How Lenny Curry went from a candidate with little name recognition to defeating Mayor Alvin Brown

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  • | 12:00 p.m. May 20, 2015
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Mayor-elect Lenny Curry talks to supporters as members of his family cheer him on. In his first attempt at running for office, Curry defeated Mayor Alvin Brown.
Mayor-elect Lenny Curry talks to supporters as members of his family cheer him on. In his first attempt at running for office, Curry defeated Mayor Alvin Brown.
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Lenny Curry got an initial bit of encouragement Tuesday night when the early voting totals were first posted.

He had expected to be behind at that point, he said, but instead he was up 700 votes.

His night just kept getting better.

Curry’s lead over Mayor Alvin Brown widened as each new group of precinct results was released.

By the end of the night, Curry had beaten Brown by nearly 5,300 votes in what few truly believed could have happened when his name surfaced as a possible challenger about 18 months ago.

Curry’s name recognition started in the low single digits, his inherent shyness made it difficult for him to work a room and he had never been a candidate for office.

But still, he was selected when a group of prominent Republicans got together to settle on a candidate to take on Brown.

That anointment, of sorts, helped bring in millions in fundraising and unrivaled clout among many in the party.

Curry added an extraordinary work ethic, a willingness to learn what he didn’t know and a wife who grounded him and helped ensure he kept his promise that their family came first.

All of that led him to where he stood Tuesday night at the Hyatt Regency Riverfront: The mayor-elect surrounded by his family on stage, being applauded by the dedicated team and faithful backers that made it possible.


Brown ‘couldn’t be beat’

By the time Curry entered the race in June, Brown had already raised $1 million.

And, no matter what poll you looked at, none of the news was encouraging for Curry.

There was one that showed Brown’s approval rating was in the low 70s.

Another poll showed the mayor’s support in some Republican precincts was north of 65 percent.

And a poll sought by a potential candidate led the pollster to say Brown couldn’t be beat.

When Mike Hightower saw how low Curry’s numbers were, he knew it was more than a hill to climb.

“This isn’t a hill,” he recalled saying, “this is a cliff.”

The next thing he told Curry: “When all these people say they’re behind you, make sure they’re not way behind you,” Hightower said, laughing.

Former Jacksonville Mayor John Peyton believed Brown’s high approval ratings were fed by the mayor’s passion for the ceremonial side of the job.

“Every time there was a gathering with a camera, he was there,” Peyton said of Brown.

Peyton originally supported City Council member Bill Gulliford, who strongly weighed becoming a candidate.

Peyton was impressed with Gulliford’s leadership when he led the council through a difficult Brown budget that would have led to 300 police officers being laid off, among other issues.

“He rescued this city from financial disaster,” Peyton said of Gulliford.

Gulliford used Peyton’s pollster to see where he stood in the race. The pollster ultimately said Brown couldn’t be beat and advised Gulliford not to run, Peyton said.

At that point, Peyton said, there weren’t many options. “The good news was Lenny Curry was willing to offer himself up.”


Convincing people he could do it

For Michael Munz, the numbers weren’t enough to deter him from joining Curry’s strategy team. He had worked on several campaigns where underdog candidates, like former Mayors Ed Austin and John Delaney, started with low name recognition but still won.

Munz said Curry had to prove he was capable of running a competitive campaign that had the potential to win and that Curry had to show he had the capacity and the desire to govern.

That proof didn’t come immediately. Munz said he and Curry had many conversations over several weeks.

At the same time, Munz also was talking with about a half-dozen other potential candidates.

“He convinced me he had the capability to go in and turn this ship around,” Munz said.

Peyton’s support didn’t come easily, either. He said he was “ruthlessly honest” with Curry about his concerns.

He viewed Curry’s time as the chair of the Republican Party of Florida as a potential negative because some people associate the party with extreme right-wing factions. He thought Curry could be unfairly linked to those beliefs, even though Curry wasn’t aligned with them.

Peyton also was concerned about Curry’s lack of policy experience, which the candidate found a way to address.

Peyton said Curry asked him, Delaney and other former city officials to brief him on policy.

Campaigns usually aren’t about getting into the weeds, Peyton said, but Curry wanted to. So, for several sessions, Curry listened as the veterans shared what they knew.

“He listened, he digested and that really impressed me,” Peyton said.

Munz said a lot of those conversations involved decision-making, how to pick the right people for a team and how to deal with a city of more than 800 square miles.


Work ethic shines through

Peyton also talked to Curry about his shyness and how it impacted his ability to connect with people. Plus, Peyton said, it could be misinterpreted as being conceited or aloof.

Curry worked hard during the campaign to make himself more comfortable meeting people either individually or at a gathering.

Munz pointed to two meetings where Curry first began to understand that people really wanted to talk to him, to hear his vision for Jacksonville.

One was an event for millennials, where Curry got the sense people were desirous of having somebody lead them.

The other was a women’s event where his wife, Molly, was among the speakers. Munz said Curry was struck by the energy and emotion of the room that was filled with professional women concerned about the city.

“That caused him to say, ‘I have got to really work my rear end off to deliver to these people,’” Munz said.

That work ethic is what many say set Curry apart.

Susie Wiles recalled a conversation she had early on with Curry, where he vowed he was going to “outwork anybody and everybody in this race.”

He’s met with countless civic clubs and neighborhood groups, visited dozens of businesses, and knocked on hundreds of doors.

Council member Richard Clark said Tuesday night Curry “outworked all of us 10 to 1.”


Keeping family commitments

Despite that hectic schedule, Curry remained committed to keeping his family a priority during the campaign.

Molly Curry was critical in this area, including keeping her husband grounded.

Yes, he was running for mayor, she said. “but I’m still going to make him unload the dishwasher and take out the trash.”

She said her husband was committed to attending their children’s events. Just this past weekend, their son had a championship game Saturday and one of their daughters had a recital Sunday. Curry made it to both.

“In between innings, he was in the car making calls,” Molly Curry said.

But he was there.

The children have enjoyed the campaign. When their youngest daughter woke up Tuesday morning, she asked, “Who’s winning now?”

And their son, Boyd, who avoided cameras when Curry filed to run in June, asked his father last night, “Am I going to get to go on stage?”

The couple tried to shield the children from negative advertising about Curry, but it was impossible to keep everything from them.

“They would ask, ‘Daddy, why is there an X on your face?’” said Molly Curry, who acknowledged she has grown “some thick skin.”

Hightower said during the rough times of the campaign, Molly Curry “has been exactly what he needed.”

Curry thanked his wife during his victory speech, saying, “You’re it, Molly. I don’t even know how to express it.”


Still soaking it in

At the end of Tuesday night, after Curry spent time posing for countless photos, sharing dozens of hugs and handshakes, it still hadn’t quite set in that he had won.

That he had actually defied the odds — and the polls — and defeated a charismatic mayor whose approval ratings scared away many folks with lesser fortitude than Curry.

He recalled how he had started Tuesday morning by waking up with butterflies in his stomach for the first time since he played high school football.

Curry also said a prayer for Brown’s family because he knows campaigns can be difficult for candidates’ families, including his own.

Prayer has been important to Curry during the campaign. He has met most Wednesday mornings with his pastor at Southside United Methodist Church. Sometimes the meetings are five minutes, other times they’re 20. Monday night, Curry’s pastor emailed him an election eve prayer.

Curry also got a special note from his father Tuesday. But he hadn't read it by late into the night.

He was still trying to soak in what had happened.

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