The insurgent insider: Bill Bishop’s campaign for hearts and minds in the Jax mayoral race

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Most people in Jacksonville believe that the 2015 mayoral race is going to come down to incumbent Mayor Alvin Brown and the Republican frontrunner, former GOP Chair Lenny Curry. Yet there is a third candidate currently in the race who may have something to say about that, in the form of former Jacksonville City Council President Bill Bishop, a longtime councilman who has the closest thing approximating a grassroots campaign this time out, assembling a unique coalition of small-government conservatives, progressives, and many of the young people who mobilized for the current mayor when he ran four years ago.

The Bishop operation is grassroots by necessity. Brown and Curry have well over $1 million banked; Bishop, at last count, had a mere $60,000. Adding to his burden is the fact that neither of his opponents take him seriously as opposition. The Curry camp expects Bishop to fold up shop and endorse him even before the primary; those familiar with the mayor’s thinking believe that Bishop’s time as Council President was a “lost year” in which nothing substantial got done

Both of those opinions point to the existential problem the Bishop operation faces. He’s running as a change agent, and rhetorically has been out in front of issues that the other candidates have haltingly addressed, such as the extension of Jacksonville’s Human Rights Ordinance to the LGBT community. His campaign touts “seven years of tireless service on Jacksonville’s City Council,” and his priorities are designed to craft Jacksonville into the “next Great American City” by transforming downtown, implementing citywide development policies, improving mass transit and promoting Jacksonville’s premier business sectors, protecting the environment and solving our “long-standing financial challenges.”

No one will disagree with any of those priorities, of course, but implementing them is the tough part. Part of the stall out on this, according to Bishop, is that the incumbent is a “lousy mayor” who “thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room and lets you know it.” Those close to Bishop fulminate about the extended learning curve the Mayor’s office has had, in addition to commenting negatively about the quality of his staff.

All of this is par for the course; similar complaints were made about the Peyton Administration. There are people outside of the administration who talk about what a “s—show” the current City Hall operation is, and for those people, Bill Bishop has a singular appeal.

“I’m the one guy in this race who knows how city government works and what businesses need from the city.”

Bishop, like most everyone in City Council, voted for the recent Police and Fire Pension deal – though he said it was a “lousy agreement” that didn’t solve the city’s real existential crisis.

Bishop believes that there needs to be a “community conversation” regarding “how much more in taxes are we willing to pay to solve the problem.” The pension issue is just one feature in a larger landscape of austerity.

“Right now, we’re not having a conversation on how to improve quality of life. This is still a discussion that we need to have,” he says, regarding community priorities ranging from hiring new police to bolstering the beleaguered public library system. “We don’t have room to cut anything out. Cutting arts and other discretionary spending won’t even make a dent.”

Bishop estimates that pension obligations consume one-fifth of Jacksonville’s operational capital. For many of those young people in their 20s and 30s who showed up to a recent campaign event at Brew in Five Points, that seems like a burden imposed upon them by yesterday’s politicians. They will never know what a pension is – much less the lavish public sector pensions that limit Jacksonville’s flexibility on so many spending issues – and they were receptive to his language when he gave a 30 minute speech and Q&A combo earlier this week.

He spoke on issues of local concern ranging from the Jacksonville Landing, the mall downtown which is likely going to be seriously overhauled soon, to the Jacksonville Shipyards development that appears equally imminent. Bishop has a holistic vision for downtown; his description of the Shipyards as a “blank palette ready to be painted into something fantastic” served as a stand-in for his larger message. Jacksonville has a unique level of potential, and is not maximizing it.

A big part of his message comes down to “quality of life issues”, which he says drive the decisions people make regarding relocation. “What do we have kids do on the weekend? What about parks and schools? We want educated jobs in Jacksonville” and quality of life issues, especially including those relevant to the cultural infrastructure, drive those.

Bishop’s campaign strategy is predicated on garnering a lot of support from Urban Core and inner-ring communities, like Arlington, the one in which he lives and is “intimately familiar” with its challenges. Despite its virtues, which include “solid, affordable housing stock for people who live everyday lives”, “bad land use and zoning decisions from the 1960s” stymie progress and lead to many parts of the area being subject to blight. These must be remedied, Bishop asserts, keep Arlington from being a “place people want to go to rather than leave from.”

Some of his solutions for blight zones are rather paternalistic. Regarding Durkeeville, an older African-American area that has been economically depressed since Jacksonville’s Consolidation in the late 1960s, Bishop advocated education to be tailored toward vocational training, “providing education for residents so they can learn a trade.”

It was notable that, among the 75 assembled, there were no African Americans. This underscores the fact that Republicans, Bishop included, have a serious credibility gap with the African American community.

Bishop and the aforementioned Curry are both doing their parts to address that. Curry has made at least one campaign appearance in the predominately African-American parts of Northside Jacksonville, and those close to his campaign say that he won hearts and minds in that effort. Bishop has cited the revitalization of Northwest Jacksonville as central to his campaign effort also. Both men say that African Americans in those communities feel the Brown Administration has not delivered on initial promises.

What is most interesting about the two Republicans battling to unseat the Democratic Mayor is that their strategies, in many ways, complement each other, using heavy dollops of compassionate conservative rhetoric. Of course, only one of these guys got endorsed by Adam Putnam, Jeff Atwater, and Pam Bondi this week. The money – both in Republican and general election circles – is moving to Curry with increasing frequency. This raises the question of what the ultimate utility of the Bishop Ccmpaign will be if he does not make the run off.

Bishop, like Curry, sees an opportunity to shave off African-American support and youth backing from the Brown operation. Brown’s opponents have two elections in the next few months in which they can make the case for Alvin to become a one-term Mayor. Ultimately, what likely will happen is that Bishop’s influence in the race will be that of many dissident candidates historically – dropping a few memes, raising doubt about the incumbent’s sincerity and viability. With the national connections both Curry and Brown have, both will have plenty of money for ad buys to shape the opinions of low-information voters. That being said, Jacksonville Mayoral Elections – such as the one in 2011 – often take unpredictable trajectories.

As of now, Bill Bishop, with a small fraction of the money of the other two candidates, believes that he can make the runoff – and win the general. For that to happen, he will have to make a sell to young people who might be somewhat skeptical of his viability, and overcome a lot of radio and TV ads for opposition that will use the same memes he’s running on. A tough, uphill slog. But stranger things have happened.

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.