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Lou Ritter

His legacy as mayor continues today

Glenn Tschimpke

It’s been so many years since Lou Ritter was in office that he’s become one of those mythical political figures of the past. A faceless name on a plaque. A random quote in a political newspaper story. A bullet item in Jacksonville’s continuum of leadership. Ritter’s legacy as Jacksonville’s mayor is fading fast in the minds of those who were here to witness it and barely flickering for the thirtysomethings who weren’t even born when he left the mayor’s office in 1967.

Ritter puts the passage of time into perspective by pointing to the current sheriff.

“Nat Glover. I appointed him patrolman when I was mayor,” he said. “In 1965, we had a segregated police department. A black officer could not arrest a white person. When the black officers were recruited, they had their own precinct over on the west side of LaVilla and were given passed down uniforms.”

Thirty years later, Glover was elected sheriff, signaling monumental strides in Jacksonville’s race relations. Nearly 40 years later, Ritter is still meshed in Florida’s political fabric long after his short time as mayor. He’s been an active lobbyist for the funeral directors for the last 27 years, a representative of the dry cleaning industry for the last 10 and score of others over the years. At 76, he keeps a professional pace with politicos decades younger, although a heart attack and quadruple bypass surgery two years ago compelled him to drop a couple clients. He insists he was going to drop them anyway.

Locals like to call Ritter’s era B.C. — Before Consolidation. The joining of government services between Jacksonville and Duval County is a watershed moment in local history, eliminating duplicate taxes and services. Not that it was that long ago, but few people can accurately point to when Jacksonville B.C. metamorphosed into Mayor Hans Tanzler’s Bold New City of the South. It’s become a nebulous time for many — late 1960s to early 1970s. For the record, voters approved the change in 1967. Consolidation Day was Oct. 1, 1968.

Ritter was the last mayor in Jacksonville’s old system of government, appointed to office in 1964 when Haydon Burns was elected governor. The Democrats, Ritter included, still ruled in Northeast Florida over Republicans and other parties. The City Council nominated him mayor and the County Commission concurred. In hindsight, Ritter’s appointment was no surprise. He was something of a political wunderkind in his youth. After serving in World War II and graduating from the University of Florida in 1950, he ran for City Council and was elected the following year. He was 23.

Sixteen years later, he narrowly lost the mayoral election to Hans Tanzler. Self-admittedly, he reasons that some of his political decisions may have cost him future votes, like integrating the sheriff’s office at a time when race relations were deplorable. Call him brave, foolish or ahead of his time, but Ritter is proud of his ideas that went against the grain of conformity. Nevertheless, Ritter never sought political office again after 1967, Yet, with over half a century’s worth of political savvy, Ritter is still full of unorthodox ideas.

Example One: Strip away party labels for local races and require candidates to run nonpartisan.

“I advocated back in 1967, and even before that, that we should have a pure nonpartisan election for City or municipal officials,” said Ritter. “I had what I thought was sound reasoning for it. And it’s sounder today than what it was back 35 years ago.”

Currently, only Duval County School Board candidates and judges campaign on a nonpartisan ticket. Ritter wants to expand that to all local political offices. Despite his confidence in the plan, it has been as popular with the local political scene as his idea of getting rid of fund raising – but more on that later.

“I made presentations and advocated this [in the 1960s],” he explained. “When I knew I was right, I went to the old Mayflower Hotel where the Young Democrats would meet once a month. I was a guest speaker and I advocated nonpartisan elections. And they booed me. Then I went over to the George Washington Hotel. It was a little more upscale and they had pretty good parties for the Young Republican Club. I made the same presentation and they booed me.

“So both of the parties wanted to be identified. The Republican Party was then beginning to be rejuvenated.”

Ritter says that a nonpartisan election system would strip away the stereotypes and encourage voters to elect the candidates and not the parties. The best-qualified candidate may not choose to run as a Democrat or Republican, but many voters may never look past party labels. Plus, big money flows to either the Democratic or Republican parties ensuring that third-party candidates can be smothered by high-dollar television and print advertising.

In other words, third-party candidates almost always have no chance.

“You have to put ‘I’ if you’re Independent or ‘NP’ if you have no party preference,” he said. “Some people might think you’re a communist or something because you don’t want to be identified with a political party. It was almost heresay if you weren’t a Democrat in the 1930s or 1940s or 1950s.”

In some cases, the primary elections eliminate one popular candidate, which can leave a less than ideal scenario in the general election.

“To give you the best example, in the last mayor’s race [1995], you had former mayor Tommy Hazouri, who was a Democrat,” he said. “You had Jake Godbold, who was a Democrat. And you had Harry Reagan, who was a Democrat. They all put ‘D’ under their names. Then you had a gentleman in Mandarin who announced for mayor and you had John Delaney, both ‘Rs.’ When the gentleman from Mandarin dropped out, you had one Republican and three Democrats. The Republicans gathered up the great majority of Republican voters. The Democrats fought each other. Godbold narrowly defeated Hazouri. He got in a runoff with Delaney, who was not the highest one at that time. But that made it a pure R and D.”

Ritter said the time is right for Jacksonville to make the move to nonpartisan elections with the citywide election cycle coming up next year. But he also said another factor makes it high time for change.

“Sept. 11 brought this country closer together than it had been since World War II,” he said. “Crime knows no political parties. Your house burning doesn’t subscribe to a political party. The raw sewage in the river knows no party lines. So anything you do in your city, you shouldn’t be graced by what the national parties are doing. The only time we’ve sort of been together in what we’re doing is when Sept. 11 came around. I don’t know how much longer that’s going to hold.”

Ritter advocates a referendum for the November ballot initiated by the City Council.

“Get rid of the labels and elect the person — a man or a woman,” he said. “I think today we’d have a better government if you remove the labels and get down to a one-on-one. And keep the parties from funding a candidate. I think it would take away this fervent partisanship that we’re seeing.”

Example Two: Don’t let candidates open a campaign account until six months prior to the election.

“I’m totally shocked you could raise that much money,” said Ritter of mayoral candidate John Peyton’s half-million dollar haul in the last three months.

The fervent fund raising so far from the election causes concern for the former mayor. What happens when qualified but less financially connected person decides to run for office late in the game?

“What incentive would it be for some bright, 35-year-old guy who wants to run for mayor, but he already sees that [huge campaign accounts] staring him in the face?” he said. “There ought to be a window, whether it be the state legislature, the mayor’s race or the governor, that if you run, you open your account six months prior to the election. You can announce today, but you can’t take any contributions until six months before the primaries. That puts everybody on an even keel.”

Needless to say, Ritter’s ideas haven’t swept through City Hall, but he resolutely stands by them.

“If you put it on the ballot, I guarantee it would pass,” he said. “It’s getting the people to have the initiative. But I believe if the City Council had the fortitude to do it, the voters would approve it once they knew what it meant.”

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