Ed Austin interview transcript (2006)

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Interview Transcript: Ed Austin—Recorded February 13, 2006

Ed Austin was the 61st mayor of Jacksonville, Florida, but only the fourth to hold office since the city and county were officially consolidated in 1968. Hans Tanzler was mayor at the time (1967-79), followed by Jake Godbold (’79-‘87) and Tommy Hazouri. Austin won the Democratic primary of 1991, unseating incumbent Hazouri, and would be succeeded by John Delaney in 1995 and John Peyton in 2003. Austin later changed his affiliation to Republican, and is currently the last Democrat to occupy City Hall.

Even without that new emerald-green BMW with its “Go Jags” license plate, Ed Austin would be hard to miss. He’s approaching 80, but looks at least 15 years younger; this is mostly a testament toAustin’s commitment to good health and vigor in his golden years.Austinworks out almost every day, alternating from cardio to circuit-training at YMCAs inRiversideor Ponte Vedra. What really keeps him going, though, is his family. A father of three, Austin has nine grandchildren, five of whom live in the area.

Having lived in Avondale for 40 years, most of which time he was bound-in to his work at the Courthouse and City Hall, and after recovering from a bad car accident a decade ago, he now travels with a passion, spending more time out of the country than most Congressmen or Senators. His itinerary is the stuff of dreams:London,Paris,Venice, salmon-fishing inAlaska, white-water rafting along the Snake River.

SDH: What have you been up to since your days in City Hall?

EA: Well, that’s a long time ago. I’ve been around and covering some ground. I guess I stopped doing any kind of consulting work about four years ago; I’ve really fully retired, and fully enjoy it. I’ve had no problems being with filling up my day.

SDH: Do you live far from here?

EA: I live in a condo down onSt. Johns Avenue, by [the old] Cedar River.

SDH: Have you always been out there?

EA: No. My wife and I moved out there when all our kids got out of high school, went to college, and moved from a house into an easier-to-manage condo. We’d lived in a two-story house down the road [before that].

SDH: What makes this part of Jacksonville so special to you?

EA: Well, you know, I came intoJacksonville back in the ‘50s, over a half-century ago — well over, actually — and I moved into the Westside, and I’ve lived over in the Avondale/Riverside section since 1959. We’d gotten familiar with it, and we know where everything is, everything’s convenient, close-in. When I was in City Hall and the Courthouse, it was a short commute to be down there—ten minutes, no problem. And it’s still a nice neighborhood. I enjoy this area. When I moved, I told my wife I’d move anywhere she wanted, as long as it was closer to the Courthouse.

SDH: What’s fun for a guy like you?

EA: Now, well—I married a lovely lady about two years ago [Austin’s first wife died in an auto accident in which he was seriously injured in the 1990s], and we have a good relationship, we enjoy doing things together. We’ll do some traveling. We’ve had a couple trips toLondon,Paris, and a great trip toItaly last spring; did a whitewater rafting trip down theSnake River in July. And I fish when I can. I planned my trip this summer forAlaska, to fish for silver salmon, and I did a trip for a weekend up in centralCanada, for walleye. The traveling is fun—I enjoy that. We’ll be taking another trip shortly.

I read a lot. I get a lot of good magazines, or what I think are good magazines—

SDH: Like what?

EA: The American Enterprise, National Review, Weekly Standard. Mostly conservative, but they’re good. I get the Wall Street Journal every morning, because they deliver it to your door now. The first hour of my day is taken up with the newspapers.

I have friends. We get together. I have a group that meets at my condo on Wednesday mornings—faith-sharing. There’s about nine of us, and we’ve been doing that for ten years. It’s a good mental-heath exercise. Also, five of my nine grandchildren live here inJacksonville. They range in ages from eight to 15, and I’m going through the things I did as a parent, as a grandparent—going to basketball games and ballets and whatever you do. My son and I are heading out to the Keys; we’re going to take his boys down to the Islamorada for some fishing. My grandkids right now are just the absolute joy of my life; they light me up. I’ve got them all over the place.

SDH: How is running a family like running an organization like government?

EA: In any man’s life, it’s got to be the number-one priority. Family has got to be the number-one priority. I just had a rule: I had to be home for dinner. I upset a lot of nerves at dinner-time. You take the calls when they call in, and you keep your family up there as your top priority. But it’s not—no, you can’t run it like [business], because you’ve got your wife, and that changes the formula. It’s a partnership, not an executive position for the male, if it’s a good relationship.

SDH: As someone who played a part in helping make the city what it is–

EA: My real career was as a prosecutor. I was a State Attorney—

SDH: How long?

EA: I was State Attorney over 20 years, elected. And then I was only there [City Hall] for four years, but you get recognized more as the mayor, not what you really were. Before that, I was an assistant prosecutor, so I had about 25 years as a prosecutor, and that was what I really did, professionally, but I had that four years as mayor, and it was a great experience. This city—we woke it up a little.

We had a little self-esteem problem with this city, and I think we helped turn that around. We got to rebuilding some things, and building some new things. That’s what we set out to do, and I think we accomplished that.

We also fixed HUD over there—HUD was terrible, and we got to straighten it out and turn it around. That and creating the Children’s Commission, which I was real proud of. We had a good four years—you always brag about it, you never cut yourself down.

SDH: You’re held in generally high esteem by all the politicians I’ve talked to—

EA: Well, you’re very kind. I’ve worked hard and tried to be fair. You know, the key to this business is, whenever you’re in any office, is the quality of the people you surround yourself with. And I had such good people working with me—John Delaney, Rick Mullaney, Audrey Moran, John Jolly [sp?], Mike Weinstein—I could go on and on.

SDH: I’ve noticed that, in recent years, some of the top politicians around the country have been former prosecutors [for example, Rudy Giuliani and John Kerry; several are seeking governorships in 2006, including Charlie Crist in FL and, Eliot Spitzer in NY].

EA: You see them come out, they’re in administrative jobs, and it lends itself to staying in an administrative, executive-type of function. You have to make your own decisions over there, and it’s a good decision-making training ground, even for your assistant, because you’re making important decisions all the time. And usually there’s some notoriety and press involved with it, so you get your name recognition out, and it’s a logical step to run for something else. Some of them don’t make it; we’ve had some try, and shoot themselves in the foot with it. You can’t use the office to—I’ve never ran the State Attorney’s Office thinking I was going to use it to run for office—that was never in my mind. The best way to get promoted to another job is to do [the one you have] well and not worry about it.

SDH: Who was the best prosecutor you ever saw?

EA: Oh, I had so many good assistants. I must have had 350, 400 people down there in the State Attorney’s Office. I could make one friend, and lose 350!

SDH: Are there particular skills that come into play to be an effective prosecutor, as opposed to an effective defense attorney? Can the same person do both well?

EA: Yeah—well, I did. I was the first public defender in this community, back in ’63. I got appointed, and I was public defender for five years, and then the State Attorney job opened up, and I simply changed sides. I went from defending hundreds and hundreds of people to prosecuting thousands, so yeah, you can do both. It’s just a transition in state of mind. And this State Attorney’s office is supposed to be about administering justice, not just convicting; you’re running a system.

SDH: Some people say that criminal justice system doesn’t have the resources to do all the tasks it set out for itself. Is that true?

EA: It’s about like it’s always been. I don’t see any lesser emphasis on it. You go to the legislature every year, and they set priorities. I’ve never had any problem getting adequate funding, you always want more, but you do what you can, and if you organize it well and utilize your resources to make your people fully productive, you can do on the money. The funding seems to me to be fair, for both the defense and the State Attorney. You can always use more, but there has to be a limit. They split it up inTallahassee; they emphasize one thing and take it away from something else.

SDH: Who is your favorite mayor ofJacksonville, other than yourself?

EA: I really can’t name one. I was General Counsel for Hans Tanzler. Hans was our first consolidated mayor, and he was the perfect man for that job. I don’t know if “perfect” is the right word, but he was the best man for that job at that time. He did a masterful job. And, of course, I’m so close to John Delaney, who just did an outstanding job for the city. Now that doesn’t mean I don’t like and respect the others, but those two, I thought, really did very well for the city.

SDH: Is there anything aboutJacksonville, from a city government perspective, that makes it harder to run than other, similar, cities?

EA: No—it’s the exact opposite. [Before Consolidation], we had a small central city and big county area. When we consolidated it all into one, we created the most efficient form of city government there is, anywhere. So if you don’t run it properly, it’s your fault, and not the city’s fault. It is the best form of local government in theUnited States, so when you go in there you can’t complain that it’s a mish-mash. They got rid of a lot of the problems of—you know, you go down toPinellasCounty, and they’ve got 28 city governments with 28 mayors. Up here, we have the Beaches community, but we’ve have one government, fundamentally. The police functions, the fire functions, the water and sewer functions, the recreation functions, it’s all consolidated into one 841 square-mile area with one set of controls, and it’s just much more efficient.

SDH: That said, why is it that in the post-Consolidation years we haven’t really seen many people contending for statewide office from this part of the state?

EA: Well, I guess that’s cyclical. For a while there, we had President of the State Senate more than out share. We had Brantley and Jack Mathews; Fred Schultz was Speaker of the State House at about the same time as Mathews was President of the Senate. Jim King was President of the Senate. I suspect that if you check that, over a representative period of 30-40 years, you’ll see we get our fair share.

SDH: Burns was Governor, right?

EA: Yeah, Haydon Burns was our last governor from here. That was in the 1960s. [Burns was mayor 1949-65, followed by Lou Ritter, 1965-67.] We’ve had some run. Jack Mathews tried it, Hans tried it.

SDH: Have you ever had to get snappy with people, in the course of doing business?

EA: Oh sure. You have people who will try to get you to do the wrong thing; your friends will try to get you to do the wrong thing. The most difficult part of the job is saying no, but if you don’t say no to people who want you to violate your oath of taking care of people’s affairs, you’ve failed. You’ve got to be able to stand up, even to your friends, and say “This is not the way we do it; we’re going to do it in the way that’s the best interests of the public.” You stay that course, and they understand.

SDH: I sometimes wonder how discipline issues work out in a city, like this, where it seems like everyone knows each other—

EA: I think you get a better government, on the whole. I think the further you get away from home, you get more of the good ol’ politicking and the favoritism. I think you get better hands-on decision-making at the local level. I think it’s better than at the state level, and light-years better than at the national level, because at the national level they’re elected to represent the whole country. It’s not healthy, the way we run the Congress, with everyone fighting over one little piece instead of looking at the best interests of the whole country. I don’t know why they can’t get that, but they don’t seem to get it.

SDH: It seems like a whole different political culture now.

EA: Oh yeah, and it’s not good for the country. But at the city level, you’re running a municipal corporation. It’s really more like running a business. It’s not a business, it’s a government, but the municipal corporation is really doing a lot of the services—water/sewer, roads, parks and playgrounds. You take some tax money and you get the best of those things that you can give them for that tax money. Now, there’s not much excuse for being politicized all the time. The closer you are to down here, the less you are being politicized—not that it’s free of politics, obviously not.

SDH: We’ve had certain situations in recent years, which I won’t get into, that raise the question of, What is the proper role of local government, or state government, in regard to the federal government? How much should ordinary citizens expect of government?

EA: The balance between the states and the power of the federal government has been an amazing concern since our Founding Fathers put it all together. That’s Madison and Jefferson and Newt Gingrich and Harry Reid. It’s an ever-running thing that stays under reassessment. The Supreme Court is taking some cases recently about that balance, when the federal government starts doing things that are normally left to the states.

I don’t think that’s a real problem at the municipal level. We have some revenue-sharing, which is helpful, from the state down to the city, but I never saw any problems in the relationship of the city to the state. We sometimes think they should take care of an area they want us to take care of, but it isn’t a big problem.

The fight, the political science things is how much the federal people do in relation to how much the state government can do—I’ll just use abortion as an example, where it used to be that the states controlled that, and then the Supreme Court handed down Roe v. Wade, and that’s a running debate, who should have those powers. That’s philosophical and way up there—it’s more than philosophical, it’s election stuff.

SDH: There will probably be more openings soon, unfortunately.

EA: Well, I don’t know who’ll gets it, but obviously when they start to get 85 or so, I know about that. I know about age!

SDH: How old are you?

EA: Almost 80. I’ll be 80 in July. If you don’t fight it, it’s not a problem. My senior status has been a joy. I am not going to fight it. I work out at the YMCA either inRiverside, or down in Ponte Vedra, wherever I happen to be. My wife has a place out inNeptuneBeach, and I kept my condo, so we live in-town some and out at the beach some. I work out 20 times a month-plus, to keep myself in fairly good shape.

SDH: What’s your regimen like?

EA: I’ll walk one day for about 45 minutes—warm up, walk for about 30 minutes at the pace I want, cool down. The next day I do about 18 of those machines, Cybex equipment, with light weights and high repetitions. I do it every other day—I don’t do the same thing every day, it makes you decay. You have to take a day off every once in a while, to let your body heal, rest. You can’t be a fanatic about it. You have to be sensible.

SDH: What’s your diet like?

EA: I enjoy good food. My wife and I eat out a lot. My routine at breakfast is I just do the same thing almost every morning, pick up lunch. I had a melon and a muffin this morning; that’s about five days a week with me.

SDH: When important people are in town, where do you take them? Do you have a favorite restaurant?

EA: Oh yes, there are some very good restaurants. There’s a place out at the beach called Medure’s; we like Giovanni’s,Sterling’s out in Avondale. I remember 30 years ago, when you couldn’t find a good restaurant in Jacksonville, but now we’ve got two Ruth’s Chris, which I like very much.

SDH: What is the first thing a visitor or a new resident should know aboutJacksonville?

EA: Well, if they’re a family, [just] to put their children in quality schools. To make sure their kids are getting a quality education, however they have to do it. Parents have got to fight that system. That’s always the first thing. Then, I it’s just a question of learning where the action is—how the government functions, the different departments.

SDH: Okay, word association: Charlie Bennett?

EA: Integrity.

SDH: John Delaney?

EA: Effective. Capable. Compassionate. Of course, I knew John better than I knew Charlie Bennett. John worked with me as prosecutors for ten years before we worked together as mayors. I had him right out of law school; he’s an outstanding man. He’s a great President, out there at UNF [University of NorthFlorida].

SDH: Have you been out there since he’s been president?

EA: Oh yeah. I went out and had lunch with John last week. He’s doing a great job, and he’ll grow that university, do some of that “upgrading” we talked about earlier.

SDH: Do you guys still talk about political stuff, or is it more “gentlemen talk”?

EA: Not really a whole lot. You know, you second-guess other people—it’s fun. They’re friends—you don’t do anything about it, you just talk about it. But I’m watching one or two coming along. I’ll still have them out to my condo, do some things with the people I like when they run. I’m still involved, some. You know, a lot of senior citizens vote. I have some breakfast groups that I go to, and sometimes politicians will stop in, so you stay abreast of it. You complain some—everybody does it, but we don’t beat anybody up—not bad.

SDH: What should Jacksonville look for as it moves ahead in the next few years, next few decades? What’s the step?

EA: I think we’re poised. I think we’re situated very, very well, with the way Delaney dedicated resources to transportation, the river, good airport, beaches. What we have to do is manage it so that it will grow in a way that enhances our quality of life, rather than making it miserable because it’s too thickly populated. I think to grow soundly, which we are doing—I don’t think there’s any city poised to grow better than we are. And that consolidated government is a big piece of it. In a light wind, I could pass an ordinance in an afternoon if I needed to.

I think the piece that we need to work on is education—keep on trying to upgrade to get graduate schools so we can get research in here, teaching and training. You need to work the sciences, the math, and you have to have the research engines to attract the right kind of businesses and the right kind of industry. I’d say that the education piece, taking care of the workforce and upgrading the workforce, is the most critical piece of an otherwise fantastic thing, a desirable place to build and grow in.

You’ve got enough there to write a book.

SDH: I know—maybe I will, as an educational tool.

EA: Well, we can get into it. Old geezers like me can give you a lot of history. Even if we didn’t do much, we can tell you what happened. You know, the reason we passed Consolidation is we had such a corrupt government. We had so many public officials indicted that people got into the frame of mind to throw everybody out, in the form of a new government. It really helped pass it; I think it would have passed anyway, but that was a big piece. It really got corrupt in the 1950s and ‘60s.

SDH: What factors made that corruption happen?

EA: It was out of control. It was a machine-political thing. The same people kept getting reelected, and they knew that they’d get reelected. You had the core city, which was one government, the county was another government, and they stayed in power. You know that story: absolute power corrupts absolutely, and they got corrupt, and we prosecuted them. I didn’t indict them; I inherited most of these cases.

SDH: In your travels, do you ever see things that remind you of here?

EA: Yeah. You look at a city differently when you’ve been a mayor. You assess it, you size it up when you go into it. You wonder what their problems are; sometimes you can tell. I think you can tell a lot by how they maintain public buildings, how they maintain the waters and stuff. You can almost tell how a city feels about itself by how its public sector assets are maintained.

SDH: What advice would you give to future mayors?

EA: I think you have to look at what you have. You have to assess what you’ve got, and then make a decision on where you want to take it in the time you have. “Where do you think the people want it to go,” might be a better way to say it. And then you have to select some goals to get it there. You can’t be all over the place; you can’t do all things at all times. You pick the things that you really want to work on, and you concentrate on them to make it happen. The key to all of that is persistence: when you see what you really need in your city, you just stay with it and get it done, even though it’s sometimes difficult, sometimes even unpleasant. But if you know that’s where you need to go, you stay with it. Always try to do it for the right reasons—you always know what’s right. It might be a close call, but you always know what’s right.

[Note: Ed Austin died on April 23, 2011.]

sheltonhull@gmail.com

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