning every single runoff.

Five city council seats went to a runoff after no candidate received a majority of the vote in March. While Democrats elected three city council members, only three of the five runoffs pitted a Republican against a Democrat. In those competitive races, Republicans won two of three. Districts 8 and 10 featured two Democrats facing off against one another.

Lenny Curry will go into his second term with a Republican supermajority on the city council. In actuality, his level of support goes beyond party affiliation. Two of the Democrats elected, Tommy Hazouri and Ju’Coby Pittman, owe their wins to Republicans. Hazouri, a former mayor of Jacksonville from a business family, proved that class lines run deeper than party lines by openly endorsing Curry for re-election. While Democrats declined to field their own candidate for mayor, most backed former city council president Anna Lopez Brosche. Hazouri’s gamble paid off, drawing ire from progressives and mountains of cash from Curry’s donors.

Pittman, on the other hand, owes her meteoric rise in city politics to Republican Rick Scott, the former governor and current U.S. senator from Florida. Scott selected Pittman to replace District 8 Councilwoman Katrina Brown, who lost her seat after getting indicted for fraud in a federal investigation. Brown, who represented one of the handful of majority-Black districts in Jacksonville, drew the fury of Curry and the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office after refusing to vote for the mayor’s massive budgetary handouts to the police. Her indictment soon followed, allowing Scott to appoint Pittman in her place.

The Duval Democrat catastrophe

May’s runoff proved devastating for the Duval County Democratic Party, already on life support from the March election. Lisa King, a real estate developer and former Democratic Party committeewoman, has spent half a decade trying to win local office. When Republican Anna Lopez Brosche ran for mayor, King hoped to take her vacant seat on the council. Some have speculated that the two worked out a formal deal to this effect. But Curry soundly crushed Brosche in March, leaving hundreds of thousands in leftover campaign contributions to funnel into King’s opponent and fellow political insider, Terrance Freeman. Out-raised and out-spent, King lost to Freeman 46% to 54%.

The most heartbreaking loss for Democrats came in District 14, which comprises a wide and diverse swath of neighborhoods on the westside. It was won by Andrew Gillum in the state’s 2018 gubernatorial election. Democrat Sunny Gettinger, a tech industry professional formerly with Google, ran on a platform of infrastructure development against Republican Randy DeFoor, a vice president for Fidelity National Finance. DeFoor out-raised Gettinger almost two-to-one in campaign contributions, drawing a total of $424,000 between her campaign and political action committee, versus Gettinger’s $213,000. With the full backing of Curry’s well-oiled machine, DeFoor flooded voters’ mailboxes with deceitful attack ads and squeaked out a 51% victory over her opponent.

Why do the Democrats lose so badly in Jacksonville, a city where they enjoy a 28,000 registered voter advantage over Republicans? For one, they usually get out-spent on the campaign trail. Like the rest of the country, the candidate with the most money wins their election most of the time. But just 87,318 people voted in the May runoff - just over 14% of registered voters - meaning the vast majority of people in Jacksonville aren’t swayed either way by attack ads or campaign mailers.

It’s a problem of class. The Democratic Party may offer a more centrist approach to capitalist rule, but it represents the same ruling capitalist class interests as the Republicans. We can see this plainly in the type of candidates who they field locally: small business owners, upper-middle class professionals and mid-level developers. Unfortunately for these Democrats, big business and developers already have a party to push their interests locally, namely the Republicans, and most are quite satisfied with Mayor Curry’s more authoritarian pro-business policies.

Curry and the Republican-dominated city council push policies that help big business and developers at the expense of the working-class majority. During the mayor’s first term, child poverty rose 12.2% and more than half of all students in Duval County Public Schools are ‘low-income.’ Roughly one in six residents live in poverty. Wages lag behind the national average. Schools are falling apart. Rent costs are the fifth fastest growing in the country. Scant public transportation leaves many workers cut off from better jobs, and many Black neighborhoods on in the city’s northwest quadrant lack basic sewage infrastructure.

But rather than running on a platform to make life better for the working class, the Democrats hardly run on a platform at all. The candidates generally put forward vague calls for more ‘development’ or ‘supporting law enforcement’ to reduce the city’s rising crime rate. All of these broad planks fit perfectly with the party leadership’s own class interests, namely those of capitalists. But to the vast majority of working people, this makes them virtually indistinguishable from the Republicans. With no reasonable prospect of their lives substantially improving, the working-class majority sits it out. This allows tools of big business, like Curry, to win re-election despite receiving support from just 14% of the total registered voters.

Labor and the working class in Jacksonville

Two serious progressive forces exist in Jacksonville that can mobilize a mass base to challenge the power of Dixie capital: organized labor and the Black community.

Since the end of the civil war, Jacksonville has served as a major logistics hub in the southern United States. Its large port and access to the Saint Johns River made it a significant shipping center for international trade and the site of two large naval bases. When railroads opened the rest of the state to northern investment, Jacksonville became a central junction for feeding rail loads in and out of Florida. Today, the city sits at the crossroads of Interstate 95, which stretches from Miami to New York, and Interstate 10, which stretches across the southern states to Los Angeles, California.

Jacksonville’s heavy concentration of logistics gives the city a huge industrial working class, numbering around 500,000. The logistics industry itself employs about 60,000 workers, and workers in three of the four largest logistics employers - UPS, CSX railroad, and Crowley Maritime Corporation - are unionized, mostly with the Teamsters. Roughly 40,000 workers and their families are represented by unions in north Florida, according to the North Florida Central Labor Council. The biggest unions in the city are Duval Teachers Union, Teamsters Local 512, the building trades unions, and AFSCME, which represents city and state workers in Duval County. Dock workers at JAXPORT, represented by the Longshoremen, also remain a powerful section of Jacksonville’s working class.

That said, the vast majority of workers in Jacksonville are non-union, owing in part to the state’s anti-union policies and the city government’s hostile attitude towards labor. This has serious ramifications for the power of the working class in city, state and national politics. In the absence of organization, most workers don’t vote. Among the city’s unions, labor leaders have a difficult time turning out their members to vote for endorsed candidates. Like much of the country’s unions, top labor officials will endorse and cut checks for candidates with little member involvement.

Black Jacksonville

The Black community is the other major progressive force in Jacksonville - one that overlaps significantly with the working class as a whole. African Americans make up about 31% of the city’s population and an even larger percentage of the city’s working class. Staggeringly, they also comprise about 44% of those living in poverty, which is particularly concentrated on the city’s majority-Black north side. Facing decades of systemic underdevelopment in their neighborhoods and discrimination, it’s not surprising that Black workers make up a disproportionate section of north Florida’s labor movement. Black small businesses, too, face a strangulation by city planners, who restrict the flow of loans and capital to the north side.

Gentrification programs, masked under the banner of ‘re-development,’ aim to displace Black working class and poor residents from their homes. Springfield and other neighborhoods in the city’s ‘urban core’ remain the target of developers, who hope to buy up prime real estate they themselves abandoned in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement. Jacksonville ranks second on the top ten cities with the lowest Black neighborhood property valuation, which declined 47% from 2012 to 2016.

When the market and rising rents won’t do the trick, the city relies on an outsized, bloated police force, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office (JSO), to brutally repress the community. From 2015 to 2017, African Americans made up 63% of those shot by police. Based on the windfall of campaign donations by commercial and real estate developers in the 2019 local elections, Mayor Curry’s second term will step up this offensive.

Shared interests and the possibility of a strategic alliance

Both the entire working class and the Black community as a whole have an overlapping interest in ending the rule of Dixie capital in Jacksonville. The city’s Chamber of Commerce boasts “positive tax advantages” and “affordable construction and real estate” for employers. This is just business-speak for “we pay little to no taxes for social programs to help working families” and “wages are lower here.” They’re not wrong. Wages lag $2.50 per hour behind the national average, and even further behind in major occupations like nursing and construction.

There are two main reasons for this: One, the low union density in the city. Curry and the Republican-dominated city council promote this by favoring non-union construction companies for city building projects, which rely on low-wage, no-benefit, out-of-state labor. Second, the presence of a section of unemployed for under-employed workers, who employers can call back into the workforce to drive down wages. Because of ongoing discrimination, inequalities in education, over-policing and underdevelopment, Black unemployment remains stubbornly high at around 7 to 9%, even as total unemployment numbers hit record lows.

Police accountability remains another important area of united interest between these two forces. Under Curry, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office has seen its budget substantially increase every year despite a rising violent crime rate and the state’s second-lowest crime solving rate. Under the 2018-2019 budget, a staggering 36 cents of every dollar went to the JSO. African Americans are disproportionately arrested and prosecuted, but poor and working-class white neighborhoods, particularly on the westside, also suffer from the city’s expansive police state.

In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. criticized the U.S. war on Vietnam, drawing an explicit link between the amount spent on military and the poverty experienced by the country’s working families. “Despite feeble protestations to the contrary,” he said, “the promises of the Great Society have been shot down on the battlefield of Vietnam.”

It’s no exaggeration to say that the promises of a better life for the majority of families are shot down on the JSO’s own battlefields on Jacksonville’s north side. The JSO wages a war on the working class and Black community that drains the resources necessary to fix public schools, expand public transportation, rebuild and expand infrastructure, and reduce poverty.

Strong unions and mass movements are the way forward

Duval Democrats can call all they want for more ‘modern’ development. So long as they continue voting for expanding the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, they make improving our conditions impossible. The JSO will have to be reduced and put under community control to actually tackle crime and its social causes. It’s naive nonsense from professionals and technocrats to say otherwise.

With Dixie capital firmly in control of the city government, activists and organizers will have to look outside the Democratic Party to confront their offensive. Unions will need to energize their rank and file and get them directly involved in the fight. Powerful mass movements will need to expand their reach and deepen the struggle for community control of the police.

To that end, the Jacksonville Community Action Committee announced a mass protest of Mayor Curry and Sheriff Williams’ inauguration on Monday, July 1 at 8 a.m. at the Florida Times Union Center.

In a few months, the new Republican-dominated city council will convene to discuss a new budget. The few Democrats on the council would do well to stand against any expansion for the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and push an alternate program designed to strike at poverty, underdevelopment and crumbling schools. Whether they do or not, Jacksonville’s growing people’s movements are up to the challenge.

Dave Schneider is a union worker and community organizer in Jacksonville, Florida.

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