Though not a typical election year, the U.S. 2023 off-year elections will feature a number of state and local elections across the nation. Voters will elect new mayors, city councilmen and other positions in their respective municipalities.
One of these constituencies is the city of Jacksonville. It’s the most populated city in Florida and home to the St. Johns River, the longest in Florida.
Featuring seven qualified candidates with one write-in, four of which are female, candidates are running to replace term-limited Republican Mayor Lenny Curry. The race is on Tuesday, March 21, and if no outright majority is achieved, a run-off will take place on May 16 between the top two finishers.
The Florida Political Review caught up with Democratic candidate Donna Deegan, a former “First Coast News” anchor, author and nonprofit founder of the DONNA foundation — a breast cancer support network. If elected, Deegan would be the first ever female mayor elected in Jacksonville.
We asked Deegan a series of questions on her background, platform and priorities. A transcript can be read below.
Q: Tell us about yourself and your connections to Jacksonville.
A: Well, I’m actually a fifth generation Jacksonville native if you can believe that. My great, great grandfather came here from Lebanon after the Great Fire around 1905. And like most big ethnic families — and certainly like many families — back then it was all about food. We had a lot of restaurants back when Jacksonville was this booming place. Really, after the fire it took off like crazy. My grandfather opened a restaurant called the Roosevelt Grill off of Ashley Street.
Back then that was like Broadway. People like Hank Aaron and Ray Charles would hang out there. My dad was in the city council’s or the general counsel’s office, my uncle has a restaurant downtown and my cousin is Tommy Hazouri. That’s my maiden name, and he was the mayor. So, I have a long, long history here.
I anchored the news for 25 years on “First Coast News,” visiting every neighborhood, talking to people about their issues and trying to make sense out of policies that very often did not make sense for their lives. And then, around 1998, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I started to hear from people all over the place, “We’re praying for you,” “We hope you do well.” So, I started the Donna Foundation, which provides for critical needs of people that are going through cancer and led that for many years. We also started a race called “26.2 with Donna.” This national marathon has helped to end breast cancer, and people have come from all over the world every year to race and to help us raise money for what we call high risk, high reward breast cancer research.
It’s been a wonderful journey. I decided to leave the safe confines of philanthropy for the world of being called everything but a Child of God because I really believe if you’re going to change policy, you’ve got to be in the arena. You’ve got to be in a place where if you’re going to help more than just this handful of people, you’ve got to actually change the policy. And that’s why, by and large, I’m running for mayor: so that we can have a city that actually works for our citizens, as opposed to just a handful that it works for right now.
Q: Out of 8 candidates, you are one of four female candidates vying to become Jacksonville’s first female mayor. How does your historic candidacy make you feel in this race? And how does the title “Madame Mayor” sound to you?
A: Well, I’ve never made a big deal out of the fact that I’m a woman. To me, I’m qualified. I have the ability to lead and to coalesce people, which we really need in this city. But certainly, it is exciting. You know, I think about my family and how long we have been here. And I think about the fact we never had a woman mayor in Jacksonville, and certainly it would be historic. That would be something that I would obviously be very proud of.
Q: What would be some of your solutions as Jacksonville mayor to help fix local infrastructure?
A: I have three pillars in my campaign. I remember when we started off the campaign, everybody said, “You really should put the economy as the number one thing.” I said infrastructure has to be first. Because if we don’t fix the infrastructure, nothing else is going to come along. So, my pillars are: infrastructure, access to health care and the economy. But in terms of infrastructure, we consolidated the City of Jacksonville almost 60 years ago. We promised our neighborhoods, ones that are largely African American, that were going to provide lights, sidewalks and streets that were paved and get rid of failing septic tanks. That was part of the deal of consolidation. And that has been completely abandoned.
What happened during that period of time is we had two areas of town that were really promised a lot: the north side and the old south side. For the old south side, they delivered on those promises, built up the infrastructure and made sure that they were in a position to have prosperity there. And so, they’ve had both prosperity and growth on the south side, but on the north side, those investments were never made. A lot of growth but not much prosperity.
So part of the plan for me is to make sure that we are investing again in those older neighborhoods. We have spent a lot of our infrastructure dollars building out, allowing development sprawl to just go and go at the absolute neglect of those neighborhoods that we’ve made promises to. What I’ve told people is, look, if you live in a neighborhood in Jacksonville that’s more than 15 years old, you’re not getting your tax dollars’ worth. So, what we’re going to do is make sure that we make good on those promises. We’re going to fix the streets, the lights, the sidewalks, and we’re going to take out the septic tanks. We’re going to do that in a variety of ways.
There’s a ton of federal infrastructure money on the table right now. Politicians in this city decided 20 years ago, because they did or didn’t like whoever was in the White House, that they either were or weren’t going to take federal money. I think that’s baloney: you take the federal money because it’s your tax dollars. We need to bring down some of those federal dollars, get those infrastructure projects done once and for all and do it intentionally.
We probably need to start downtown and build out toward more neglected neighborhoods, because that’s where you’re going to get your revenue from — that commercial district and downtown. We need to use those dollars to reinvest in those older neighborhoods and to reinvest also in some more affordable housing options in those neighborhoods. There are some zoning changes we have to make and some infrastructure changes we have to make. But, if we do that, we can create a city that you won’t recognize probably in a few years. We have to do the foundational stuff before we can do that really shiny stuff, and that’s what we have neglected for so long.
Q: The population is growing in Florida as more people are moving into the state. As a result, attractive cities like Jacksonville are making housing more difficult and resulting in a cost-of-living crisis. What would be your solution as a mayor?
A: First of all, we do have to take a look at all these out of state investors that are coming in and buying up homes and then jacking up the rent prices. That’s an issue we’re gonna have to deal with. It is hurting families’ generational wealth, and it’s driving up costs in areas that we just don’t need. We have to have affordable housing for people if we want people to be able to come in and work. We have a lot of vacant land around the city that the city owns, and I think we need to take a look at that inventory and turn that into affordable housing as much as possible.
We also need to change some of our zoning so that we can create more infill, and some of these neighborhoods that have plenty of room for multifamily housing could create options for people that would be less expensive. But, the other thing is, if you look at cities that are our size, if you look at cities around the country that are really making progress against this issue, they’re investing in affordable housing programs. We don’t put a lot of city money into that. I think we’ve committed $4 million, whereas some of our peer cities have done 10 or 20 times that much. These are all things that there are dollars we can bring in if we have a plan that is strategic. We can bring down those grants that will help us to make that a reality for people without having to ask people to chip in more money. I think that the important thing that people need to know is that we don’t suffer to do anything about these issues, and we just need to. Much like infrastructure, if you don’t deal with those issues, nothing else really is going to grow.
Q: Moving on to more social issues. Education in Florida, as we all know, has taken quite the spot in national politics. As a result, parental rights in education are taking a front seat in this campaign. You agreed with other candidates that the mayor is not directly involved with school board issues, but you mentioned that funding for students should still be a priority. Would you have anything else to say on the matter of school choice in Jacksonville or other education topics?
A: I’m dismayed that our teachers seem to be caught in the middle of a political food fight. It’s unfortunate. It’s understandable that a lot of our teachers are stressed out and ready to leave the profession. But, I would like to make sure that those teachers want to stick around. I think we are either 47th or 49th overall in funding public education, and we’ve got to do better than that. I think it is just disturbing for me to watch our teachers struggle. We have shelves all over Duval County schools that are empty because we’re taking books off the shelves that we’ve been reading for years and years, and for what reason? I don’t know. But it becomes this political football game that gets teachers stuck in the middle. And I think that’s unfortunate.
As far as funding, you’ve heard me say it, but I think the state needs to do a better job of that. That’s not something the city has control over. I am a big advocate for our public schools. Our public schools in Duval County have a grade B average, and we can always do better. But we don’t have any F schools anymore. They’ve been improving. We need to continue to invest in our public schools. I think there are some charter schools that do a fine job for some families. But this notion of just allowing everybody in the world to choose a charter school, that’s just going to kill public education. I’m not for that.
I think public education is a wonderful thing for our children. I would hope that as we move along in the next several years we can sort of tone down the rhetoric and really put our kids first and make sure that our kids are getting the public education they deserve.
I can tell you that as mayor, I would be a much more willing partner with public educators than who we have right now. I think there’s an effort to privatize everything. I think some charter schools do a great job. But, they don’t have to live by the same standards that our public schools do. So, if you look at which schools are performing the most poorly out of all of those schools, it’s some of those charter schools that don’t have to live by the same rules. I think if we’re going to continue to send so many of our public dollars there, we’re going to have to find a way for accountability of those dollars. That’s where I have an issue, but charter schools are here to stay. I realized that I would like to see us have a very robust public school system and make sure that every child has an opportunity to get a good education.
Q: The St. Johns River is considered one of Jacksonville’s environmental assets. However, it is vulnerable to environmental effects like rising sea levels while contamination is damaging wildlife ecosystems. What is your plan to bolster Jacksonville’s beautiful ecosphere?
A: We are a city that is absolutely dependent on water — every great civilization that’s ever existed has learned how to make water work for them. We have to do the same thing. Even if you took away sea levels rising, you have to go back to that infrastructure piece. We have so much water, and so much of Jacksonville is built over swampy lands that we struggled to make sure that our bridges stay solid, for drainage and all those things. Now on top of that is sea levels rising, on top of that is heat stress and on top of that are the pollutants that go into our river. You can see we are really on a collision path.
There are a number of things we need to do: we need to continue to try to make sure that pollutants are not put in our river, and we need to make sure that we have a very mindful development policy. We cannot build right up to the water. We need to create more park space, more fortified bulkheads, which will certainly have to be adjusted over time. But the more you can move development back off of the riverfront a little bit, the less you’re going to have to deal with really bad consequences. So, there are many, many steps that we have to take resiliency-wise, but beyond that the state of Florida makes it difficult to reduce fossil fuels because they’ve taken over a lot of local rules on those issues. But, we need to continue to take steps toward solar and other forms of energy that are going to at least mitigate some of this. In the meantime, I think the more people we can get down to appreciate what the river is about, the more people will take ownership over that. That’s what we need. If we allow it, we would open up our riverfront to kayakers and fishermen again. We drove them out eons ago, but if we’d open it up to families that want to come down there and just enjoy the beauty of it, I think people would start to get a lot more of a sense of how big a role the river plays in our lives in Jacksonville.
We’ve got to take care of the river, and we’ve also got to start taking steps both in resiliency and also intentionally to mitigate what is coming, which is rising seas and much hotter days. In a city surrounded by water by creeks, rivers, waterways and the ocean, if we don’t do that we’re gonna have a world of hurt in about 20 years because our oceans are rising pretty quickly. Plus, I think that we’re projected to have about another million people here within 20 years. We’ve got to make sure that they are building here in a way that makes sense to accommodate those people without just exacerbating the problem that we have.
Q: What would you say distinguishes you from your opponents?
A: Well, I think it’s probably my very deep roots in this community. I am the only person in this race that has a five-generation root system in this city. Not only that, but I was on the air here for 25 years, I’ve been in a lot of households, I’ve been in a lot of neighborhoods — people feel like I’m family. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, this whole community rallied around me not one time, but three times. So, what I always say to them is that they had my back, they prayed for me and they let me know things that I needed to do to give back. Now I want to have theirs. I’m just frustrated. I think this comes from my years of foundation work.
I’m frustrated by the fact that we are still talking about the same issues. I didn’t really get to talk about health care, but I do want to say a word about that. We have the best health care in the country in Jacksonville: the Mayo Clinic, MD Anderson, amazing doctors. But, we have the worst health outcomes in the state by a longshot. Our maternal mortality rate and our infant mortality rate are dismal. The reason for that is because we have not made access for everyone a priority. You can do that by simply educating but also by trying to bring down more dollars for some wonderful nonprofits that we have here that are doing work. What I think sets me apart is I feel like I have always had a vision that has been very people-forward as opposed to just sort of a handful that have always run this city forever.
I think that’s what makes me scary to people, too. They realize that if Donna Deegan is the mayor, that power structure is going away. We’re going to bring in a new type of vision to the city that is very people-focused. We’re going to diversify our boards and make sure they look like Jacksonville instead of very homogenous, and we’re going to activate those boards to make sure they have a say in how city businesses are done. We’re going to make sure that we bring everybody into this economy. We’ve just for the longest time been a city that has focused on a handful of folks for success. Now we’re going to bring everybody in. I think people know I have walked that walk my entire life. I have always been a voice for the voiceless people in this city who are the people that often get left behind. That is my absolute priority in this race: we are going to have a city that works for everybody and not just for a select few. I think people recognize authenticity in my remarks about that. I hope that’s what will take me over the top in a few weeks.
Q: What is your message to Florida students?
A: Hang in there. We have a great university system here, and we have wonderful students. But, you hold the power in your hands for the future of this state. You now occupy what is really the majority of people in this state. We have a very young state and if you guys will just turn out and use your voice, you can change everything. You can make everything. You can bend to your will, whatever that is, because you have that voice. If you’re old enough to vote, make sure you vote. If you’re not going to vote, start getting dialed into people like you guys to make sure you’re educating yourself about the issues. Ultimately, you know us old folks are going to go away.
It’s going to be a space that’s left to you, and you’re going to have to decide: Do you want a state that is underwater that is dealing with these issues? Do you want a state where education is off-limits to politics? Do you want a state where we have a policy where everybody has an opportunity? I think that’s what’s up to you guys to do. I’m very optimistic about your generation. You guys are showing up a lot. I think today we have the room to grow there. I would say hang in there and go, go, go.
Jacksonville’s consolidated government uses a unitary election system outside the national and statewide election cycle. While candidates are partisan and campaign with their political party, every candidate runs together in the same primary election taking place on Tuesday. Any candidate who reaches majority support will win the mayorship outright. Otherwise, the top two candidates move on to a general run-off election May 16, 2023.
By Brandon Lancho and Tika Horigene
Check out other recent articles from the Florida Political Review here.
Featured image: Florida Political Review candidate Q&A graphic depicting Donna Deegan. Image by Maria Varas.