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James F. Bailey, Jr.
Jax Daily Record Monday, Jan. 6, 201412:00 PM EST

Political season beginning in full force

by: Publisher: James F. Bailey Jr.

Well, get ready.

Over the next few weeks, we'll be growing firmly entrenched in what should be one of the most intense and expensive political campaign seasons ever.

Right now, attention is focused primarily on the governor's race, which is expected to be a knife fight between Gov. Rick Scott and former Gov. Charlie Crist that leaves lots of political blood on the streets of Florida.

With the election 10 months away, Scott is expected to spend tens of millions of dollars on television ads in an attempt to convince voters that Crist wasn't such a great governor and that he is a political opportunist.

Locally, there is quite a bit of behind-the-scenes maneuvering and movement that will impact the mayor's race in the spring of 2015.

City Council President Bill Gulliford and Sheriff John Rutherford, both Republicans, appear to be seriously assessing their ability to oppose Democrat Mayor Alvin Brown.

How well Brown does — or does not do — on this next campaign finance report, which is due Friday, may not be a deciding factor, but it makes the picture clearer.

Through the last reporting period three months ago, Brown had raised $317,165. Most political observers will tell you that is not a very impressive amount for a sitting mayor.

By comparison with John Delaney and John Peyton when they were approaching a re-election campaign, it's not even close. It certainly it is not an amount that will intimidate a viable candidate or Jacksonville's heavy contributors.

Historically, the most difficult time to raise campaign funds is the fourth quarter when so much attention is diverted to the holidays. If Brown posts a significant gain during that time period, it will be surprising and a good sign for him.

Most people who play the political game, especially many of the top Republican contributors, will tell you there is more than $2 million sitting out there just waiting on a strong challenger to get into the race.

It appears that Gulliford has increased the pace of his due diligence in recent weeks, meeting with local political heavyweights to discuss his potential candidacy. Reports are seeping out that he is getting some enthusiasm from the folks he's meeting with.

Gulliford is generally being given high marks for his first six months of leadership as council president.

On the other hand, sources say Rutherford is in a wait-and-see mode.

It's no secret that Rutherford has crossed swords with the mayor, primarily over the way he has treated the sheriff's budget and attempted to install what Rutherford considers draconian cuts in public safety.

Gulliford's issues with Brown seem to be policy driven.

Four things seem to be certain.

First, some of Jacksonville's Republican big contributors have only given token contributions to Brown, if they've contributed at all. Many of these are the same people who jumped on Brown's wagon in 2011 to help him defeat Republican Mike Hogan.

Second, many of these same deep-pocketed people have been talking privately for some time about finding a solid candidate they can support to run against Brown.

Third, it's not likely that the local Republican Party and its army of activists will sit still for Brown getting by without opposition.

Fourth, most of those who are privately recruiting Republican opposition are committed to the notion of having a single major candidate challenge Brown to avoid splitting the vote. (As of Friday, the Oct. 27 Toronto mayoral race has 17 registered candidates, with two more declared.)

Although many City Council presidents have thought they could be mayor, it hasn't happened in Jacksonville since Jake Godbold did it in 1978.

He got a huge political boost when Mayor Hans Tanzler resigned to run for governor, which elevated then Council President Godbold into the mayor's office prior to running for mayor in 1979.

Making a potential Brown vs. Gulliford race interesting is the fact that there are some well-defined differences between the two, which will continue to be played out over the next few months.

It started when Gulliford dumped Brown's proposed budget, which the mayor tied to his pension reform plan. Gulliford then pulled the pension plan out of committee and the council killed it.

That was followed by a council-approved property tax increase to fund vital city services that Brown cut from the budget he submitted. Brown has been adamant that he is against any increase in taxes.

Another major Gulliford vs. Brown battle will take place over the next two or three months.

Gulliford has introduced legislation to extend the city's 6-cent gas tax when it expires in 2016. Brown has remained very vocal in his opposition to extending the tax.

The gas tax produces $30 million annually. Under Gulliford's proposal, 5 cents ($25 million) will go to the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) for major transportation infrastructure, and the city will receive a penny ($5 million) for road maintenance and bicycle and pedestrian improvements.

Both Brown and Gulliford have their agendas for 2014. At the top of each one's list is resolving the city's pension crisis, particularly finding a solution for the $2.4 billion unfunded liability.

The mayor and council president are both counting on substantive and doable recommendations from the Bill Scheu-led Retirement Reform Task Force.

However, a recent ruling by Circuit Judge Waddell Wallace that any pension negotiation or discussions between the task force and the Police and Fire Pension Board must be done in public has thrown a wrench into the task force's plan.

Scheu has indicated the ruling may complicate the process but that it does not change the goal.

Stay tuned as the 2015 campaign puzzle pieces quickly start falling in place over the next 90 days.

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