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Jax Daily Record Tuesday, May 6, 201412:00 PM EST

A big shoe drops, but game far from over

by: James F. Bailey Jr.

Well, it seems the first big shoe, or should I say flip-flop, has dropped in the 2015 Jacksonville mayor’s race.

In fact, you could call it a big flip-flop since it was highly influential Peter Rummell who made his long-rumored jump from Mayor Alvin Brown’s campaign public by saying he will support Republican Lenny Curry.

When Curry was chairman of the Duval County Republican Party, it was Rummell who threw his weight behind Democrat Brown’s campaign in 2011 and not the Republican candidate, Mike Hogan.

Rummell, probably more than anyone other than Hogan, was responsible for Brown’s surprise win when he led a flow of hundreds of thousands of dollars into the Democratic candidate’s woefully underfunded campaign.

Rummell is publicly sharing his criticisms that have been whispered in boardrooms, private clubs and on golf courses — and even at City Hall.

In a Florida Times-Union interview with Nate Monroe about Brown’s leadership, Rummell said, “He has no courage. ... He’s wimped out. He’s deferred to City Council. It’s embarrassing the way he’s handled himself.”

Rummell’s thinking reflects that of a large group of business leaders who see Brown’s first three years as less than what they expected.

For the most part, they have avoided making contributions to the mayor’s re-election campaign. Yes, donations have been made by some big names, including Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan, but not the heavy infusion an incumbent mayor might expect.

Instead, they’ve spent months searching for an opponent.

It seems City Council President Bill Gulliford, for some reason, apparently would not do. Nor would Sheriff John Rutherford, who led early in name recognition polls.

Property appraiser Jim Overton barely got a look when he said he intended to run and council member Bill Bishop doesn’t appear to be the group’s choice, either.

With Rummell’s pronouncement, it would appear many of the guys within the business community have either agreed on Curry, or Rummell is trying to push them to a consensus.

There’s talk Rummell’s strong support of Curry left many people, lots of them Republicans, scratching their heads.

Curry, who is in his final days as chair of the Florida Republican Party, has not said he will run in 2015. But the speculation is he’s ready to start campaigning.

That means Curry is departing his state post at a critical time in the hotly contested governor’s race where his candidate, Gov. Rick Scott, is fighting for his political life against Charlie Crist.

There’s plenty of speculation in Tallahassee that Scott was supportive of Curry’s decision.

Other than being chair of the local Republican Party, Curry does not have much of a record of engagement in Jacksonville politics. His knowledge of the inner-workings of Jacksonville’s government may be limited.

But, Curry is an educated, firebrand Republican, which may be enough for Rummell and his friends.

Since he’s been head of the state GOP, Curry has built a reputation as someone who’s not afraid to be an aggressive campaigner. He especially doesn’t hold back in torching Crist, or any other Democrat who tries to get in the GOP’s way.

Pitting an aggressive former chairman of the state Republican Party against Brown could prove to be very divisive for our city.

While some of the business leadership may be let down by Brown, most polls indicate that rank-and-file voters are not unhappy with the mayor. In fact, Brown’s strong anti-tax efforts have, in many respects, pleased some conservatives.

According to a February University of North Florida poll, Brown’s approval ratings are still high at 59 percent, though they’ve dropped from 70 percent over the past year.

There are indications some African-American leaders have become lukewarm to Brown. But a Republican-pushed aggressive campaign might motivate African-American voters to rally behind the mayor.

If Curry runs a highly partisan Republican campaign, he may find it hard to earn the votes of Independents.

Now, Rummell’s job, just like in 2011, is to get his big-dollar donor friends to stand with him and get behind Curry.

Much has been made of the fact that Khan has given $50,000 to Brown’s campaign political action committee and recently hosted a fundraiser.

Some think that’s a sign the NFL owner is solidly behind the mayor.

Maybe, but maybe not.

I wouldn’t expect Khan to have only one potential winning card in his hand.

Rummell and many of his friends are among the folks who own skyboxes and premium seats at EverBank Field. They value Khan’s investment in the city and they respect his opinion.

In any event, this game is far, far from over.

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