Lenny Curry goes Cajun: What will Louisiana political vets bring to Jax mayoral race?

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The big news last week in the Jax Mayoral Race was Lenny Curry’s hiring of top-level campaign staff fresh off the just concluded Bill Cassidy Louisiana Senatorial campaign, a triumph of Lee Atwater styled power politics. As Phil Ammann wrote on this site last week, “Curry’s campaign manager will be Brian Swensen, a former political director for the Republican Party of Florida who also served as Cassidy’s political director.” Meanwhile, “Curry’s political director will be Jessica Laird, a Cassidy field director.”

These choices carry symbolic weight beyond the obvious, as Cassidy’s victory in the race required two elections (as Curry’s likely would should he win). The General Election in November saw Incumbent Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu and Senator-Elect Cassidy emerge for the runoff with 42.1% and 41% of the vote respectively. The runoff, obviously, did not go in Landrieu’s favor.

Cassidy won by almost 12 percentage points, and she actually lost nearly 42,000 votes from the first campaign, whereas Cassidy picked up over 109,000 votes, many of which came from the ledger of defeated Republican candidates in the November election (most notably, Rob Maness, the Tea Party candidate who siphoned off 13% of the vote in November, and who endorsed Cassidy immediately after the November election).

As Jacksonville residents know from the 2011 election, Mayoral elections have two phases in this city — the rough and tumble scrum of the blanket primary, and the more disciplined operation that is the runoff. There is no reason to think, given a field with at least three viable candidates, that 2015 will deviate from the pattern. And there is every reason to believe that Curry hiring high-level staffers who are fresh off a two-phase election is no accident. Curry knows that he needs people who can handle both parts of the operation smoothly, and the Cassidy victory over Landrieu was the best example of that in 2014.

No other candidate in the Jacksonville Mayoral race has such a professional operation. The campaign of Incumbent Mayor Alvin Brown seems to have stalled out. Grassroots Democratic organizers have voiced complaints to this reporter on everything from the candidate’s social conservatism, as it relates to the Human Rights Ordinance extension to LGBT people that he failed to support earlier in his term, to the high-handed manner in which the Mayor’s office dealt with them post election.

Brown’s most high-profile fundraising event this year was with Bill Cosby in New York City, on the evening the City Council approved the City Budget; after the Cosby scandals broke, the campaign’s Taking Jacksonville to the Next Level political committee was compelled to return the money. At that time, David Beattie, longtime political consultant and senior adviser to the Brown reelection campaign, told me that returning the $19000 raised at the NYC event was “the right thing to do”.

The other serious candidate in the race, Bill Bishop, has an operation full of motivated people who likely are out of their depth against the all-star team Curry has assembled. Bishop is clearly earnest, serious about desires to improve Jacksonville, and armed with plans to do just that. The problem he encounters, beyond not having a team with the level of successful experience Team Curry has, is lack of fundraising prowess, coupled with Bishop’s unfortunate penchant to talk to potential supporters (as one told me at a recent event) “like a politician”, rather than with “the personal touch”.

With Team Curry leading the fundraising derby in recent months, we are starting to see the money being used. Curry has some soft-focus “Getting to Know You” TV spots in heavy rotation in the Jacksonville market, in which voters are introduced to the candidate’s father and wife. Mailpieces will follow in Republican strongholds after the Holidays, likely touting endorsements from Pam Bondi, Jeff Atwater, and Adam Putnam.

 Curry is well known to political insiders; the sell going forward will be to the Republican voters who are less attuned to the behind the scenes game, with the hopes that he can get a clear majority in the blanket primary in March. He also hopes to shear off some Brown support from Black Democrats in Jacksonville, who feel disappointed in what the current Mayor has delivered for them and their neighborhoods.

Former RPOF Chair Curry is uniquely positioned to bring in Republican big names to stump for him. Governor Rick Scott is very popular with Jacksonville Republicans (and with Jaguars owner Shahid Khan), and he almost certainly will be in town as needed. As well, Curry likely can count on the support of some prominent GOP Presidential Candidates… if he needs them to burnish his GOP Establishment bona fides.

He has all of those resources at his disposal. The open question, though, is how many of them will he have to use.

In the Cassidy/Landrieu campaign, those covering the race noted that, especially in the time between the November election and the runoff, Cassidy ran what POLITICO called a “surprisingly low-profile campaign” with a “nonexistent” press operation and limited public appearances.

The reasons why are obvious: the Cassidy campaign had managed to turn the campaign into a referendum on an incumbent who had never been wildly popular in her own state, yoking the Senator to President Obama in a way that Landrieu could not overcome.

It will be hard to tie Mayor Brown to President Obama; the two have never functioned in anything approaching political symbiosis, and Brown is regarded as a Clinton guy going back to the Bill Clinton Administration. That said, the Curry campaign has plenty of memes to use against Brown — everything from Cosby to the incumbent’s perceived lack of “competence”. If the Cassidy campaign is any guide, the Curry operation will do enough to win by a comfortable margin, and then pull back before overexposing Curry, making the election a referendum on Brown, whom Curry will paint as the Willy Loman of Jacksonville Politics. Liked but not well liked.

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.