A Fresh Start: The Election That Changed Everything
The following story first appeared in the July 2010 print edition of the Jacksonville Observer Monthly, available at over 100 locations in Duval, Clay, Baker, Nassau and St. Johns Counties. You can view a copy of the original PDF online.
The print edition also includes photographs from the campaign archvies and the full text of John Delaney's campaign kick-off speech.
Hidden among boxes containing children's trophies, old books and magazines and bound reports representing thousands of interviews, there is one plain brown box. A moment of our city's political history is contained within its cardboard walls. It is a record of the thoughts of many and the vision of "a Fresh Start” for Jacksonville.
There are pristine political buttons emblazoned with the words "A Fresh Start - Delaney For Mayor." A red sun rises behind the blue Delaney.
This box belongs to pollster John Libby of American Public Dialogue. At the time of the 1995 mayoral race, the firm was called populus.
Bruce Barcelo, Michelle Jones, John Libby and Joe Schmidt were populus and they and Republican Party Chairman Don Brewer were on a mission.
Their goal was to find someone who had the skills and talents to be Mayor and actually get them elected.
That man turned out to be John Delaney.
The campaign’s mantra was "past bad, future good, raise more money."
The campaign’s team represented much of the Who's Who of Jacksonville political leadership, both then and now.
In addition to the populus team, Michael Munz, Michael Hightower and Rick Mullaney were there. Toni Crawford, Tom and Betty Petway and Walter McCray played significant roles. Susie Wiles would join Team Delaney as would Tom Nolan who designed the logo and direct mail. The list of names goes on and on.
“The theme of the campaign was ‘Past Bad, Future Good’ and we had four months and $1.2 million to spread that message,” recalls Barcello.
"Without the efforts of each and every individual involved it would not have happened,” said Libby. “Without a little luck, a good, then great candidate and so many pieces working in concert it would not have happened. We knew all along it would be close. We had faith we would win, but we also were acutely aware the margin would be no more than two percent."
They were right about the margin. The plain brown box contains all of the polling data from the campaign. A statistical record of the campaign updated daily. Barcelo referred to it at the time as "radar sweeping over Jacksonville every 24 hours."
The numbers are complex. Broken down geographically, and by race, age, gender and party affiliation. They offer a detailed picture of just how this monumentally successful insurgent candidacy unfolded, taking John Delaney from an asterisk to the mayor’s office in about six months.
Delaney, the city’s General Counsel under mayor Ed Austin, made his campaign official on January 17, 1995. As the lone serious Republican candidate in the race, Delaney had behind him the full weight of a party still giddy from sweeping national victories. The “Republican Revolution” was in full swing and it was about to come to Jacksonville.
“John Delaney has a lot of ground to make up,” wrote columnist Dave Roman on January 18 in the Times-Union, the day after Delaney took the plunge.
He wasn’t kidding.
A public poll conducted by the newspaper and Channel 4 showed former mayor Tommy Hazouri holding a 26%-24% lead over former mayor Jake Godbold in January. Councilman Harry Reagan had 8% and John Delaney, in fourth place, commanded only 3% of the vote.
The margin of error in that poll was plus or minus 4.5%.
The campaign’s internal numbers weren’t much better, but they did show that voters were tired of the status quo. They were looking for alternative, but many of them just didn’t know enough about this Delaney guy to form an opinion.
That was about to change as the campaign would swing into high gear, raising money and bombarding voters with direct mail and television advertisements.
Looking through all this memorabilia and these historic documents, it’s very hard not to grow nostalgic.
In 1995 Jacksonville was on the brink of a very special decade. Our city was about to launch into a period of unrivaled growth and prosperity. That “smell” was finally gone. The Jaguars were about to kick-off their inaugural season. Everyone was looking to the future and looking for a new mayor that could deliver on all this promise.
“Jacksonville was coming out of a soft recession, but the River City Renaissance was coming out of the ground. We had been awarded an NFL franchise and the public mood was that we had come through some hard times, but things were looking up,” said Barcello.
That improving public sentiment is where the campaign‘s central theme of ‘Past Bad, Future Good’ would come from. The people of Jacksonville were hungry for an optimistic vision of the future and with that message, the nascent Delaney campaign had struck gold. It would all play perfectly into the fact that Delaney’s top rivals were a pair of former mayors, Jake Godbold and Tommy Hazouri.
The campaign was headquartered in an abandoned Southbank hotel, which also served as the base of operations for the Duval GOP at the time.
“We had free run of the entire hotel,” Libby remembers. “We even had a secret break room on the third floor -- we called it the populus room.”
The campaign would throw big parties for young professionals. This was, of course, in the days before Facebook and cell phones with cameras.
“It was a grand and glorious time,” said Libby.
As in all municipal elections, the mayor’s office was not the only race on the ballot. Jacksonville was electing a new city council, sheriff and voting on numerous other positions.
The sheriff’s race featured Republican Joe Stelma and Democrats W.C. Brown and Nat Glover. A January poll had Glover a distant third in the race, but most of the voters were still undecided.
While Brown and Stelma sniped at each other, the Glover campaign began to take off like a rocket, fueled in part by Glover’s own performance in a televised debate.
With two weeks left before the election, GOP Chairman Don Brewer was forced to make the decision to pull resources away from the flagging Stelma campaign and redirect everything into electing Delaney. Up until that point the Duval Republican Party had been splitting resources between the two camps.
It was a pivotal decision.
“We had a limited number of phones,” Libby notes.
In the end, Nat Glover was elected Sheriff with 51% of the vote in the first election.
Not having Glover on the ballot to drive up African-American turnout in the general election would be helpful to Delaney.
As the Delaney camp plugged away with their message of ‘Past Bad, Future Good’ the voters would begin to respond in a big way.
“Every time we ran a new ad or dropped a new mail piece, you could actually see the impact in our polling,” said Libby.
Throughout the month of March, Delaney and Hazouri were locked in a battle for second place. The internal tracking polls show daily swings of a percentage point or two, but neither candidate seemed to be able to break away. Voters began to get engaged at the start of April and in the ten days that followed support for Hazouri began to melt away in favor of Delaney, Godbold and a late surge by Councilman Harry Reagan who saw his limited support more than double during the final week.
On election night it was as the polling predicted, Godbold and Delaney finished within 600 votes of each other: 55,902 for Godbold, 55,361 for Delaney. Tommy Hazouri was a distant third with 38,289 votes or about 22%, followed by Reagan with 18,235 or 11%.
“Delaney comes with a strong Republican backing, Jake has a strong core of followers who still believe in him. I was kind of caught in the middle,” Hazouri remarked shortly after the election.
“Going into the runoff, despite having finished second, we were very confident we were going to win,” said Libby.
A scramble for endorsements soon followed.
First Hazouri and then Reagan would break with their own party to back Delaney. Hazouri’s endorsement came within days of the election, an exclamation point on the bad blood that existed between the former mayors.
“I could be silent,” Hazouri told a crowd gathered at Delaney headquarters. “I could endorse another candidate. But neither course of action would do honor to my dream for Jacksonville. John Delaney offers a fresh start for Jacksonville. A fresh start that I strongly, strongly endorse today.”
Regan waited until early May to fire his shot.
“I think people can make up their own mind who to vote for, but I’m telling them who I’m voting for,” Reagan told the Times-Union. “It was a difficult stretch for me to imagine endorsing Jake in light of my concerns about his past administration.”
Goldbold had help from then Governor Lawton Chiles, who had successfully fended off a challenge from Republican Jeb Bush months earlier.
“I understand Cracker,” the governor said while stumping for Godbold. “He speaks it and speaks it with the right accent.”
Both candidates attempted to make inroads into each other’s base of support. The Delaney campaign spent in excess of a hundred thousand dollars to specifically court African-American voters with very little success.
“There were precincts where we got no votes or one vote,” said Libby. “They were solidly behind Godbold.”
Likewise, Godbold made a not particularly successful move for Beaches support late in the race.
All of the tension, the long hours and the back-breaking work finally came to a head on election night, the evening of May 9, 1995.
The Delaney team held their victory party in the same abandoned Southbank hotel that had been their campaign headquarters. The earliest returns trickled in and to a casual observer the numbers didn’t look good for John Delaney.
“We were getting smoked,” said Libby. “But our votes were coming from further away and they had to be driven downtown.”
“By 8:15pm Goldbold had a 25,000 vote lead,” Libby recalls. “Within an hour that would shrink to 8,000 votes. Sometime before 10pm the lead shifted and Delaney was up by 120 votes.”
When the dust had settled, Delaney would defeat Godbold by 2%, just as the pollsters had predicted.
Jacksonville had gotten a fresh start, and Delaney would sail into a second term without opposition in 1999, before leading the successful charge for his Better Jacksonville Plan the following year.
“When Delaney left office, the right-wrong direction polling was the highest I’ve ever seen it,” said Libby. More than 80% of Jacksonville citizens felt the city was on the correct path in 2003, when Mayor Peyton first took office.
As we now sit on the verge of another mayoral campaign, the climate is very different from 1995 or even 2003. Falling home values and rising property tax rates, corruption and ethical issues in city government, and the constant threat of the Jaguars relocating to another city dominate the headlines. Many unemployed workers are searching for their own fresh start, and finding little to be hopeful about.
“Peyton has delivered pretty much the kind of administration he said he would. He has not been lured to distraction by grandiosity,” said Barcelo when asked to grade the current mayor’s job performance. “It’s almost impossible to become mayor of Jacksonville without having some loopy ideas. We have an elevated choo-choo train downtown for goodness sakes. To his credit, John Peyton has largely avoided that kind of stuff.”
“I would argue that this administration has done a good job of catching the city up on some of its promises, such as cleaning up the St. Johns River, building the courthouse, ash sites, storm water and pensions,” added Barcelo. “He’s accomplished a lot of things that will never have his name on them, but are good for the city. Selfless service like that is uncommon.”
Do voters want another John Peyton or another John Delaney? A candidate with grand visions or one with a pragmatic approach to governing?
“Our local electorate today shows signs of being more mature in judgment and self-aware. They are frightened -- economically and politically. They are looking for caution and determination,” said Barcelo
The Delaney team is now scattered across a handful of mayoral campaigns. Barcelo recent took on the Jim Bailey campaign, Libby is consulting for Mike Hogan, and Delaney campaign manager Michael Munz is on board with Audrey Moran. Susie Wiles is serving dual-roles as manager of Rick Mullaney’s mayoral campaign and running Rick Scott’s gubernatorial bid.
As to the notion of another insurgent candidate like John Delaney breaking through, thoughts are mixed.
“Anything is possible, but do I think it’s likely? No, not really,” says John Libby.
Barcelo is more open to the idea.
“All of the candidates will think they’re the insurgent,” he notes. “Fifteen years ago it cost a certain amount to run for city office, but we didn’t have the kind of tools then that we have now. There are many ways, electronically, virally, socially that a candidate can achieve viability without spending money.”
Delaney, for his part, says he’s happy in his current role as President of the University of North Florida. He doesn’t plan to retire from that post for another eight to ten years, but doesn’t rule out a return to politics at some point down the line.
“I’ll be in my early 60s – maybe getting back into politics a little bit,” Delaney told The Daily Record earlier this year. “My field of vision is much smaller. Washington is pretty much off my list. I can’t see running for mayor again because that’s a particularly hard job that you don’t need to do twice. Maybe something in Tallahassee.”
SEE PHOTOS, ORIGINAL CAMPAIGN MATERIAL AND THE FULL TEXT OF JOHN DELANEY'S 1995 KICK-OFF SPEECH IN OUR JULY PRINT EDITION, CLICK HERE TO VIEW A PDF!