Monthly Archives: April 2011

Austin 3:16: A Chapter Closes

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Austin 3:16: A Chapter Closes

“Old geezers like me can give you some history. Even if we didn’t do much, we can tell you what happened.”—Ed Austin, April 2006

Ed Austin (1926-2011) died on Saturday morning, April 23. For him, the Good Friday was the last of many. His exit from the stage automatically changes the city he helped put on the map forever, and throws into stark relief the differences between two generations of political leadership. As they say of so many institutions, “They just don’t make ‘em like that anymore.” Oh, if only we could!

Austin effectively controlled the State Attorney’s office for a quarter-century before unseating Tommy Hazouri in 1991. He was the last Democrat to win that spot, and the first Republican; his post-election party-switch almost single-handedly shifted the polarity of regional politics forever. A former varsity footballer for the Duke Blue Devils and Army Airborne veteran,Austin’s short-but-sweet reign was a key step forward for the city, with major investments in public infrastructure and the arts, plus the arrival of the Jaguars. His “River City Renaissance” led directly to the Delaney/Peyton “Better Jacksonville Plan”, both of which were widely criticized but needed doing. It would be hard to find anyone (outside the Tea Party) who would undo the last 20 years.

Despite all of Austin’s vast accomplishments throughout a long career in public service, he deserves to also be remembered for what he achieved in retirement. Barely a year[?] after leaving City Hall, a brutal car wreck killed his wife of 34 years, Patricia and left him fighting for his life; he survived only because he was Ed Austin. It was a blow that would leave most people crippled, both physically and spiritually, but the zeal with which he seized the subsequent days inspired many people who may have never even met him. His robust physique and go-getter mentality was the subject of countless stories that bordered on the mythic. The classic photo from an old Daily Record showingAustin in his late-‘70s, holding a massive marlin out at shoulder-height, shirtless, was itself a symbol for the city’s toughness and resiliency. Seniors, in particular, saw in him a future beyond what the convention wisdom implied for them.

For most of the citizens he served so well for so long, Ed Austin’s last stand in political life was taken alongside another legendary former mayor, Jake Godbold, when they appeared together in a TV spot for Audrey Moran, who somehow failed to make the runoff to succeed John Peyton this year. Coupled with an overall sub-30 percent turnout in the primaries, Moran’s defeat—and by extension the rejection of those good ol’ boys’ sage advice—was a stunning rebuke to that generation that gave all to make this the Bold New City of the South; now we’re stuck arguing about how much of that legacy will be dismantled, as those elders who remain watch it come around them.

Unlike many local powerbrokers, who long ago decamped to those plasticine outposts of urban sprawl, Austin walked among the common man. Sightings were long a regular feature for residents of Riverside/Avondale, where he lived most of the last half-century. You’d see him at The Fox, having breakfast, and other restaurants for lunches and dinners. You’d see him ducking out of Riverside Liquors, double-fisting handles of high-end bourbon; “I figured I’d get two; they say there might be a storm this weekend.”

The last time I saw him was just a few weeks ago; he was at Publix, buying a Times-Union. He could have gotten a subscription, gratis no doubt, and had it dropped right at his front door as most 84 year-olds would likely do. But I sensed he enjoyed the activity, the interaction, the multigenerational props he received. He was slightly hunched, but so tall it was hard to tell, and his handshake was like a vise-grip.

Even to the end of his life, running the most mundane errands, Austinconveyed credibility and a sense of command presence that no local politician of the present or future can ever hope to convey themselves. His loss should be taken as an opportunity to reevaluate the state of our city and reassess our commitment to the mission, vision and values that he and his peers, now mostly gone, projected onto the virtual blank slate that was Consolidation-era Jacksonville. There’s another saying: “Those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it”, but that is not true in this case. We have ignored our past, to our great and enduring detriment, but our doom is that it will not be repeated. Men like Ed Austin will never walk this Earth again, unfortunately. RIP

 sheltonhull@gmail.com; April 24, 2011

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White-papers for Alvin Brown and Mike Hogan

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[With the mayoral runoff exactly one month away, I thought it might be fun to take a closer look at what the campaigns must do in the weeks ahead to seal the deal. No one asked me, and certainly no one paid me, but I was bored, so hear ya go.]

Notes on the Alvin Brown campaign

*Aesthetics: The plainness of Brown’s buttons, signs, etc., reflects negatively on the campaign. It does the job for traditional voters, but the younger, hipper demographic he needs may see the stuff as cheap, plain, politics-as-usual. I’d strongly encourage the campaign to engage Tom P’s new designs for buttons, and provide him the resources to reboot the visuals associated with the campaign. Branding is crucial, especially with the campaign being so scandalously out-funded.

*Commercials: The Alvin Brown commercials that ran prior to the first round of elections are simply unacceptable. New ads should be short and sweet, emphasizing the key elements of Brown’s appeal: 1) Freshness and youth; 2) National connections that can be called on to the city’s benefit; 3) Real, tangible plans to move this city forward. He should be maintained as a smiling, yet serious leader who will fight to preserve the interests of the entire city. It’s good to utilize the river, an enduring symbol of the city’s history and its future. There should also be more visuals of Brown juxtaposed against people who don’t look like the “typical” Brown supporters—that is, working-class whites, veterans, police and fire personnel.

*The Democratic Party problem: The sad fact is that Brown’s party left him poorly-positioned for this battle. He was underfunded vastly by all his competition, which is disconcerting given his untouchable connections with the national party. They also failed to run a competitive slate for council elections, meaning that most progressives (i.e., likely Brown supporters) were bounced out in the first round, creating a situation where the Republicans can basically channel all of their energy and resources into backing up Mike Hogan. Even if Brown wins, he’ll be dealing with a City Council that will be overwhelmingly Republican, so he’ll have great difficulty enforcing his agenda while blocking the cuts favored by conservatives.

If Audrey Moran bows to party loyalty and endorses Hogan, there may be no possibility of an Alvin Brown victory. However, it should be made clear to voters and to the party itself that Democrats are unified behind Brown, and that he is the leader of the party. Members of the party leadership who dawdle should lose their spots; if they were at any regular job, they’d have all been fired weeks ago. Party leaders openly disparaged Brown, saying he had no chance of winning, encouraging liberal voters to support Moran. The people who did this need to fall on their swords and resign; keeping them around suggests that Brown is weak, and that he’s prepared to lose for the same of party unity. I’d suggest a letter, signed by all relevant persons, explaining the rationale (such as it is) behind the whispering campaign and expressing regret for having tainted their nominee.

*Minority outreach and uplift: A Brown victory will require the minority community to turn out in much greater numbers than they have in previous election cycles, and that is unlikely to happen without direct, aggressive action by his campaign. The GOP is counting on low minority turnout; the deliberately avoided challenging key black councilpersons like Denise Lee and Warren Jones so as not to get their people out in force to sway mayoral results.

*Winning the “Hipster” vote: Brown’s greatest asset in this race may well be the cadres of young, educated, well-traveled white people from affluent backgrounds active in the city’s cultural and business community. Young voters have the most to lose if the city goes into the tank, which is likely under a Hogan administration. Again, aesthetics are key to drawing them in. Also key is reaching out to tastemakers—bands, DJs, artists, chefs, owners of popular retail outlets. Not only do they command tremendous diverse influence across the city, touching on areas the other side doesn’t even know exist, but many of them are the children and grandchildren of the “good ol’ boys”, and their firm support for Brown may help sway their elders in that direction.

Young people are cynical about politics, and Obama’s problems in office have not helped. Brown needs to obliterate the perception that he’s “just another politician” and sell himself to the youth as the newest, freshest, most interesting mayoral candidate the state ofFloridahas had yet. He must appeal to those who are still working for their own financial security, those who needJacksonvilleto stay on-track for their own interests to prevail. Make it known that an Alvin Brown victory means empowerment for the young people of this city, and money in the pockets of the artists and musicians, chefs and brewers, baristas and bartenders, who need only a sympathetic ear in government, and less interference, to help make this city a national powerhouse.

*Appealing to the “Good Ol’ Boys”: The oft-repeated question “Is Jacksonville ready for a black mayor?” is fundamentally racist. It implies that black candidates are naturally inferior, and also that white voters are not smart enough to recognize the appeal of non-white candidates. The overwhelming success of Barack Obama in 2008 should have been the end of such talk, but now Brown has the opportunity to put that talk to rest. His election will immediately makeJacksonvillelook more intelligent and reasonable than most observers think, and that means more money in everyone’s pockets. In fact, a case can be made that Brown is actually more conservative than Hogan, if you start from a more classical conception of the ideology.

Brown should make no special effort to counter the lingering bigotry that exists in our city. Instead, he should position himself as the exception to whatever “rules” are thought to exist. He should be humble in dealing with them, thank them for all they’ve done for the city, and emphasize his willingness and desire to engage all viewpoints, whether they are in sync with his or not. He’s not here to torpedo their legacy; he and the young progressive who support him are the caretakers of their legacy. He’s not here to rock the boat; he’s here to plug the leaks so the boat can keep sailing toward a bright future that all citizens can share in.

The kinds of negative outcomes likely from a Hogan victory will be targeted as presumed “liberals”, but in the end it will most hurt those older white power players who put their entire lives into making this city great. These good ol’ boys now have to face the starkest choice of their lives: Either vote for a black man, a Democrat no less, or sit back and watch everything they’ve ever worked for destroyed, right before their eyes. Brown should work to get the endorsement of every living former Mayor, as well as former competitors like Moran and Rick Mullaney. Even if they are pledged to Hogan, he should still try to talk some sense into them, because they deserve a chance to do the right thing.

*Attacking Hogan: Not only is Mike Hogan a bad candidate, easily the weakest of the GOP field, but his lack of intellectual rigor and casual deference to national agitators like the Tea Party may be dangerous for a city facing great crisis in the years ahead. It’s a bad idea for Brown to do the attacking himself, but effective surrogates must be found who can make the case that, honestly, Alvin Brown is the only real choice available for anyone who wants to see this city remain relatively safe and profitable.

Hogan’s “joke” about bombing Planned Parenthood clinics should have been the end of his candidacy; the fact that it actually helped him confirms that many of his allies harbor similar sentiments. Hogan’s election could very well lead to someone bombing an abortion clinic, thinking their actions to be consistent with public opinion, as reflected at the polls. The feminist community (including NOW, Emily’s List and even Planned Parenthood itself) should be running their own ads emphasizing that Hogan was “joking” about an all-too-real threat to women and the doctors trying to get them access to family-planning services. A number of people have already been killed or maimed by such bombings; the commercials should include some of these images, and perhaps the insight of survivors and the loved ones of those who didn’t survive.

*The Debate Issue: The fact that there’s only one mayoral debate planned makes both candidates look like lightweights, but Brown’s campaign should emphasize his willingness to debate at any time, in any place and try to paint Hogan as someone who is afraid of contradictory opinions. Further, it’s worth asking (by surrogates) why Hogan’s camp feels the need to protect him. Is he afraid to debate Brown, specifically, or is he just afraid to debate in general? How can he expect to lead, to be part of what are certain to be highly contentious budget negotiations, if he can’t even spend an hour swinging at softball questions? Is the man even in control of his own campaign?

*Emphasizing the destructive nature of proposed cuts: Obviously, the changing economy requires new ways of dealing with the public sector. Waste must be reduced, spending must be curtailed, cuts must happen. There is nothing controversial about this. But the Brown campaign should make it clear, over and over and over again, that the kinds of cuts being proposed and talked about will undermine the city’s ability to build its tax base back up; they will lower property values, increase crime, and further limit the effectiveness of our public education system.

Hogan should be depicted as a puppet of this national movement to impose hard times on working families in order to service corporate interests, including Wall Street. No one else benefits from spending cuts, certainly not the people. Taxpayers who think they’ll be saving money are, in fact, being suckered into sacrificing what little financial independence the country has left. Hogan and his allies should be depicted as trying to use a machete to do a job better-done with scalpels or lasers. His support for draconian cost-cutting suggests unfamiliarity with how the free-market works, or the delicate balance between the public and private sector.

It’s further worth asking (especially of “old-school” conservative voters) why so-many so-called “conservatives” are jumping to do the bidding ofTallahasseeandWashington,DC. Local and state governments, as well as their citizens, are losing more and more of their powers of self-determination, and Hogan should be depicted as a tool of Tea Party interests that remain ambiguous and suspicious. With the City Council majority solidly Republican (largely because Democrats chose not to bother going after almost any of the open seats, while standing down against a half-dozen vulnerable Republican incumbents), a vote for Brown can be defined as an important check on aspirations of a lunatic fringe that’s using the city budget to enact social policy.

Many negative words can and should be used to describe the cuts: harsh, cruel, vicious, nasty, brutal, reckless, mean-spirited, excessive, reactionary, over-emotional, exploitative, opportunistic, poorly-researched, politically-motivated, self-destructive, anti-American. Alvin Brown once worked for a man who promised to “build a bridge to the 21st century”, and he did it, whereas Mike Hogan is part of a crew intent on burning that bridge down, regardless of the consequences. (Note also that the candidates who promise to cut the most, the fastest, are the one who draw the most campaign funding—an internal contradiction worth exploiting.)

The Brown campaign should reach out to all those interest-groups that stand to lose from the proposed cuts, and encourage them to speak out on his behalf, to help him raise the money needed to compete with this juggernaut. These groups include the Friends of the Jacksonville Public Library, Cultural Council, community groups like RAP, MHPA, etc. Also reach out to the athletics community, from high-school and Pop Warner parents and coaches to members of the Jaguars (especially people with local ties like Rashean Mathis and Tony Boselli, as well as the Weavers themselves). If proposed cuts go through, we may be unable to keep the Jaguars inJacksonville, which would mean a billion-dollar investment goes down the drain. That’s not conservative!

Notes on the Mike Hogan campaign

 [Being the apparent front-runner with only a month to go, Mike Hogan’s job is a lot easier than Alvin Brown’s, but this is anyone’s contest.]

*Aesthetics: Spot-on. The visuals are simple, but using the Main Street Bridge as an “H” shape was a really smart piece of business, accomplishing a couple goals at once: 1) providing a logo; 2) linking Hogan with infrastructure and the river in a positive way (even though both will suffer under his watch). Do nothing else.

*Minimize overall turnout, while maximizing turnout among Hogan supporters: The lower the turnout citywide, the better Mike Hogan’s chances of winning on May 17. Low turnout among youth, minorities, women and the poor are all key, as these are all constituencies unlikely to support Hogan’s agenda. A best-case scenario involves heavy rain that Tuesday, and preferably for days beforehand to reduce early-voting numbers, too; pedestrians don’t vote Republican.

Conversely, Hogan supporters must be sure to vote early, and spend their remaining time getting others out to the polls. Democrats know that victory depends on a big turnout, and if they do everything right, they can definitely win, so the Hogan team needs to prepare for the political equivalent of trench warfare, just in case.

The insanely-low turnout in the first round helped swing the vote in Hogan’s direction, even though it was a slap in the face to all the mayoral candidates, especially the ones who lost. Audrey Moran’s freak elimination removed the strongest candidate in the entire field, someone who would have likely crushed Hogan in the run-off. Alvin Brown is formidable, but it’s unclear if he can manifest his natural strategic advantages (youth, connections, an agenda that’s more palatable to voters at-large) enough to check the glaring disadvantages (he’s black, he’s underfunded, he’s a Democrat).

*Minimize candidate face-time: Mike Hogan has minimal appeal to the electorate. He seems a nice enough guy, but no one’s going to get excited over him. Plus, his agenda equates to prolonged austerity for everyone; the less said about that, the better. He will be better off staying out of the public eye, cruising on his cushion of cash and trusting that the Democrats will lay down and roll over like they usually do.

Resist attempts to cutesy him up with contrived TV interviews and excessive commercials—it does not work. Liberal media will, if they’re smart, be reaching steadily for any gaffes or gimmicks by which to bury him, and he’s already given them plenty. The fact that the Planned Parenthood joke was not the end of his political career speaks directly to the weakness of his opposition. Anyone who can’t bring down the walls ofJerichowith that kind of ammo is probably incapable of any real challenge.

*Reinforce establishment credentials, reaffirm establishment support: Democrats will try to paint Hogan as a puppet of the Tea Party’s reckless thirst for austerity—a step in the wrong direction from city tradition. Hogan must make it known that his agenda is the city’s agenda. He should enlist former mayors to restate the need for such cuts, to say they would be doing the same things in his position. The things being proposed just do not seem reasonable to many voters, and that sentiment will only increase as the cuts are executed, and the likely effects are incurred. The message should be that the voters have no other choice but to elect him and do whatTallahassee says we must. Will people leave this city? Absolutely—but most of them will be liberals, so good.

*Exploit vulnerabilities of the Democratic Party, while raising doubts about Alvin Brown’s capabilities: Many key Democrats never supported Alvin Brown to begin with, and openly advocated for Democratic votes to be thrown to Audrey Moran. Hogan’s camp should imply that Brown’s making the runoff was a fluke attributable to the low turnout and not really a reflection of the will of the voters. They should point to the vast fundraising disparity, despite Brown’s high-profile DC connections, as proof that, really, the choice for conservative domination of local politics has already been made. And with the City Council mostly Republican, how effective can he really be? A vote for Brown, under these conditions, can be defined as a vote for gridlock and stagnation.

(Republicans should master the phrase, “He’s a nice guy, but …”, re: Brown.)

Noise-Makers, with Noisemakers: CIW Activists Protest Publix

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Worldwide, food supply issues are rising to the fore like they have rarely in living memory. Wholesale and retail prices for meat, milk, dairy, grains, fruits and vegetables and other staple crops like corn, rice and soybeans have all risen, to the point of price hikes provoking riots in underdeveloped nations. Food-safety issues have been risen in regard to beef, chicken, pork and various vegetables, not counting the concerns over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) being used in staple crops and the hormones being given to cows, pigs and chickens. Last year’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and this year’s earthquake/tsunami inJapanhave both heightened the challenges of maintaining stable supplies of fish and other seafood.

Floridians have an inside track on food supply, which creates great advantages with equally-sized responsibilities. With theAtlantic Oceanon one side of the state and the Gulf on the other, we get better deals on the freshest seafood, and large amounts of land mean we’re able to produce a lot of our agricultural goods, even sending some to export. Citrus, dairy and vegetables are key products.

In Jacksonville, local student activists representing the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) staged a sequence of actions on April 15 targeting a single very specific aspect of the overall situation: tomatoes. Not something we think about too often—they are just sort of there, always present, always a part. Recall, though, the tomato shortage of a couple years ago, where restaurants in the north briefly stopped adding tomatoes to salads, sandwiches and burgers unless directly requested by the customer.

Their efforts were directed at two of the major businesses in that neighborhood: Publix and Quiznos. Both are major consumers of tomatoes grown and harvested here in the state ofFlorida. According to the CIW materials, “Workers are paid virtually the same piece rate (40-50 cents per 32-lb bucket) as they were in 1978.” (That’s the year I was born, incidentally.) “If the 1980 piece rate had simply kept up with inflation, it would equal $1.06/bucket in 2010. This, in real terms … tomato pickers today actually earn about half of what they earned 30 years ago.”

Wages have fallen behind cost-of-living adjustments, inflation and the like in almost every field for most of the last 35 years, but the situation for low-wage earners like fast-food workers and the service industry is even more dire. The low wages and minimal or nonexistent benefits extended to waiters, waitresses and the people who pick our crops and prepare raw foods for distribution is not only an economic hazard, but it also contributes to the lingering health issues related to food safety. To the point, low-paid, undocumented workers may be themselves tainting the food through unsanitary handling, not to mention untreated illnesses they bring into the fields.

CIW leaders, and its estimated 4,000 members maintain that, for the tomato pickers, a lot can be done to alleviate these conditions just by increasing their pay by a single penny per pound. Since its founding in 1993, CIW has exerted pressure on a number of major businesses, like McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC, Subway and Whole Foods, in addition to food-service companies like Aramark, Sodexo and Compass Group and three of the state’s major tomato growers. While all of these groups have taken CIW up on the penny-per-pound pledge, Publix, Winn-Dixie and Quiznos have so far refused.

Quoting the fake Quiznos coupon: “Florida farmworkers who pick tomatoes are among the nation’s most exploited workers: they earn sub-poverty wages, have no right to form unions or to over-time pay, lack traditional employment benefits such as health, sick leave or pensions, and have no received a significant raise in nearly 30 years. At the current rate, aFloridatomato picker must harvest over TWO TONS just to earn the equivalent of minimum wage for a typical 10 hour [day].”

Loaded phrases like “modern-day slavery” and the more cutesy “Harvest of Shame” (shades of Ed Murrow) are invoked elsewhere in the materials; no doubt, such conditions so exist. According to the National Agricultural Workers Survey, the average farmworker’s 2005 annual salary ran between $10-$12,000, which puts individuals right at the poverty line but keeps them behind a living wage ($18,486) by nearly 50%. These numbers get immediately worse when extrapolated for the thousands of families that must subsist on a farmworker’s wages: their average household income in runs between $15,000 and $17,499, well behind the poverty line ($20,650) and not even half of what a living wage would be in Immolakee ($44,993 for a family of four).

About a half-dozen people gathered in historic Memorial Park to coordinate prior to the protest itself. Many were current students or recent graduates of the University of North Florida. Some were local business owners; all were taxpayers (it was Tax Day, in fact) and almost all were loyal, long-time customers of Publix. One was a “token baby”, who was getting her first taste of political activism that day. A Publix manager circles the group briefly, presumably scouting them in advance.

A previous action held in November at the St. Johns Towncenter, a much larger area, came off without a hitch, so organizers and attendees were enthused, their smiles as sunny as the day itself. The events had been promoted in advance through the CIW website and the “Fair Food Jax” Facebook page, with flyers for advance distribution; I saw one in the men’s room at Lomax Lodge. They came well-prepared, carrying hand-painted signs, flyers for distribution, media kits for reporters, fake mocked-up Quiznos coupons and smart-phones with cameras, just in case. They also brought noisemakers out of plastic Easter eggs filled with pennies, as well as an arsenal of catchy slogans, mostly adulterations of pop songs and older political chants in the tradition:

“Down, down with exploitation/Up, up with the Fair Food Nation!”

“Fair-trade coffee? Sounds great/But what about the workers in your home state?”

“Oh Publix you, you got what I need/Just pay a living wage, just pay a living wage!” [Adapted from the great Biz Markie; nobody beats the Biz!.]

At 5:30 they left the park, chanting, crossing Margaret Street onto Riverside Avenue, going west toward the store, near the corner of Goodwin Street. A common refrain was “Si se puede”, Spanish for “We can do it”. They broke into two camps on either side of where the cars drive in, where they stayed for almost an hour. It was the perfect spot for such action, and also the perfect time; the store and parking lot were full.

Ultimately the group grew closer to 30 in total, not counting the dozens of motorists honking in solidarity and the bystanders who received their propaganda. There were journalists from the FloridaTimes-Union, Folio Weekly and the student newspaper at Florida State College at Jacksonville, the Campus Voice; UNF’s student media was presumably present, as well. Amazingly, no TV stations turned out to cover the event, which would have made for easy, compelling content.

Of course, not everyone was so easy-breezy. A couple drivers coming through the parking lot had a few things to say. A guy in a white Lexus yelled “Get a job!” at the protesters, pretty much all of whom have jobs. Another guy, driving a red SUV, declared loudly that “Unions suck!” Nevermind that his car was built with union labor, he was driving on streets laid by union road-crews, and that luxuries he probably enjoyed like a 40-hour work week, overtime, medical insurance, pensions paid leave and vacation time are all the products of union activity. It just goes to show how disengaged many Americans are from the reality of their own lives.

Publix managers and employees were gracious, more or less. Business continued as usual through the early-evening rush. Customers and employees freely engaged with the protesters. A few managers stood outside with the security guard, watching with no particular offense taken. If you are the business being targeted by peaceful protests of policy, it is best to just relax and not get agitated. One cent per pound of tomatoes is not worth calling the cops out, which is exactly what someone did.

JSO officers arrived about three minutes after the protest ended. By that time the demonstrators had returned to Memorial Park, so after talking to management the fuzz floated over there, with reporters just a few steps behind. They briefly checked to make sure the protesters were fully-informed about the laws and technicalities associated with such activities (permits, trespassing, etc.), while taking the opportunity to get themselves informed about the issues being addressed, before leaving. By “leaving”, I mean they met with a third cop just outside the park and shot the breeze for several minutes; they remained well after the protesters themselves had dissipated, mostly off to watch “The Neverending Story” at Treaty Oak Park.

The cops and the protesters were all basically the same age. It was all very civil, friendly and kinda refreshing, but still a minor waste of law-enforcement resources. It’s a good thing that exchange hadn’t actually occurred in front of the store, because it would have made store managers look bad, while drawing even more attention to the protesters and their cause. Ironically, despite any concerns, there was an actual judge in the store at the time, and he found it all pleasantly amusing.

At the end of the day, CIW will probably prevail again. If the organization has committed to doing similar actions at more Publix locations, including the corporate office in Lakeland, FL, it’s hard to imagine their resistance holding much longer. It may be worth the added expense simply to remove the negative publicity and potential legal complications that can results if protests continue.       

www.ciw-online.org

www.fairfoodjacksonville.blogspot.com

www.sfalliance.org

Shock Therapy, Done Right: Emergency Measures for Reforming Public Education

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As everyone knows by now, Duval County Public Schools is facing massive budget shortfalls heading into the epochal 2011-2012 school year. With Governor Rick Scott handing down between $48-$62 million in funding cuts, and an unavoidable $32 million in fixed cost increases, minus a paltry $5 million in reserves applied against it, DCPS is expecting a budget gap next year ranging from $75-$89 million on a budget that ran to nearly $1.8 billion this year, and they have no ideas.

Well, there are ideas, but no good ones. We’re getting mostly more of the same dangerous bullshit we’ve been hearing from Tallahassee and Washington for years now, the kind of “hard choices” and “painful” cuts that just end up undermining our ability to actually generate revenue, necessitating still-worse cuts down the road. The staggering array of possible cuts across the board looks almost satirical, like some sick Swiftian immodest proposal hatched in the deepest, darkest recesses of some hardcore libertarian think-tank and then swiftly tabled, the author forever silenced with a fellowship. Unfortunately, policymakers are not joking at all, and people around this city are angry. But all is not lost. None of these draconian cuts have been executed yet, so there still remain some weeks or months to hold them off. The shortfall will not go away, and there will be more in the years just ahead.

As in other areas of the public sector, changing times necessitate fresh thinking, and that just happens to be my specialty. Having issued more than my share of really good ideas in countless columns and commentaries over the past decade of writing about our school system, I can say pretty reliably that had even some of those ideas actually been implemented, our public education system be in much better shape right now. But that’s all water under the bridge, and the bridge is now on fire.

Of course, nominal “realists” in the media will assert that such cuts just have to be done to service government debt, while omitting the fundamentally fraudulent nature of that debt, a majority of which could possibly be done away with by the stroke of a Presidential pen. The large amounts of ridiculous debt driven up by the political leadership in Washington over the last 20 years, through unfunded liabilities and the long-term consequences of deregulatory zeal run amok, has become like a lead weight dragging down the dreams of generations. We should not sacrifice the future to service the ghosts of bad deals from bygone times.

This is being written with an eye specifically on the situation in Duval County, which is one of the larger school districts in Florida. But the fundamentals apply about equally to all 67 counties, at least as far as the research indicates. Obviously, issues of geography, topography and demography all factor into devising workable concepts to move our education system forward. One thing we can all agree on is that the massive and pervasive influence of Tallahassee and Washington, DC is of no particular use to anyone but the contractors affiliated with lawmakers, and that the tax dollars citizens have plowed into this system were by and large wasted. Regardless of the financial situation faced in Duval County and elsewhere, the current model just doesn’t work, and it needs massive revision straightaway. This is an easy start.

1.) Don’t touch art and music funding: Of course, there are always ways to utilize these precious funds more effectively, if we’re willing to think outside the box. For example, allowing local artists and musicians to volunteer their skills to supplement the actual teachers, creating more opportunities for the children to have access to skills that can generate millions in the long-term for themselves and the city. Perhaps there are ways to partner further with UNF, JU and FSCJ. Education is one area in which the private sector has to step up, and the arts are an obvious place to start.

2.) Don’t touch athletics funding: There’s no way to know how much money our amateur athletics programs have generated for the region, but anyone who argues that its role falls short of indispensable is peddling snake oil. We probably make a couple million a year just from various people who come through to scout talent, and millions more from what locals kick back into the community after finding success in their own fields. We’ve surely made millions just off selling Tebow-related stuff, not to mention ancillary buzz from Google hits and such, and he hasn’t played regular ball in this city in over five years. And what kind of dollar-figure can you really put on the investment made in a man like Rashean Mathis? The cuts being proposed will adversely affect out ability to do that kind of business.

Northeast Florida must remain a major feeder system for NCAA Division I and II-A programs in countless athletic fields, including our own outstanding state university system. It should remain a key draw for new families, and an outlet for dispersing the often misspent energies of youth. Canceling sports means more crime—young men will fall directly into the hands of criminal syndicates of all types that are already recruiting kids up and down this state.

3.) Disengage from the FCAT model: The FCAT doesn’t work; it’s just another standardized test boondoggle that wastes valuable teaching time and taxpayer dollars with no appreciable benefit. It may also constitute another unfunded mandate, which is reason enough to dump it. The only standardized test that really matters is the SAT, because it’s the only one (if any) college recruiters care about.

4.) Cancel all textbook contracts; rebuild the curriculum from within the private sector: According to the DCPS budget summary for 2010-2011, $54.8 million was spent on “Instruction & Curriculum Services; another $14.5 million is spent on “Instructional Media Services”. What are the taxpayers actually getting from that? Not enough. For years, the county’s paid excessive sums for substandard books and teaching materials, when any teacher or administrator can just make a list of books available commercially, in consultation with their colleagues, buy the stuff in bulk and have them all shipped to the school for a fraction of the price.

As with the failed FCAT situation, a lot of it is about the calcified thinking of boomer pedagogues and their too-cozy collaborations with colleagues in those industries. It’s the same kind of collusion we see in almost every aspect of our political system, and the results are almost always the same. The specifics of our local system exist within a larger organizational structure that has already regressed aggressively, and the graduation rates, test scores and college placement figures speak for themselves, nationwide. This city is lucky because it still has the tools it needs to move forward.

5.) End forced busing once and for all: The 2010-2011 budget summary includes nearly $52 million for “Pupil Transportation Services”. If some schools weren’t better than others, busing would be unnecessary. Children are not totems of social policy. The free market has led to great racial diversity in many neighborhoods that were once more, but a widening of the achievement gap between extremes of student performance, so the integrationist value of busing has also been rendered moot. It’s really a competitive disadvantage for the kids who get up earlier and spend hours each week riding to school to compete against peers who walked there, and almost all of them would avoid it if that were possible. It should be. The central problem is improving performance in inner-city schools, but that is the central problem of the whole system. If we can raise GPAs and college placement stats, we’ll know our money is being better-spent.

There’s usually no special reason to attend a school all that far outside your area until you reach the middle-school level and above, and there’s absolutely no reason for children to be riding in school buses without seat belts and safer designs in the year 2011. It’s a stop-gap for government’s inability to standardize what works, as opposed to what doesn’t—the political equivalent of a comb-over. Academics and politicians often invoke issues of race or poverty in a way that implies that some places just have to suck.

 The Magnet school model works, and kids who want to attend specific schools will have options, like public transportation, private services and in-house operations. Some schools may choose to own and run its own fleet, and government is always there to help. DCPS has low debt, many excellent schools and tremendous upside.

It would represent a major investment in public transportation and provide an opportunity to evolve the market itself by using smaller, faster, greener vehicles like trolleys and shuttle-buses that would surely be useful for all kinds of things. Bonus: some of the money saved on bus contracts can be put back into the schools, and it immediately increases business and customers for JTA. In fact, their expertise is crucial.

Reorganize bus schedules to accommodate the needs of students, and issue each student a free all-year bus pass so they can ride free anytime, anywhere. We’ll need more bus stops, and a serious emphasis on safety at the Rosa Parks station and on the buses themselves; the drivers will have to be extra-alert, in ways a school bus driver wouldn’t have to. (Although, the way the JSO budget is going, it might be worth considering putting a cop on every bus, for safety’s sake, and also to save on cars.) In any event, parents, teachers and students will ride public transportation together, just like in every major city inAmerica.

6.) Keep merit pay, but encourage individualism in teachers: Teachers should be paid well, consistently with other public servants, and some respect should be given to seniority and a record of good performance. Merit pay is often touted as an alternative to treating the teachers as well as they should. It should be used, instead, to supplement the pay of teachers who are doing extra-well. It’s one thing to pay a teacher whose students are performing well, by whatever standard, but how does one recognize a teacher who can stimulate rapid growth and development in traditionally underperforming kids? That is something well-worth a cash reward. Now, the converse is that in so raising the stakes for teachers, we are asking more of them, and they need the freedom to execute their own vision in the classroom. Again, this is why the curriculum needs scrapping and the standardized tests need shredding, immediately.

7.) Embrace vouchers, but apply sparingly: Schools that fail need to be fixed or shut down, and kids should not be forced to attend underperforming schools. Public schools, like their private-sector counterparts, should have to compete for the high-performing teachers and students that will increase their own bottom line, and those with talents to offer should be able to get the best possible deal. The voucher concept should be re-imagined, with an eye toward the changing needs of the kids regarding not only the rising cost of higher education, but their own financial needs. (And those of you considering a ludicrous “pay to play” model for amateur sports, be prepared to abandon all pretense of morals and ethics as those sports become even more mercenary.)

8.) Pension reform: Public-sector employees around the country are being awakened en masse to the shocking reality that their long-term future is now tied into a system that is largely fictitious. The free market has rendered its judgment on the current methods of securing the financial security of working families in all fields, and the next generation of leaders has no choice but to devise alternative methods that work. The fact that Florida has no state income tax remains a huge draw for the high-value relocation dollars that will drive growth in the years ahead—and that includes teachers, and parents of big-time athletes, artists and musicians. Competing for these people will remain a major challenge for the region over the next decade-plus, because we can’t grow the tax base without more growth in population.

This is one area where Washington can actually lead the way: President Obama should exempt all teachers from taxation on income earned at work. Younger workers should be allowed to opt out of the system entirely and take their chances; the average worker is just as smart as the average stockbroker, or at least a bit less corrupt. And while Obamacare has its merits, adults should be free to opt out of that, as well. Some people (especially single men) might take their health-care money and put it into personal savings. Most people will remain in the system, while others will save that money and hopefully find ways to flip it in socially-beneficial ways.

9.) Cash payouts to high-performing students: Raising the level of performance in our K-12 system, especially our high schools, is critical to stabilizing the school system’s finances. Again, art, music and athletics are crucial to projecting an image of success that will appeal to the families looking to move here in the next decade—many of whom will be teachers, themselves. When high-school athletes sign with big-name programs, it’s all over the news, and rightly so, but similar attention should be paid to academics. In a kid’s mind, perception is reality, and a big reason students underperform is because they are weighed down by the negative perceptions of the adults around them. It’s not a handout, any more than a tax cut would be; it’s their money, too.

10.) Increase opt-out options for students: In a nutshell, mechanisms need to be worked out wherein a student of exceptional intelligence, capability or mere work ethic can get themselves out of the public school system as soon as they’re able to. If we can raise the level of education to where kids are actually learning as fast as they’re capable of, they can graduate sooner, start college sooner, and we save money. There’s no reason a smart kid can be out of high-school when they’re 16. Besides, with the collapse of the American family proceeding apace, legal emancipation of minors is the wave of the future. One more area in which Florida can lead.

11.) Refuse to send property tax revenues up to Tallahassee: The nuclear option, yes, but nukes were built for a reason, and if there was ever a time to force the issue, it’s now. The tax money kicked up from Florida’s 67 counties would, if retained, meet the needs for public safety and vital infrastructure such as education, but somehow by the time they’re done skimming off the top—and the bottom, and the sides—there’s barely enough to pay our teachers non-competitive wages and give the city’s children an education that is more than a joke within a national system that is itself a catastrophic failure. These cuts, if pushed through, will rightfully destroy what little respect and value today’s youth still have in a system that has never done right by them.

12.) Mass resignation or recall of the School Board, the Superintendant and the State Secretary of Education, etc.: If we are now facing the bitter reality that government must impose such brutal austerity measures on our youngest, most innocent and defenseless citizens, the ones who have no recourse whatsoever and whose fates will ultimately be our own, then the so-called “leaders” whose failed policies brought us to this point should just fall on their swords and walk away. And when they’re gone, they should not be replaced; retain the staffers, but disperse the board’s duties to the relevant council-folk; that may even inspire among the teacher’s union an interest in council races that clearly did not exist this year. This, also, will save a lot of money.

13.) Every school in the county should have a system by which anonymous tips can be forwarded directly to the principal and the authorities, if need be, will full digital media applications: This is crucial for cracking down on the serious epidemic of bullying, harassment and stalking that has been exacerbated as a side-effect of social media. It also can help find kids in abusive homes or relationships, who have drug or alcohol problems, who may be suicidal or are in some other form of trouble but can’t or won’t talk about it. Such a service, perhaps, could be run as an offshoot of the also-threatened Crimestoppers program. These techniques will cost almost nothing, but save potentially millions in the long-run. Further, JSO should use their community service officers more like PR flacks, besides the obvious public safety function, and try a bit harder to counter young people’s almost instinctive of all forms of public authority, especially the police. Hell, the cops are getting jacked around by the politicians just like these kids are!

14.) Politicians mentoring members of student governments: The kids themselves must be empowered to express their own views on these matters, and be instructed in how to act affirmatively toward their own goals. The Boys State model is very effective (heck, I was part of it, so there you go), and should be duplicated on local levels. City Council members and School Board members should reach out to high schools in their zone of influence and recruit kids to shadow them in some functions of the job, while soliciting their input on the schools. The Mayor should host a meeting of student-body presidents and vice-presidents from all the high schools every semester, no adults allowed; council members can do this more regularly within their districts. And the kids should feel obliged to stage walk-outs as they see fit, which will probably be often.

sheltonhull@gmail.com; April 11, 2011

CD Review: The Flail, “Live At Smalls”

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The Flail: Live At Smalls (smallsLIVE SL020)

 

"Live At Smalls" cover

 

The Flail is comprised of five veteran jazz musicians whose diverse paths to pro status brought them all into league together at the New School of Jazz in the late-1990s. Tenor saxophonist Stephan Moutot hails from France; trumpeter Dan Blankinship is from Virginia. Bassist Reid Taylor was born and raised in Jacksonville, FL, while the other two-thirds of the rhythm section is from Pennsylvania: pianist Brian Marsella is from Philadelphia, and drummer Brian Zebroski is from Pittsburgh.

The band’s first album was recorded live in France in 2002, as was their second. Live At Smalls is their fourth, part of a long series recorded at the venerable Greenwich Village establishment, the most recent ones released on their own in-house smallsLIVE label. It’s a great idea, for so many reasons: It helps promote the club while generating new revenue streams for its business; it gives more jazz artists a chance to record in a very conducive setting, and more recordings mean more money for the artists; it gives jazz fans more opportunities to feel the excitement of an always-vibrant NYC scene that most of us are lucky to catch a couple times per year, at best.

Condensed from the cream of a two-night stand at Smalls on October 8-9 of last year, the album captures the group in their element, playing for a strong, responsive crowd of knowledgeable jazz fans, of whom surely a few were musicians themselves. When musicians take the time to listen to other artists’ material, especially in such a busy and competitive arena as the world’s jazz capital, it speaks directly to chops and respect. One thing is clear: these guys certainly play like men who’ve gotten to know their collaborators really well. To borrow the phrase so well-employed by Dennis Cook is describing this band, they play with “seamless, telepathic grace.”

The album opens hot with Taylor’s “Mr. Potato Bass”. (Due to author error and editorial lead-time, the tune may be referred to in the Arbus story as “Mr. Potato Head”. Sincere apologetics extended, in advance.) The author’s metronomic bass lines remind me of Lennie Tristano alum Jeff Morton on “Line Up” laid under Marsella’s modernist intro; the horns jump in to reiterate the theme, before dropping into more of a walking tempo just long enough to offer some contrast before returning to the theme, cruising along for nearly 12 minutes. It’s a good example of how quickly this group can shift moods, with nary a skid-mark, without losing the groove.

Marsella’s “Better Watch What You Wish For” starts out like a hard-boiled mid-‘60s movie-detective theme song, with a choppy piano line from the author, taking abrupt turns into Spanish melodies and Klezmer rhythms. Think Argerich guesting with John Zorn, if both were feeling playful. The frontline drops in with some stellar counterpoint around the five-minute mark. “A Sunny Day In Mongerville”, written by Moutot enters on a note-perfect parallel to the John Coltrane’s epic Feb. 1967 sessions, the ones that would later yield “Interstellar Space” and (more to the point), “Stellar Regions”. It then returns to the loping groove in which they tend to habitate, but not before a nearly three-minute drum feature for Zebroski, who sounds like a cross between Elvin Jones and Shelly Manne—that’s a compliment, by the way.

“Light At the Beginning of the Tunnel” is a jaunty three-minute romp across free-jazz terrain, high-spirited and herky-jerky; one almost assumes it to be their idea of a self-deprecating intermission theme—but then, two minutes in, its gets down to some serious metacarpal manipulation from Marsella, who wrote three of the album’s eight songs. His fleet fingers are crucial to keeping this textural tightrope act unsplattered on the concrete. The rhythm section, in general, come across really well here.

“Long Neck Beast” (co-written by Taylor and Blankinship) runs 13 minutes, but that’s part of the appeal of this format—space. Five of the eight songs run in excess of ten minutes, which would probably not fly in any contemporary studio setting. Moutot shines in a lengthy lung-stretching solo, before Blankinship down-shifts back down to cruising speed. If the Flail’s method has any maddening aspects, it could be only that they don’t always stay in a particular groove long enough to appreciate it; just when they’ve got you, they switch it up. It can be like almost catching a butterfly.

“Open Wound” is the first track that could be properly called a “ballad”—the first to even linger on its constituent traits for more than a few bars. Author Marsella leads the way, pulling his comrades through languid laps around his melody. The frontline brings up more of the counterpoint they do so well, while Taylor’s solo with the rhythm brings to mind the master of this mood, the late great Scott LaFaro. It is music for listening to while sitting in the dark with a drink and a nice cigar (which may be intact, or split open and filled with something else), savoring the quiet before the storm.

Zebroski’s “We’re Not Out of the Woods Yet” could, itself, qualify as a storm, depending on what kind of instruments you’re using. It opens up in full Second Line mode, shifting into earthy soul jazz strains before modulating between the two. The diversity of the members’ experiences is reinforced with a track like; it would be hard to imagine that this track and the one before it were recorded by the same band, let alone probably in the same night. But disbelief is easily enough suspended here.

The album closes quietly, lounge-like, on cocktail-jazz notes with hints of Bossa Nova and the Cha-Cha. Taylor, whose earliest musical influence was Minutemen bassist Mike Watt, wrote “Under the Influence of Stereolab”, and it actually evokes the feel of one of the most influential bands ever without touching too directly on the musical elements. It’s like eating a Stereolab-flavored Jelly Belly that, once eaten, makes you feel like you’ve just listened to one of their albums. After the heavy-duty jazz they’ve laid on you, the closing track is like an after-dinner mint, easing you smoothly into silence. All in all, a very good effort by an outstanding young jazz group; like most of the smallsLIVE catalog, this, too comes well-recommended.

L-R: Blankinship, Taylor, Moutot, Marsella, Zebroski

[Note: The Flail will be performing at this year’s Jacksonville Jazz Festival, May 26-29. Look for another article about them in the upcoming Arbus Magazine.]

www.theflail.com; www.smallslive.com; www.smallsjazzclub.com

“Sustaining Beauty”: Barbara Colaciello channels Ninah Cummer

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Last Tuesday I had the chance to catch one of the jewels of our local theatre scene doing a piece of business that has broader positive implications for the whole city. Barbara Colaciello was appearing at the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in “Sustaining Beauty: Reflections from the Memoirs of Ninan May Holden Cummer”. She’d also been crafting the project in collaboration with Players By the Sea.

Ninah Cummer spent most of her life as a vigorous advocate of gardening, a hobby that quickly became an all-consuming passion. She also began piecing together the art collection that would eventually comprise (along with the Cummer family home itself) the jewel of her endowment. Colaciello does a great job of bringing out the passion and playfulness of Mrs. Cummer, as well as the rock-solid commitment to her city that would inspire such largess.

Much like the subject of her one-woman show, Barbara Colaciello has been steeped in culture for basically her entire life. A native of New York City, she is the sister of Bob Colaciello, who was for many years a close associate of Andy Warhol who once helmed his Interview magazine (one of the best of its kind, still going strong today). She may be best-known to local audiences for her decade-long collaborations with Al Letson, a spoken-word superstar who currently hosts his own show on NPR.

The museum had commissioned Ms. Colaciello to delve into Mrs. Cummer’s massive archives and tell the story of how the museum came to be. Watching the performance, one could tell that she was wrestling with the breadth of the material; to jump into another person’s mind so thoroughly is certainly a challenge. The costumes designed by Gayle Featheringill helped reinforce the mood. (On an unrelated note, Ms. Featheringill is not only a longtime member of the local theatre scene, but was also recognized with the NVRA National Speed Championship, awarded to the “fastest and most accurate court reporter in the US”.)

“For the past 11 months,” writes Colaciello, “I have visited with Ninah, discovering her through letters, garden speeches, travel journals, and notes on little pieces of paper. I have been moved by her words and deeds, inspired by her passion for life and joy. The more that I know about Ninah Cummer, the more I realize how much I do not know—that the expanse of her life-story exists beyond anyone’s ability to contain. It is my intent, however, to capture the essence of Ninah that has been transmitted to me through the research process. Through careful examination of her stories I have ‘sensed’ how experiences might have felt I have interpreted her words and imagined possibilities. I see Sustaining Beauty as a collage of little pieces of stained glass that, when placed next to one another, creates a window of insight into a remarkable woman’s life.”

As we approach the 50th anniversary of Mrs. Cummer’s endowment, it occurs to me that Barbara’s project can be of great use to the museum and the city at large. The Cummer’s staff is always in need of donations to keep the wheels moving, and with the proposed cuts to the city budget coming this summer, it remains unclear what the long-term financial situation will be. Of course, treasures like this need to be preserved at all costs. Personally, I’d like to see WJCT get involved with this, filming one of her performances to be aired on one of their vastly-underutilized TV channels. Also, with the original Cummer collection all being displayed at the museum this year, I’d suggest having Barbara, as Mrs. Cummer, providing a sort of guided tour of the collection, telling the stories of the artists and the circumstances by which their work became part of the collection, either through WJCT or something like YouTube. It seems to me like the kind of thing Ninah Cummer would have done herself, were she still around. But, thanks to Ms. Colaciello’s yeoman work, it’s almost like she is.

Losing On Purpose 101: Breakdown of local elections 2011

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[Note: This only touches on the first round of local elections on March 22, which eliminated most of the progressives from the ballot. The runoff is on May 17, and one hopes the results aren’t what one expects. I should point out also that I never intended to have Democratic support, having criticized them too heavily over the years. I ran NPA specifically to express my disrespect for the two-party system. But what I discovered, as the campaign wore on, that there were very few Democrats in any race that were receiving party support. This is the real story.]

Losing on Purpose 101: How the Democratic Party stand-down doomed local progressives.

In a nutshell, the results of the March 22 unitary elections in Duval County followed in lock-step with the precedent set on the national level in November 2010: a brutal lurching toward fiscal austerity and civil unrest.

Full disclosure: This reporter was myself one of those progressive candidate buried at the ballot-box. I’d disengaged from deadline journalism last July to scout a candidate for City Council District 14 to represent the forward trajectory of our city. Having found none willing or able, I tossed my tam in on October 24, running No Party Affiliation (NPA). Among a field of six high-quality first-time candidates, I finished fourth with 11% despite being massively out-spent.

One reason I ran was to show people how easy it really is. Raising money is a chore almost as tedious as transcription (my least-favorite part of journalism work), but the paperwork is a breeze. Runoff contenders Jill Dame and Jim Love each pulled a little more than double my vote-totals, spending around $17 per vote; I spent $1.42, running without compromise or apology, which just goes to show that damn near anyone can do this. Hopefully progressives around the state have taken notice and are now laboring to avoid the tragic mistakes made by their counterparts here.

Voter turnout in my district was consistent with the country—under 30%. It was a total embarrassment for the city, and a slap in the face to every single person (candidates and voters alike) who made an effort to get involved in this, the most important local election in 20 years. And it was a crushing county-wide defeat for the Democratic Party, which laid down like prostitutes for Republicans emboldened and empowered by the ass-stomping delivered across Florida back in November. But the big difference, of course, is that hookers don’t lay down without a payoff, which begs an obvious question: Who runs the local Democratic Party, and why does the rank-and-file tolerate this?

All 19 City Council spots were up for grabs this year, and ten of those races had no Democrats on the ballot to speak of. A number of them attempted to run, but their ambitions were stifled by lack of funds. The party sat on funds they refused to disperse, even for candidates who could have won. Just as they have for years, the party sat back smugly and told people they had no shot, based on the word of pollsters, consultants and other hacks holding dual loyalties.

The numbers don’t lie. Democrats were out-raised by Republicans in every single race where both parties were competing, so profoundly that one of two conclusions must be drawn: either a) there are no Democrats with money in this city, or b) major party donors either stood down entirely or put their money into moderate Republicans like Audrey Moran. In fact, the only Democrat in any of the 18 contests to actually out-spend his GOP opponents was incumbent councilman John Crescimbeni.

The phrase “stand down”, which has a military basis, works perfectly in this context. The imagery of party leaders seeing a serious threat to their interests evolving over months and years, and then deliberately doing nothing to stop them, should be really disturbing to the handful of Democrats who still take their own rhetoric seriously. When the Tea Party conservatives say they’re going to do something (namely, cut everything, regardless of its impact on the community), they mean it, and they will do whatever it takes to win. Unfortunately, in Florida they didn’t really have to do much.

Not counting the five who ran unopposed (Democrats Lee, Jones and Brown and Republicans Redman, and Holland), Ten of the 18 races that went to the ballot in March had no Democrat whatsoever on the ballot. In at least four cases, Democrats tried to run, but didn’t raise enough money and withdrew, leaving the seat to be contested exclusively among Republicans. During the campaign, I spoke with several Democrats running for local office who complained about how hard it was to meet with party brass, to get access to funding sources, or in some cases to stifle Alvin Brown-style whispering campaigns designed to throw Democratic votes toward their GOP opposition.

To hear some ranking Dems tell the story, there was never any plan to challenge the Republicans. “The problem isn’t money, it’s the lack of candidates,” says one high-ranking Democrat. “Well spent, well-targeted dollars can push dems to victory in at-large seats. … Candidates and their staffers need to be brought in early (two/three years out) and given the proper tools to succeed. These include: fundraising training, field training, gotv training, media training. The knowledge gleaned from this is what produces the $$$. Dollars are a function of a candidate’s ability to promote and project himself in a positive light. [The] Party can’t do the work for the candidates, but the party has to equip the candidates to be able to do the work. The $$$ and votes garnered four years from now are a function of what happens today as we lay the ground work.”

Mind-blowing. In other words, unless the party was able to vet the candidates, they could count on no support from the party. Which raises the question of why there was no all-out effort to recruit new candidates for what everyone knew for years would be the biggest local election in a generation? The GOP got the memo, and they reacted accordingly, with disastrous consequences for all.

Ken Jefferson, who challenged John Rutherford for Sheriff, is the perfect example of how the stand-down worked. Despite being a longtime JSO veteran, and one of the better-known officers through his years as the Public Information Officer (including weekly spots spinning the “Wheel of Justice” on WJXT), even he was not perceived as good enough. Rutherford outspent him ten-to-one, raising over $220,000 to Jefferson, paltry $20,000, which reflects a stunning lack of support from his party, yet Jefferson still managed to pull 38% of the vote. That is to say, he had a really, really good chance of winning, but his party decided not to help. Why? If anyone knows, they won’t say.

The mayor’s race was perhaps the most ridiculous of all. These candidates raised millions, collectively, and they might as well have piled that cash up and burned it, for all the good it did them. The low turnout was primarily a expression of how boring, bitchy and utterly dispassionate the whole field was. Nice people, yes, and talented for sure, but politically they’re losers to a man, and the people seemed to know that. It’s a real shame to see such crappy commercials in the 21st century.

The two Democrats who qualified for the ballot, Alvin Brown and Warren Lee, raised a total of roughly $175,000. The three Republicans who qualified, Audrey Moran, Mike Hogan and Rick Mullaney, raised about $2 million combined. Even appearances by Democratic heavyweights like Corrine Brown, Al Gore and former president Bill Clinton had little impact on Brown’s fundraising totals. The last days of the campaign saw Democrats directing a whispering campaign against Brown, their only donkey in the fight, saying Brown can’t win and that Democratic votes were better-spent on Moran, who was the best candidate of all but ended up losing in part through this treachery, as some Republican supporters noticed this collaboration and pulled back.

So it’s not just that the current leadership of the local Democratic Party are professional losers, but that their touch has proven toxic to even the best politicians. Republicans, by contrast, gambled right by making no challenge to vulnerable incumbent Dems Denise Lee and Warren Jones, thereby keeping the black vote low enough to be no factor in the At-Large contests—a cold, cynical, slightly racist move that worked out perfectly. After all, it’s not like either party is responsive to the interests of black voters anyway. Republicans have no idea how to address them, and the best Democrats can do is say “Vote for us, because you have to.” Staying home is always an option.

To think that such lions in winter as Jake Godbold and Ed Austin, whose word is bond and whose credibility is unimpeachable, made their last stand on behalf of a third-place candidate (Moran) in a race where seven-in-ten voters stayed home, is a tragedy worth crying over. These men were legends, whose labors were the mortar between the bricks of Consolidation, and these pathetic punk kids and boomer trash who’ve coasted on their blood and sweat for a decade, couldn’t bother to exploit beautiful weather and short lines to vote for Audrey, or anyone else. In a word: Bullshit.

Note also that, after the shit that’s been talked about Don Redman in these pages and elsewhere, the most controversially conservative politician in this city held his seat without even token opposition. It is shocking that not one Democrat downtown, even in the bar/club district, could be bothered to challenge an incumbent whose open contempt for their interests was itself exploited for fundraising purposes. Redman could have been beaten, easily, even by a Muslim.

A huge opportunity was squandered, willfully and deliberately, by local so-called “progressives”, to the point that outside observers wondered if there were any to speak of. Whether it was the arts, music, the LGBT community, organized labor, teachers and first-responders, women’s rights groups and the pro-choice lobby, the constituencies with the most to lose were the ones who did the least, and the starkness of their silence will only encourage conservatives who ran on the promise of cutting everything, and then walked into office without resistance. Progressive values were ultimately represented best by moderate Republicans and NPA candidates, and the harsh lessons from these experiences will reverberate for years to come.

Others in and around the business were quick to spin it, but Wayne Weaver’s now-legendary outburst at Moran HQ speaks to the bitter reality: The people of this city, by an overwhelming majority, chose to stand down and abnegate their responsibilities to the elders who made this the “Bold New City of the South”, as well as their children and grandchildren, who must now mature in a community that’s being taken apart faster than filet mignon in a piranha tank. Well, we the people—all of us—must now begin paying an unspeakable price for our collective slack, and it starts with higher taxes and more fees, before cuts that will amount to a death-sentence for hundreds of our citizens.

On a generational level, this election could be viewed as a direct extension of what happened nationally last November. In a nutshell, Baby Boomer of both parties essentially collaborated behind-the-scenes to block the political ascent of new talent, forcing through draconian cuts to vital services that disproportionately affect the young and the poor in order to preserve the “safety net” largess that only they will ever benefit from. The proposed cuts to arts and cultural funding, education, amateur athletics and other areas being handed down from Tallahassee are directed specifically at those young people who will, in theory, comprise the next generation of progressive political leaders in this city. Why else would we cut things that generate profit and strong positive publicity for Jacksonville?

Why are so many “fiscal conservatives” behaving in the exact opposite way? For the same reason that 11 local candidates ran NPA: Because ideology is a crutch, and the changing economic realities here and around the world have exposed our two-party system for what it really is—a one-party state in which a handful of wealthy people monopolize the electoral process to freeze out new ideas coming in from both directions.

The Tea Party itself began as an expression of this concept of post-partisan activism, But Beltway Dems, then in control of Congress, recognized the movement as something that could quickly pull support from both parties and become a threat to all their interests, and duly directed a fusillade of verbal abuse their way (starting with the deliberate slur of “teabagger”), which had the desired result of pushing them further to the right, where they became the hammer in Sarah Palin’s hand. It’s almost exactly the same thing that was done to the anti-war movement a decade earlier; by defining them as left-wing wackos, the huge anti-war sentiment among conservatives and military experts could be dismissed, and those who didn’t fit the stereotype were alienated.

But like sunshine beaming through bullet-holes onto pavement shiny with fresh-spilled blood, there were some bright spots to this election. Any list of such must begin with the Supervisor of Elections Office, long-embattled following the debacle in 2000. Jerry Holland found his stride as leader of a dedicated batch of civil servants. Beth Fleet, Lana Self, Justin Giacone and all their colleagues coalesced into arguably the best such team of its type in Florida. The logistics of efficient data-handling in a city this size are notoriously tricky, but the process ran smooth as silk.

While the abysmal turnout surely helped, the SOE staff proved were ready for anything, including my endless questions. Of course, as the years proceed immediately ahead, questions about this joke of an election will persist. The people of Jacksonville chose to deliberately put hard times on themselves, their neighbors and their families, the impact from which will reverberate for years to come.

sheltonhull@gmail.com; April 4, 2011