'The boys' making name for themselves in Northeast Florida

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  • | 12:00 p.m. September 19, 2016
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Mayor Lenny Curry is flanked by political consultants Tim Baker and Brian Hughes the night the pension reform referendum passed.
Mayor Lenny Curry is flanked by political consultants Tim Baker and Brian Hughes the night the pension reform referendum passed.
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The boys.

That’s what Tim Baker and Brian Hughes said they were called in their early days as political consultants for Lenny Curry’s mayoral campaign.

Hughes said the inference behind the nickname was he and Baker were in town to help get the first-time candidate elected, then would shift their focus back to Tallahassee.

Then, Hughes said, “The old guard Jacksonville people will be back where they need to be.”

But that was not the case. Nor, was it ever intended to be, they said.

“From the start of that race to today, the two of us and Lenny have become this sort of political entity,” Hughes said.

Their efforts in helping Curry defeat Mayor Alvin Brown last year signaled a changing of the guard for high-profile political consultants in the area.

Baker’s meticulous polling and Hughes’ disciplined communications were in high demand for Northeast Florida candidates in last month’s primary.

The boys won at every level.

In Congress with John Rutherford.

Countywide with Curry’s pension reform plan.

In the Legislature with Jason Fischer.

And in the 4th Judicial Circuit with Melissa Nelson.

Baker and Hughes ended the primary with nearly a clean sweep.

They also ended the night with a firm grasp on politics in Northeast Florida and how to win  here.

Their differences work

Clients and peers say Baker and Hughes have different skill sets and personalities that complement one another.

Baker is passionate about his polling and confident in his knowledge of the electorate.

“He is so precise,” said Susie Wiles, a veteran political consultant who has worked with both men over the years.

Baker’s a lawyer whose linear thinking, take-the-hill philosophy and chain of command background drive his work, she said.

Hughes is a “renaissance man,” Wiles said, with a film and writing background, as well as being in the Air Force.

He’s also more likely to tussle with an opponent or a detractor of one of his clients, particularly on social media. Being quick on your feet and quick with a jab is a good quality for his business, she said.

“And he’s sort of mastered that,” said Wiles, who first worked with Hughes in the 2010 campaign for Gov. Rick Scott.

Although the two aren’t business partners — Baker works for Data Targeting and Hughes founded Meteoric Media Strategies — the two work together on about 95 percent of their races, they said.

That familiarity brings a level of confidence to a campaign that puts candidates at ease as they follow the path laid out by the consultants.

Wiles said once Baker and Hughes see the path and determine what it will take to win, they never look back.

“You couldn’t second guess them because they wouldn’t hear it,” she said.

It’s that confidence, sometimes seen as brashness, that often puts them at odds with what the duo call the “cocktail circuit.”

Hughes describes the group as “movers and shakers who sit around at cocktail hour and opine about what the city really ought to do is this, what the mayor ought to do is that.”

They laugh when they hear someone on the cocktail circuit or otherwise say either of them have shared polling numbers.

“We are notoriously stingy about numbers,” Hughes said, adding only he, Baker and Curry knew the numbers throughout the pension effort.

Wiles can attest to that.

“The last time I checked, I was co-chair of the pension campaign (Yes for Jacksonville),” Wiles said. “At no time did he (Baker) ever share data with me.”

First big area win

The duo began making a name in Northeast Florida politics when they helped Ron DeSantis win a crowded Republican congressional primary in 2012 against better-known candidates.

Hughes said there was a belief that former City Council member Richard Clark “was the guy” in the north end of the district, while state Rep. Fred Costello had the south end.

But, as they often do, Baker and Hughes saw a pathway where others didn’t.

DeSantis easily won the primary, then went on to win the general election in November 2012.

In January 2013, they said they were asked by Curry, Wiles and a few others to talk with some people about a desire to see a Republican challenge to Brown’s re-election effort and if it was even possible.

“The reason they put an if on it,” Hughes said, “is because some big brains from D.C. had said forget about it.”

Instead, the D.C. people said, focus on finding a Republican to seek the office after Brown’s second term.

But, Hughes said, “We kind of came in as the brash ego guys that we are and said there’s a pathway.”

It was admittedly narrow, especially considering Brown’s 70 percent approval rating and strong name recognition.

Without a clear Republican front runner at the time, Baker and Hughes began to look at the type of candidate that would be best to take on Brown.

They looked at all the possible names that had surfaced, except Mike Hogan, who had lost to Brown in 2011.

Ultimately, they said, Curry emerged as the favorite, a perfect contrast to Brown.

Hughes had known Curry for a while, having worked as communications director for the Republican Party of Florida when Curry was vice chair and then chair.

After Curry’s win over Brown, he approached Baker and Hughes about a pension reform plan, based on an idea Mike Weinstein had been talking about for a while.

Ultimately, they worked with Curry and others to develop a strategy of convincing the Legislature, City Council and voters to pass a sales tax extension with the money dedicated to paying down the city’s $2.7 billion pension liability.

Interestingly, Baker said pension reform never polled as a top priority for Duval County voters.

During his repeated polling in the county, Baker said he would list nine concerns for the mayor and council to address and pension never made the top five. In fact, it was never in double digits.

That, too, was in contrast to the cocktail circuit, which Hughes said kept telling Curry he needed to talk about pension reform during the campaign.

Although it was always on Curry’s mind, Hughes said, it was never a top-tier campaign issue. As an accountant, Curry was confident he could figure out a pension solution.

His campaign’s priority was more about public safety and keeping children from being killed, Hughes said.

Clients appreciated honesty and support

Baker and Hughes’ clients from the primary election shared similar stories about the consultants.

They worked with them to develop a strategy and to follow that strategy. They helped them until they felt comfortable in front of a television camera for a commercial or a podium for a forum.

Nelson, who was a first-time candidate, valued how much Hughes listened as she talked about her goals for the State Attorney’s Office and why she was interested in running.

She saw proof of that in the first television ad Hughes did for the campaign, which focused on her father talking about standing up for what’s right when you see something that’s wrong.

“That had come from discussions we had had,” said Nelson, who defeated State Attorney Angela Corey. “It was clear to me he was listening to me.”

Jason Fischer shared his values and what he wanted to accomplish with Baker and Hughes. They helped him find a way to share his priorities, such as being pro-life and a supporter of rights for gun owners, with voters who had the same priorities.

“They helped me turn those priorities into a strategy,” he said.

Fischer defeated longtime politician Dick Kravitz in the Florida House District 16 race.

Rutherford not only appreciated Baker’s skills as a data expert, but also that he is a “man of faith.”

“I know his faith and, of course, that means a lot to me,” said Rutherford, who won a crowded Republican primary to replace U.S. Rep. Ander Crenshaw. He faces Democrat Dave Bruderly in November.

The former sheriff didn’t work directly with Hughes, because he was running a political action committee that was assisting Rutherford’s efforts.

Donnie Horner, who lost his bid for District 11, had strong praise for Baker and Hughes.

They didn’t mince words and always told him where he could improve, but in a constructive way.

“I really got the sense that Tim and Brian don’t want to be powerbrokers,” he said. “I think they want the best conservative leaders elected.”

They were loyal, he said, even after the loss.

“They never made me feel like a loser even though I lost,” Horner said.

New meaning for ‘the boys’

Baker and Hughes are fully entrenched in Northeast Florida politics, although they’re still active in Tallahassee and other parts of the state.

Baker lives here and his wife works in Curry’s administration. Hughes still lives in Tallahassee, but is a regular visitor to town. Plus, the two and Curry have regular discussions.

The mayor said the two are the type of people you’re looking to be around if you want to be successful. And they’re loyal.

“When I want to go a direction, they get in the foxhole with me and go,” Curry said.

Their success has brought a different connotation to “the boys” label, now. It’s no longer derogatory, Hughes said.

“Now it’s become a thing like, ‘Well, what do the boys think? Is it going to even happen if the boys don’t agree?” he said.

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