Workspace: Michael Munz has spent a career developing campaigns and communities
In many ways, Michael Munz is a developer.
He has a hand in shaping some key upcoming Downtown projects — The District and LaVilla — but “developer” goes beyond the bricks-and-mortar definition.
He may be better known for developing people, specifically in the world of politics.
Munz caught the political bug early, volunteering for his first campaign at age 16. It was for Republican Gerald Ford’s presidential bid and the teenage Munz waved signs, made calls, stuffed mail.
“Whatever they’d let me do,” he said.
Now 53, Munz has had a slightly bigger role in the political process.
It’s a role that’s shifted over his career, from a rigid partisan campaigner to more of a tranquil policy pusher at City Hall and back to a behind-the-scenes setup man.
Mix in his dedication to personal causes along with the desire to see Downtown revitalized and it’s quite a range of priorities he’s developed for himself.
Growing up in politics
Munz said he doesn’t know why he was so drawn to politics, news and current events, even at an early age.
Later in his life, he found out his grandmother was heavily involved in Missouri state politics. Maybe it’s in his DNA and he just didn’t know, he said.
He left what’s now Florida State College at Jacksonville early to work on the campaign of state Rep. Joe Arnall. He intended to go back one day to finish school. However, one campaign led to the next, which led to the next and before he knew it, his life was helping Republicans get and stay elected.
The most rewarding part, he said, is getting good people elected who keep the promises they make.
One of those people he holds in high esteem is Tillie Fowler, the Republican congresswoman from whom he served as press secretary in 1992 and 1993. Munz said one of her promises was to take a leading role in the House Armed Services Committee. As a freshman, he said, it was “huge” when she was appointed to the role and gave a voice to the Northeast Florida.
He returned to his home state and the Republican Party of Florida in 1993, where he worked with his mentor, state party Chair Tom Slade. He learned a lot from Slade, he said, including when to hold your tongue — something Slade often let slip with a colorful public quote or two in moments of political passion.
“At some point, you’ve got to realize pulling back matters,” said Munz, with a grin. “He didn’t always have the best filter.”
The goal then was to get Jeb Bush elected governor in 1994 against incumbent Lawton Chiles. It was a close race. It was Munz’s toughest loss, a history-changing loss in his estimation.
Munz believes if Bush had won, he would have been the one to go on as the Republican presidential candidate in 2000. Instead, it was his brother, George W. Bush, who had won the governorship of Texas that same election cycle.
Eager to move on to the next battle, Munz was all for going back to Washington, D.C., to help U.S. Sen. Bob Dole in his mounting challenge against President Bill Clinton.
However, Slade had a better idea.
There was a Republican assistant state attorney about to make a run for mayor of Jacksonville in 1995. He could use some help. Munz came back to his hometown and hasn’t left.
A slight transition
Munz helped spearhead John Delaney’s campaign for mayor in that 1995 election against two well-known Jacksonville quantities: Former Mayors Jake Godbold and Tommy Hazouri, both Democrats.
Munz laughs about that first meeting with Delaney. He looked so young, “like he was 12.”
However, Delaney had that rare passion, he said, and it was off to the races with a “fresh start” slogan Slade had created.
“It was perfect,” Munz said of the slogan, drawing out the word “perfect.”
Delaney won the race and Munz shifted course, too.
He went from the campaign trail to City Hall, where he served as Delaney’s chief of policy and special initiatives. There were plenty of issues Munz helped address — the Jacksonville Children’s Commission, Homeless Coalition, Public Service Grants and others that weren’t Republican or Democrat at all.
They were just people issues.
He was exposed to the Sulzbacher Center and ended up serving eight years on the board, chairing two, and established the popular Transformations program that highlights people who overcome homelessness.
Munz left the city in 2000 and joined the Dalton Agency, where he is today serving as the president of public relations.
It’s a role where he is involved in political campaigns and support but with an admittedly less partisan view. He credits that to age and experience over his younger years.
As deflating as that loss with Jeb Bush was in 1994, there is one he was a part of more recently he counts among his favorites: Helping Mayor Lenny Curry get elected last year. Curry had the type of passion and determination that “I haven’t seen in a politician in a long time.”
He had seen it in Delaney, too.
While Munz always will have a knack for politics, it’s his Downtown focus that’s generating recent headlines.
Making Downtown a focus
Hemming Park is often referred to as the “front door” to City Hall. The same could be said of the park for the Dalton Agency. From Munz’s second-floor window, it can be a little tough to see the park through the tree canopy cover, but it’s there.
When Munz and the agency heads bought the building almost a decade ago, he said people met the news with puzzled expressions. Why Downtown? And why there, the place many knew for being a Chinese buffet?
“I choose to fight for Downtown,” said Munz. “I invest here, I work here, I believe in it.”
Munz often steals a saying former Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard told a group of Jacksonville officials on a JAX Chamber trip: You can’t be a suburb of nowhere.
“It’s brilliant,” said Munz. “We can be a lot of suburbs or we can be a great city.”
During Mayor John Peyton’s tenure, Munz was part of a group that secured development rights to the Laura Street Trio, a term he said his group coined. However, it wasn’t financially feasible and the group returned it to the city. It remains undeveloped despite myriad plans over the years.
More recently, Munz has partnered with developer Peter Rummell, a close ally and someone he calls his “compass.” The two first met when the Dalton Agency and Munz served as a consultant to Rummell while he was CEO of The St. Joe Co.
Yet, it really took off when the two were part of the inaugural One Spark festival in 2013. Last year they created RummellMunz for real estate projects, a portfolio that now includes The District, a planned multiuse community on the Southbank.
Soon, it could feature a key part of LaVilla’s resurgence. The group was the city’s choice to pursue a neighborhood development strategy in the part of Downtown many peg as being the next big thing.
Politics, his role at the Dalton Agency, personal passions and Downtown developments comprise a lot of working hours, but Munz doesn’t think of it that way.
“I’m really lucky,” he said.“ I get to do stuff I really like and am passionate about and I get to do it and make money. If you’re able to do both, you’re pretty damn lucky.”