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Issue #66: The Battle for Tallahassee
A clash over money and politics
Tomorrow is primary day in Florida! Well it is if you are reading this right when it went out. Anyway, I continue to try and offer as much backstory into different races as possible. For today, I am taking a look at my home of Tallahassee. If you have been anywhere near here in the last few weeks, you know we are going through easily the most contentious election cycle in memory. Conflict revolves almost entirely around the role of developers and their contributions in local politics. This post aims to give a crash course for the less familiar into our current situation.
And just to note, this is largely being written in one siting in between client work. I am hammering this out. Trust me, I could do a 10,000 word deep deep deeeeeeep dive into this cycle, with detailed analysis that I do not have the time for. I will be linking to more info, however. Also NOTE: all city and county commission races are officially non-partisan affairs; with runoffs is no one gets 50% of the vote.
Ok lets get started.
Tallahassee Crash Course
Living in Tallahassee for 17 years, there is a tremendous amount of Demographic and electoral intrigue I could break down. In the interest of brevity, I wanted to lay out some key demographic data points.
The city is mix of different demographics. It is filled with state and college employees, giving it a large liberal/democratic white voting block. This is a far cry from the 1950s and 1960s, when Tallahassee was very much like any other southern town. I covered some of those growing pains in this article on efforts to move the state capital out of Tallahassee. The old conservativism of Tallahassee faded as the city grew. Its now decidedly to the left of the state, and has only grown so in recent years. It often backs Democratic statewide candidates with 65%+ of the vote
Modern elections in the city include several voting blocks. Using primary voting data, this is my rough sketch breakdown of a precinct based on its primary voting history. The city has large blocks of black voters, white democrats, republicans, and students. There are 3 higher education centers in town.
Florida State University
Florida A&M University (a historic black college)
Tallahassee Community College.
Though the student vote is very low in primaries; thanks to the timing of the primary is often the same weak as classes resume. I delved into that more in this article on Leon Commission District 2.
In the 2018 primary, key demographics were as follows.
White Democrats: 33%
Tallahassee used have Republican-leaning commissioners. However, there has not been a GOP-aligned commission since 2003. As Tallahassee moved more to the left, the Republicans of Tallahassee were left to chose between the Democrats they could stomach. The last great Republican surge was in 2010; during the red wave year. That year, businessman Steve Stewart almost knocked off incumbent Democratic Mayor John Marks; who was suffering from ethics scandals. Despite a good national environment, the GOP ties Stewart had proved to be his undoing. Stewart would run for city council in 2012 and 2014, but do worse each time. I covered his saga, which includes more Tallahassee info, in this article.
An example of business/developer interests deciding between Democrats can be seen in the 2010 county commission race. Incumbent Cliff Thaell was a liberal democrat with strong environmental ties. He was vehemently hated by developers, who worked to recruit and fund the campaign of Nick Maddox; who played football for FSU years earlier. Maddox edged out Thaell in November of 2010.
The dominance of establishment/moderate Democrats existed from this point and into the 2018 cycle. As I covered in my Andrew Gillum retrospective, while Gillum has been elected as a young reformer, he’d eventually become part of the developer establishment as well. Gillum would walk into the Mayor’s office in 2014; facing no real challengers. As time went on, Republicans were really just moderate/business democrats. Tallahassee/Leon County largely became a one-party area; but with an internal divide.
2018 is when the most notable shakeup happened in local government. The city was already under investigation for corruption. It would come out that the FBI had an undercover agent in the city investigating the bribery between politicians and developers. As this was going on, the city held its elections. In an open city council seat, Jeremy Matlow, a leftist Democrat who owned Gaines Street Pies, narrowly won a city council race.
The Mayoral election was open since Gillum was running for Governor. Many candidates, from State Senator Bill Montford to city commissioner Gil Ziffer, turned down runs. The joke we all said at the time was “yeah who wants to be a commissioner, the city is a mess.” County Commissioner John Dailey opted to run. At first, anyone would have told you he’d take it in a walk. Then he had a narrow win against Gillum ally and aid Dustin Daniels; who dominated in the black and student communities. White Democratic areas actually split in the race; but Dailey largely won with strong suburban backing.
Almost immediately after the elections, City Commissioner Scott Maddox was indicted for corruption. I covered Maddox’s career in this article. Needless to say, no one was (or should have been) surprised by this. Maddox was always a corrupt politician, and he now sits in a jail cell.
The Growing Change in Tallahassee
The city council had the authority to pick a replacement for Maddox (who was suspended from office by Governor Scott after the indictment). The commission eventually went with Elaine Bryant. This move itself was controversial. Heading into the meeting (held New Years eve of 2018) - the clear frontrunner was Soil and Water board member Tabitha Frazier. A longtime Democratic and liberal activist, Frazier was on the short list of three commissioners heading into the meeting.
As momentum for Frazier grew, a GOP-backed attack campaign went against Frazier. She was also vehemently hated by developers due to her strong environmentalist stances. Internally, business groups and developers made it clear who they would find acceptable. Bryant was selected.
Bryant spent her time on commission largely voting with mayor Dailey and commissioners Dianne Williams-Cox and Curtis Richardson on more moderate proposals. Efforts for a city-run broadband failed, and Matlow was often the loan vote of dissent on issues. Bryant was challenged by Jacquelin Porter, a left wing activist in a similar vein as Matlow. Porter worked to consolidate the left-wing vote and pick up some of the moderate northside Republicans who felt they were being ignored by the commission. Porter won the race.
That same day, Curtis Richardson was forced into a runoff. Richardson was a longtime liberal African-American politician in the area. He was beloved as a state house member and his 2014 election to city council in a special election was fueled by liberal support across racial lines. Richardson was initially disliked by developer groups. However, over the court of 2018-2020, Curtis began to vote much more with the moderate/developer side of issues. As a result, Richardson did not get a serious business-backed opponent, but he did generate grumbling among white liberals. He did, however, largely hold older African-Americans on his side. However, he underperformed with FAMU students and younger black voters.
Richardson was put in a runoff with right-wing Bill Schlack, who had no real money and would go on to easily lose to Richardson in November. The votes for Gerri Seay and Trish Brown, who are both African-American, were left-wing protest votes. Curtis lost notable liberal communities like Levy Park, FSU, and Indianhead acres.
Comparing the Porter and Richardson votes from that day reveal how the candidates, despite being close in vote share, differed in support. It should be no shock Curtis outperformed Porter in the black community. However, the collapse of Curtis in white democratic areas is unthinkable eight or so years ago.
One more major election would happen in 2020. Commissioner Bryan Desloge, who represented the Northeast district on the county commission, lost re-election by 13 points. District 4 is lone GOP-performing seat; voting for Trump in 2020. Desloge, who’s been in office since 2006, was largely viewed as unbeatable, with many speculating a future run for Congress or State Legislature some day. Desloge, however, began to anger voters in recent years over…. you guessed it… developer issues. Desloge infuriated many communities when he backed development projects that resulted in clogged streets. To be clear, this wasn’t affordable housing projects, it was new suburbs and shopping centers that were being built before roads were even expanded. Desloge ended up losing, with his worst showings correlating well with anger over votes he made.
The 2020 results made one thing clear, a sea change was underway in local Tallahassee politics.
The 2022 Election
Looking back, it seems impossible for 2022 to not be a contentious election season in Tallahassee, giving the events of before. However, things got even more contentious in 2021 and early 2022. The relationship between politicians and developers was growing in public sentiment and the city council remained very divided, often with 3-2 votes (Porter/Matlow vs Dailey/Richardson/Cox). Then, the Blueprint Committee; an organization made up of city and council commissioners that decides on spending for a sale tax the voters approved long ago, decided to give FSU Doak Campbell Stadium $27,000,000 for renovations. The move, which effectively leaves Blueprint broke for years, was the most contentious issue I have EVER seen in this city. The sides were very clear; developers and FSU boosters backing it while average citizens almost universally opposed. Despite efforts from members like City Commissioners Jack Porter and Jeremy Matlow, or County Commissioners Rick Minor and Kristen Dozier, to stop the plan, the pro-developer slate of politicians backed the plan.
Now, elections are happening. And almost every race has a notable developer and anti-developer side. Many commissioners who voted on the FSU deal are up. As discussed at the start, untold money has flowed into these races. The pro-developer slate is flush with more cash than has ever been thrown into local races. These races are viewed as a critical moment in the city; and developer and business interests are desperate to keep their supportive incumbents in, as well as oust commissioner Matlow. Meanwhile, Mayor Dailey, one of the fiercest defenders of the stadium deal, is being challenged by County Commissioner Kristen Dozier. The races have gotten insanely nasty. We have never seen so much mail, TV, texting, calling, or door knocking before. The developer money, going through groups like Grow Tallahassee, are record breaking for this area.
Here is the breakdown of city and county races, with the candidates and some quick notes. I’m also including officially campaign money raised, but again, hundreds of thousands is coming from third party groups as well. NOTE: I’m only included major candidates who stand a chance. Reminder that all races are non-partisan and if no one gets 50%, we have a runoff.
Incumbent John Dailey (D). Pro-Doak deal and major developer backing. Former Leon County District 3 commissioner. Raised $268,000
Kristen Dozier (D). Anti-Doak, current Leon County District 5 Commissioner. Raised $120,000
Tallahassee City Seat 3
Incumbent Jeremy Matlow (D). Anti-Doak, left-wing activist, elected commissioner in 2018. Raised $140,000
David Bellamy (D). Developer backed but says he is anti-Doak. Recently in hot water for donations to Republicans like Matt Gaetz and Ron DeSantis. Raised $305,000
Tallahassee City Seat 5
Incumbent Dianne Williams-Cox (D). Pro-Doak, developer backing. Elected in 2018, former candidate for state house. Raised $110,000
Adner Mercelin (D). Anti-Doak, former local NAACP head. Raised $40,000
Shelby Green (D). Anti-Doak, young grassroots activist. Raised $10,000
Leon Commission District At-Large
Incumbent Nick Maddox (D). Pro-doak, developer backing. Elected in 2010. Raised $70,000
John Johnson (D). Anti-Doak, teacher, viewed as choice of liberal voters. Raised $30,000
Rudolph Ferguson (D). Pastor and civic leader in African-American community. Raised $20,000
Dominique Zumbo (NPA). Lobbying and government work. Raised $3,000
Leon Commission District 1
Incumbent Bill Proctor (D). Pro-Doak, developer backing. Elected in 1996. Raised $70,000
Terrance Barber (D). Business consultant. Also getting anti-developer support. Raised $15,000
Donna Pearl Cotterell (D). Non-profit director and grant writer. Good deal of anti-developer support. Raised $7,000
Leon Commission District 2
Leon Commission District 3
Incumbent Rick Minor (D). Anti-Doak, establishment liberal Democrat. Elected in 2018. Raised $85,000
Joey Lamar (D). Activist and homelessness advocate. Raised $18,000
Damon Victor (NPA). Businessman and activist. Raised $29,000
Leon Commission District 5
David O'Keefe (D). Recently CFO of WFSU, viewed as strongest anti-developer candidate in race with grassroots support. Raised $40,000
Paula DeBoles-Johnson (D). Non-profit leader, also with grassroots support. Raised $41,000
Jay Revell (D). Businessman with Chamber of Commerce ties. Strong developer support. Raised $92,000
Dustin Rivest (R). Businessman, also with strong developer ties. Raised $89,000
The only race with no clear developer vs anti-developer sentiment is Leon Commission District 3. Minor’s rejection of the Doak deal means he doesn’t have a tone of developer support, but has always had a base in liberal democratic circles. His opposition largely relies saying he isn’t aggressive enough. Only Matlow and Minor are incumbents running for re-election who opposed Doak.
Meanwhile, some of the developer-backed first-time candidates, like David Bellamy, get to say they would have rejected the deal but considering they have all the same cash that the pro-Doak candidates do, it seems hard to believe.
How these races go on Tuesday could decide the future of area. Rest assured, I’ll be watching them closely, just like everyone else in our county.