How Lenny Curry won

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A year ago, a small cadre of party insiders and money men were the only ones who could be said to believe that Lenny Curry had what it took to be mayor of Jacksonville. Up against a charismatic incumbent mayor with high approval ratings, people said he was foolish to even try. Fast forward to May 20, 2015, and that candidate no one gave a shot to is now Jacksonville’s mayor- elect.

Who’s really surprised? Those who didn’t listen to Lenny Curry when he said that every day, he woke up and realized that he had to fight for everything that he had. A son of a Navy vet who became a TV repairman, who wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps but, instead, at his father’s behest, went to school, became an accountant, then a Duval County Republican Party treasurer, then the party chair, then the state party chair, and now…

Mayor-elect.

On a night full of justly earned jubilation for Lenny Curry, his supporters, and (most importantly to him) his family, the candidate was preceded in speaking by a lot of GOP luminaries who had a hand in helping him win. Such as State Party Chair Blaise Ingoglia, who described Curry’s victory as a “big win for the City of Jacksonville,” aided and abetted by the RPOF, which was “in the trenches, making phone calls.” And Duval GOP Chair Robin Lumb, who played an indispensable role behind the scenes as his party went 6-2 in terms of electoral victories on the evening, ensuring a message discipline that could not have been imagined before he assumed his current role. And Councilman Richard Clark, who described Curry as having “outworked the rest of us 10 to 1.”

But the luminary whose words got to the heart of who the real Lenny Curry is was the candidate’s father, Roy Curry, who told a story about when Lenny played football for Middleburg High School, which lost often. After losses, the father told the son that losing “built character.”

One year, they lost to Georgia powerhouse Camden County. Lenny and his teammates redoubled their efforts; the next year, they beat Camden.

This led his dad to observe: “he’s got the character.”

Roy introduced Molly Curry, the mayor-elect’s wife, with a quote from Proverbs: “Whosoever findeth a wife findeth a good thing, and obtaineth favour of the LORD.”

Molly, so indispensable throughout this campaign. made untold sacrifices. But to her it was worth it. Her husband showed “heart, vision, and determination to lead Jacksonville in the right direction.”

Through it all, “his family was the first priority.” He coached and watched his son at games, and made voter calls from the sideline. On the Sunday before the election, rather than having a rally, he took his daughter to a dance recital.

No way he’d miss it.

Lenny Curry, derided for months as a “party boss,” is really a humble man from humble origins, who would not sacrifice the people who loved him for a political goal. And as the Jacksonville election showed, he didn’t have to.

When Lenny took the mike, the crowd was rapturous; they knew the sacrifices he’d made, the adversity he’d conquered. And Lenny did too; the emotion was evident on his face.

“Soak it in with me,” he said to the cheering crowd of volunteers, donors, and well wishers. “This wouldn’t be possible without you.”

Curry acknowledged his adversary, Mayor Brown, describing how he called and was “incredibly gracious” and signaled that they had common ground: “one Jax, one purpose, one city.”

And he acknowledged his parents, his kids, and his wife.

“You’re it, Molly. I don’t know how to express it.”

And, of course, he acknowledged the volunteers again (“You had my back; you had the city’s back). And Ingoglia and the RPOF (“You guys stepped up and you made a statement tonight”). And the RNC and the local party.

And he talked about how Jacksonville “will be a safe city again,” and articulated a conservative vision that embodied compassion (“every family, every person, every kid will know that we care about them”) and a chance at the “American dream” for everyone in Jacksonville, especially those left behind in the current economy.

Ebullient in victory, Curry did acknowledge “a lot of doubters along the way,” but winning likely will make them believers.

But they wouldn’t be believers if Curry hadn’t had a strong organization behind him. On Tuesday night, I talked to those who worked on his campaign, those who supported him, and those who saw, when few did, that Lenny Curry wasn’t just a viable candidate, but the viable candidate who could defeat Alvin Brown.

I spoke with Brian Hughes, the spokesman who never let his candidate lose a news cycle. As he’d said in the weeks before the election, one group made the difference.

“For all the hype, the thing that made the difference was Democrats crossing over.” Their data had told them that was a viable target, and in communicating his message to “all of Jacksonville, people heard it.”

I also spoke to Campaign Manager Brian Swensen, who was on the ground four years ago at the end of the failed Mike Hogan campaign, and asked Swensen what made the difference.

It came down to Curry’s belief in Swensen’s ability to execute the gameplan.

“I was empowered to build a ground game. I had to be creative with resources, which were sometimes limited. We built relationships, and engaged with the community,” including oft-neglected parts of the Republican coalition, such as the African-American, Asian, and Hispanic communities, and women, who were key.

I asked him about 2011. “What I learned was that sign waving does not work. You have to engage in the community.” The ground game he was able to orchestrate in 2011 “kept it close,” but “that was then.”

Swensen attributed a large part of the victory to his “phenomenal staff,” many of whom he taught the fundamentals to.

“Empower good people,” Swensen said, and block for them, allow them to “run up the middle and score a touchdown.”

Did he have any doubts in the gameplan?

“I knew it was an uphill battle; I never once doubted that we would win. We got great engagement from local leaders,” Swensen said, such as John Rutherford and Richard Clark, who were “very helpful.”

“I’ve always been an advocate for this style of a campaign,” Swensen added, saying that both the RNC and the RPOF are “committed to this new model.”

It is hard to speak of the RPOF without speaking about Chairman Blaise Ingoglia, who was typically emphatic in victory.

“We had a lot invested in Lenny Curry. It came down to the right candidate at the right time with the right message.”

As well, it came down to a “more passionate GOTV effort” and the “ground game,” which wins close elections like this.

Ingoglia is a big picture thinker. He saw how the loss of City Hall in 2011 helped contribute to the re-election of Barack Obama in 2012, and he believes that Curry’s win is “crucial” for 2016.

“This shows we’re on the right track. This election is a proxy fight for 2016,” Ingoglia said, and “it showed we can win.”

While the national strategy is certainly meaningful, part of the problem Brown faced in his re-election effort was a disconnect in terms of relationship building, according to Republican Councilman Bill Gulliford, who represents the Beaches and is widely considered to be the conscience of the City Council.

“The Beaches came out strong for Lenny. Look at Alvin Brown; compare last time to this time” in terms of Brown’s performance in the Beaches communities, which Gulliford described as riddled with “missteps,” showing that Brown “wasn’t all in for the community.”

Another issue that Brown had was a fractious relationship with City Council, according to Gulliford.

“Alvin always thought that Council was inferior to the mayor; Council is the mayor’s equal,” he said, adding that a mayor has to “make friends with the council.”

Brown didn’t do that.

Lenny Curry has proven to be a quick study, as one would expect from a man who created every single break he’s ever gotten. I spoke to him very briefly, as it was hard to tear him away from fervent supporters, who wanted handshakes and selfies and a chance to acknowledge the accountant, the undersized football player who became mayor of Jacksonville.

He told me that it’s time to move past the campaign. Indeed, it is. He and Michael Munz both told me that the inner circle starts thinking about the transition on Wednesday morning. While it’s got to be satisfying for him to know that he proved the doubters wrong, the real work starts immediately.

If history is any guide, Lenny Curry is up to that task.

A.G. Gancarski has written a weekly column for Jacksonville’s Folio Weekly since 2003. His writings on politics, culture, and sport have appeared in the Washington Times, the Daily Caller, and the American Conservative. His radio and TV appearances include frequent contributions to WJCT-FM (Jacksonville’s Public Radio station); additionally, he has been a guest on Huff Post Live and the Savage Nation radio show. Gancarski can be reached at a.g.gancarski@gmail.com.