When Lenny Curry walked into the Supervisor of Elections Office this morning and filed paperwork to run for Jacksonville mayor, it was a surprise to few.
His candidacy had been the worst-kept political secret for weeks, particularly since the very public declaration six weeks ago from rainmaker Peter Rummell. In one newspaper story, Rummell pummeled Mayor Alvin Brown, whom he helped get elected in 2011, then let it be known Curry was the guy for 2015.
That was in late April, long before today when Curry finally said publicly he wanted to be the guy.
Getting to today, the 43-year-old Curry explained last week, was a long process.
And not always an easy one.
For more than a year, Curry had been having two-pronged private discussions about how he thought he could beat Brown and how he would govern.
Rummell was one of the dozens of people from whom the former county and state Republican chair sought counsel and/or support.
There were talks with friends, confidants, political allies, fundraisers, former mayors, ex-senior City Hall staffers, his business partner, his parents and his three young children.
Some were immediately on his side, some had to be convinced. Others, as Curry would describe them, remain “naysayers.”
Ultimately, it was Molly, his wife of 10 years, who provided guidance at key moments.
First, by giving her approval to involve the family in a political race. Without that, Curry said, there would have been no campaign.
Then at two critical points along the way — one through a gentle compliment, the other a not-so-gentle push.
Why not me?
Curry said he was among those who wanted Brown to succeed when he was elected in 2011.
By the end of 2012 and early 2013, Curry said he was routinely hearing there were leadership troubles in City Hall. Brown had failed to take a public stance on the human rights ordinance, he had submitted a budget with multimillion-dollar gaps the council would have to fill and the pension problem was festering.
As his concerns about Brown mounted, Curry wondered if he should be the one to challenge the incumbent Democrat.
Curry had thought about seeking public office before but only, he said, for “a passing moment” and only for an executive office. The mayor’s office certainly makes that very short list, especially with the city’s strong mayoral form of government.
He had spent his political life behind the scenes, first as head of the Duval County Republican Party, then as chair of the state party. There were occasional TV appearances and stories in newspapers, but never had he been a candidate. Never had he been the main guy in the spotlight.
But, Curry said, he had the leadership background and he and his partner had built a successful business after working at one of the world’s largest accounting firms. Plus, he wanted the city he had lived in most of his life to be a place where his three children would want to stay.
Before Curry could seek support from his political allies, he knew there was one ally who could kill the deal with a simple “no.”
Protecting their children
When Lenny and Molly Curry sat down in early 2013 to discuss whether his candidacy could even be an option, there were several questions they needed to answer.
What impact would a campaign have on their family, especially their children, Boyd, 9; Brooke, 7; and Bridget, 5.
Could they protect them from what could be occasional political attacks on their father?
How involved should their children be in the campaign?
If Curry won and was re-elected, that would mean the formative years of their children, particularly their two oldest, would be spent as the children of the mayor. Were they comfortable with that?
The answers came relatively easy because of the importance the two place on public service.
Yes, they wanted their children to be a part of the campaign — partly, Curry said, so he could be with them — but not at the expense of what was important to them: sports, dance, their friends.
Molly Curry would be more protective of making sure they still enjoy a normal life, allowing them to be kids.
As for growing up the child of a mayor, Brooke was a classmate of former Mayor John Peyton’s youngest son, Kent. So to her, knowing the mayor’s son was not a big deal.
Plus, classmates who apparently heard their parents talking were already asking Boyd if his father was going to run for mayor.
Because the children are young, they weren’t likely to read or hear any criticism about their father since they don’t read the paper or watch television news. Except, Molly Curry joked, when her husband prodded them: “Because you show us every time you’re on TV.”
One of the questions the children had was whether Curry would be home more than he is now. “I’ll be in my bed every night,” Curry said.
And their special time of early in the morning would be preserved, he said.
With that, the youngest Currys were on board, especially the very competitive Brooke. “She wants to win,” Curry said.
Now that the Curry household was set, it was time for Curry to have discussions outside to help him reach a decision.
Seeking initial support
Among Curry’s first confidants was insurance executive Tom Petway, who can not only bring in a lot of money for a candidate but a lot of credibility, as well.
Curry said Petway had always been a supporter and the two had worked together on political issues before. Petway was supportive of his potential candidacy from the start of a series of discussions, Curry said. (Petway is in China and was unavailable to be interviewed for this story.)
Another early discussion came with Toni Crawford, a stalwart in the Republican Party, who had been Duval County chair for four years.
Crawford said Curry brought the idea up at a lunch where they were meeting about something else.
She said she was caught off guard when Curry asked her thoughts on him being a candidate for mayor. She had seen Curry grow and mature over the years. But her reaction wasn’t an immediate yes.
“I said, ‘Let me think about it,’” Crawford recalled.
She talked with other people and thought about who else might be out there as a viable candidate. Crawford then offered her support to Curry.
“Pretty much since then, I haven’t changed my thoughts about it,” she said.
She bats away the criticism that Curry doesn’t have government experience, pointing out how closely party chairs work with governing bodies. In fact, she says, Curry has more government experience at this point in the campaign than John Delaney did when he ran for a first term.
Most of her advice to Curry was about the mechanics of running a campaign: get a strong finance chairman, a good campaign manager and a “very strong grassroots advocate.”
Crawford said she also told Curry to stay focused on the issues. “This does not need to be a slam Alvin campaign,” she said. “ … All that does is cause dissension in the community. We don’t need that.”
Key words from his wife
By this time, it was fall of 2013.
Curry said Petway encouraged him to talk to more people. As he did, the overall feedback was good, Curry said, but there were several who told him that he couldn’t win. That Brown couldn’t be beat.
It was a little discouraging.
Then Molly Curry gave him that gentle compliment: “I wish people knew the Lenny that I know.”
That made something in him click, Curry said. “If Molly gives a compliment, it’s real.”
For her, it was real, Molly Curry said. “I knew if Lenny decided he wanted to do it, he could do it.”
So the talks continued, with Curry expanding the circle to discuss about the possibility of running.
Finally, in November 2013, Molly Curry had had enough of the same conversation over and over. She said she told her husband he’d gotten enough advice and he’d talked enough about whether he was going to do it.
Her not-so-gentle advice: “Stop talking about it and do it.”
Go sit down with people one-on-one as a candidate for mayor.
Those words from his wife, Curry said, are when things got serious.
Serious discussions with heavy hitters
There’s no question that a serious candidate for mayor feels he or she must talk with Delaney, now the president at the University of North Florida.
Curry said Delaney reiterated advice he had given him previously — the importance of turning things off and being present in the lives of his children. Sometimes that’s as simple as just being in the same room with them when they’re watching a movie.
He said the former mayor also stressed the importance of being serious about the issues and not just being a campaigner. Talk to people who have been there, learn about the independent authorities, brush up on interlocal agreements, know the sources of revenue.
Since then, Curry said he has spent hours being educated by former senior level employees in previous administrations.
Curry’s meetings with Rummell obviously brought an avid supporter, but that came after a series of conversations. After their first meeting, Curry recalled that much like his father did in his retail business, he was trying to close the deal for Rummell’s support.
When he asked Rummell if he would support him, the answer wasn’t yes. It was, Curry said, “Something to the effect that, ‘This was a positive meeting.’”
After a series of meetings, Rummell decided Curry was the candidate he would support in 2015. In an interview in late April, Rummell said he thinks Curry will “lead by example and I think he will be brave.”
He said he wants to help Curry’s campaign in whatever capacity he’s needed. “I have no need for any official role or title or anything,” he said.
“If I can help, I’m a resource that’s there,” Rummell added.
Another resource for Curry is Gary Chartrand, a Jacksonville philanthropist and education advocate who has known Curry for years and was happy to hear his plans to run for mayor.
He liked that Curry had been a businessman first before becoming a candidate. “I have sort of this pet peeve for lifetime politicians,” he said.
Chartrand’s advice to Curry included doing a really good self-evaluation and surrounding himself with the smartest people he could find, especially in areas that may not be his strong suit.
He talked about what a mayor could do to help education in the city without stepping on the toes of the superintendent and the school board, such as focusing on early learning development.
One final piece of advice: “Do everything you can do to win except for giving up your principles.”
Now in the spotlight
To prepare for the campaign, Curry is stepping away from ICX Group, the firm he built with Todd Froats, a former colleague at PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Froats said long before Curry told him he was considering a campaign, he actually asked his partner, “Why don’t you run?”
After Curry filed the paperwork this morning, he walked out of the office into a barrage of television cameras and reporters. He was peppered with questions about pension and leadership.
He was clearly now the guy in the spotlight.