“Red” Jacksonville, Florida Flips “Blue”—Congratulations Mayor-Elect Donna Deegan! May 21, 2023
We’ve heard this story repeated far too many times. Lots of major media outlets and pundits keep harping about how anemic President Biden’s poll ratings are and what a weak leader he is (NOT). They argue he will be an anchor around the neck of his fellow Democrats. Well, look at what happened in Jacksonville, Florida. On May 16, 2023, Democrat Donna Deegan won the race to succeed term-limited GOP Mayor Lenny Curry. Deegan’s runoff victory is a stunning upset for “Team Blue.” Deegan has become the first woman to win the mayoralty in Jacksonville. In 2023, Jacksonville is FL’s most populous city with a population of 962, 970 (worldpopulationreview.com). Deegan defeated Jacksonville GOPer Chamber of Commerce CEO and a former member of the FL House of Representatives Daniel Davis. Deegan captured nearly 52% of the vote to Davis’ 48%, despite being outspent four-to-one by Davis (jaxtrib.org, Pantazi, 5/16/23, dailykos.com, Singer, 5/16/23, kos, 5/17/23, Dunkelberger, L., Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 4/02/13). With her election win, Deegan has become only the second Democrat to win a mayor’s race in Jacksonville in three decades. Turnout in this race was 33%, higher than the primary turnout of just over 25% and Democrats finished early voting with over a 4-point lead. Again, when there is an increased turnout, Democrats often win. In her victory speech, Deegan called her triumph “a brand new day in Jacksonville (Holthaus & Bauerlein, Florida Times-Union, 5/16/23).” Let’s look at Donna Deegan and the city of Jacksonville that she will lead when she takes office in July (jaxtrib.org, 5/16/23, Pantazi).
Donna Hazouri Deegan (62) was raised on Jacksonville’s southside. She is Lebanese-Syrian Catholic and graduated from Bishop Kenny High School in 1979. She is the cousin of former Jacksonville mayor Tommy Hazouri. She received a 1984 BA degree in communications from Florida State University (firstcoastnews.com Deegan Bio). Before entering politics, Deegan had a career as a television anchor (Pantazi, jaxtrib.org, 5/16/23). She started her career in 1984 as the morning anchor for WTXL-TV in Tallahassee. In 1985, she became the West Palm Bureau Chief for WTVX in Fort Pierce and then morning and noon anchor for West Palm Beach’s WPEC where she stayed until 8/1988. She returned to her native Jacksonville and in 1993 became the anchor of WLTV’s 5:30 and 11 p.m. newscasts (firstcoastnews.com Deegan Bio).
Besides being known for her TV anchor work, people are acquainted with Deegan’s health battle against cancer. She is a three-time breast cancer survivor. She fought that disease in 1999 and beat recurrences in 2002 and 2007. In 2007, the cancer recurred in her left lung, but Deegan fought it off with surgery and chemo. Deegan founded The Donna Foundation which provides the necessary funds to care for local women living with breast cancer (firstcoastnews.com. Deegan Bio, & firstcoastnews.com/news/topstories/news-article). On 6/22/06, the Mayo Clinic and The Donna Foundation announced the inaugural run of the 26.2 with Donna: The National Marathon to Fight Breast Cancer. On 2/17/08, the inaugural marathon run took place and over 7,000 runners showed up. Deegan and her husband participated in this race and over $800,000 was raised to benefit the Mayo Clinic and women living with breast cancer (wiki).
In 2019, Deegan entered politics. She declared her campaign for FL’s 4th Congressional District (CD). She ran as a Democrat against incumbent GOP Cong. John Rutherford. In the 2020 race, she lost to Rutherford in this very “Red” Jacksonville area (Cook Partisan Voting Index R+14). However, she earned a strong 38.9% of the vote in this normally-leaning GOP region. Deegan emphasized healthcare, climate change, and gun violence (11/03/2020 results.elections.myflorida.com).
On 3/21/2023, Deegan ran in a multi-person primary for Jacksonville mayor that included members of all political parties. Democrat Deegan took 39% of the vote to Davis’ 25%, though all the other GOPers combined for a slight majority of the vote. Since no candidate took more than 50% of the vote in the first round in March, the runoff was held on 5/16/2023 (See cnn.com, Shelton, 5/16/23).
GOP rival Daniel Davis received the endorsements of termed-out Republican Jacksonville Mayor Curry, GOP Cong. Rutherford, GOP Sen. Rick Scott, and FL GOP Gov. Ron “I hate Disney” DeSantis. Deegan received support from FL Dem. Chair Nikki Fried but relied primarily on local bipartisan endorsements. These included support from current council members Matt Carlucci, Randy DeFoor, as well as local activists and pastors (jacksonville.com, Holthaus, 5/16/23). GOPer Davis, with his background as a former City Council member and state legislator, had been preparing for this mayoral race for eight years, while Curry was in City Hall. Davis ran his campaign by reaching voters through mailers, text messages, and advertisements. By the end of 4/2023, Davis had raised a record-breaking $8.4 million compared to Deegan’s $2.1 million (Pantazi, 5/16/23, jaxtribune.com).
In the runoff campaign, the county GOP attacked Deegan for saying she had attended Black Lives Matter protests following the death of George Floyd in 2020 and suggested that Deegan wanted to defund the police. Davis approved this ad. Deegan responded by accusing GOPers of using the “same old playbook.” Deegan stated, “I believe that two things can be true,” she said on a Twitter video. “While I do believe police have a very dangerous job, and I believe that we need more officers on the streets and will fund those, I also believe that Black mamas shouldn’t have to worry every time their kids step out of the house (cnn.com, Shelton, 5/16/23).” IMHO, Democrats, should neutralize GOP demagogic “law and order/defund the police” attacks the way Deegan did. Deegan campaigned on improving city infrastructure and for increased access to health care. She also portrayed herself as someone who could bring change, all of these strong Democratic issues (See cnn.com Shelton, 5/16/23). Mr. Trump wannabe and soon presidential candidate (cnn.com, 5/18/23) Gov. Ron DeSantis played the “law and order” card strongly for Davis. DeSantis called Davis the “proven law and order conservative Jacksonville needs to tackle the city’s greatest challenges and seize its biggest opportunities (cnn.com, Shelton, 5/16/23).” DeSantis, folks, is no political “Mr. Invincible.” Democrats 1 v. DeSantis 0 in his own “Red” State backyard. DeSantis also backed a GOP primary candidate for the Governor of KY who finished in third place with just 17% of the vote (nytimes.com, Nehamas & Goldmacher, 5/16/23). Ron DeSantis, “Mr. Real Winner” (LOL).
Deegan’s victory was a much needed “shot-in-the-arm” for Democrats in “Red”-trending FL, and the city of Jacksonville. Deegan’s win ends Jacksonville’s position as the largest city in America having a GOP mayor. That dubious title now goes to Fort Worth, TX, where GOPer Mattie Price easily won a second term earlier this month (star-telegram.com/news/politics). In 1968, Jacksonville was consolidated with the rest of FL’s Duval County. For decades, Jacksonville was a conservative stronghold in both state and local FL politics. Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory started a GOP winning streak here that would continue through most of the 21st Century. Democrats didn’t even put up a candidate to oppose GOP Mayor Curry when he ran for a second term (Jacksonville.com/story/news/politics, ourcampaigns.com, dailykos.com). In 2018, former U.S. Dem. Senator Bill Nelson and Dem. gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum carried Jacksonville while losing FL narrowly. However, in 2022, GOPers Gov. DeSantis and Sen. Marco Rubio carried Duval County by wide margins (dailykosc.com, Singer, Elections, 5/16/23). Although the 2018 Jacksonville/Duval County results indicate that there may be some political swing in this region, this area is far from a “Blue” one and Democrats will have to work hard to change its normally “Red” color. GOPer T.K. Waters won reelection this year with no opposition as sheriff, which also puts him in charge of the city’s police (jaxsheriff.org). “Team Red,” additionally, has a strong majority on Jacksonville’s 19-member City Council (Singer, dailykos.com). However, Jacksonville’s mayor has extraordinary power that surpasses many other cities’ mayors because of its consolidated government arrangement with Duval County. One of the most important tasks for the new Jacksonville mayor will be appointing a general counsel who can issue binding opinions over many levels of government, including the Duval County school district (Pantazi, jaxtrib.org, 5/16/23). Hopefully, Democrat Deegan will appoint a strong pro-educational leader in this area.
In her post-election speech, Deegan stated it “felt amazing” to serve as the city’s first female mayor, but she especially loved having campaigned with “a vision that is positive.” Deegan added, “To me, it’s the fact that not only do I get to make history, but that I get to turn the page on what has really been a very fear filled time. I just can’t tell you how grateful I am (Florida Times-Union, Holthaus & Bauerlein, 5/16/23).” Deegan added that on day one, she wanted to increase “the transparency in the mayor’s office,” a campaign promise she had made from the start. Deegan stated that she wanted to keep Jacksonville from engaging in a “tug of war.” She declared, “I think we have shown that we simply have to be willing to say it’s not about the R or the D, it’s about working together for our city (Florida Times-Union, 5/16/23).” Yes, Democratic mayor-elect Deegan will face many challenges, but she will be ready and able to handle them. Again, congratulations, Jacksonville mayor-elect Deegan!