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 interviewed Republican candidate and Councilwoman LeAnna Gutierrez Cumber. Cumber is the descendant of Cuban immigrants, a small business owner, former teacher, lawyer and now local elected official.
If elected, Cumber would be the first-ever Latina mayor of Jacksonville, and the first woman elected to the role.
We had a conversation with Cumber about her background, policy views and priorities. A transcript can be read below.
Q: Tell us about yourself, your campaign and your connections to Jacksonville.
A: Thanks for having me, I’m very excited. I was a political science major myself in college, so I’m really excited that you all are doing this and have interest in local elections – particularly because local elections are really the most important elections to vote in. However, they tend to be the ones in which people vote in the least numbers, which is kind of backwards. But, local elections matter to everything that happens to you every day: how you live, how you raise your kids and what environment you do it in.
My husband and I have a nine- and 11-year-old. When people say, “Why are you doing this?” I say it’s because of them. Both of my kids were born here in Jacksonville, and I want them to go off to college, do whatever it is they want to do to be happy and successful. But, I want them to always have the ability to come back home and get a job in an industry where they can move up in the company. I want all their friends to say, “Oh my gosh, I can’t wait to move to Jacksonville. I just got a job. I love downtown.” We really have the most ideal city in the country. Sometimes I think that when you’re here in it, you don’t realize it. But we’re in Florida, and everyone wants to be in Florida.
We’re at the top of Florida, which makes it really attractive to companies because you can take a day trip from here to Boston and from here to New York, which really makes a difference for financial firms and headquarters or companies. We have three freight railroads, two major highways, a deepwater port and this beautiful river that is brackish. We have dolphins jumping right by our downtown area. It just makes all of those pieces and the fact that we have 864 square miles. We have everything from beaches to horse farms to urban to suburban. This city is so unique and wonderful, but we really need to tackle the issues that we have. Jacksonville has the potential to be an amazing southern city.
Q: Out of eight qualified candidates, you’re one of four women on the ballot to be Jacksonville’s first female mayor and its first Latina mayor. How does your historic candidacy make you feel?
A: Having a daughter, it’s really important to me that I help build a world in which she can be fully successful and build a world where she doesn’t have the barriers that women before me had. Women today have and keep moving forward. What people are really ready for in the city is true leadership, leadership with a vision, and someone who wants to move the entire city forward, not just move it forward for a few people. People are ready to open this city up, fix the issues and address the problems that we have in the core and in a large part of our city and also incorporate all the people that are moving here and all the people that are here.
Not only are we the largest city by landmass in the contiguous 48 states, but we also are the largest city by population in Florida. We’re the 12th largest city in the country by population. And so, our millions of people are made up of immense diversity: We’re 11% Hispanic, and whether it’s Haitians, whether it’s Indians, folks from all over, we have them in Jacksonville. We really need to celebrate that. That diversity in that international nature of who we are is very attractive to businesses, very attractive to companies and very attractive to people like you who are in college and graduating college and want to find a vibrant city to live in.
For me, what’s so exciting about running is that people have been talking about the city having potential for decades, around 40-50 years. The other thing a lot of people don’t know is we’re the only city between Richmond, Virginia and Miami that I-95 runs through. So, if you think about that, it’s like you have to come to Jacksonville, right? You don’t have to go to Charleston, yet Charleston is incredible and it’s a wonderful place to go. You don’t have to go to Nashville, yet Nashville is a wonderful place. You name these cities that have just really come into their own over the last 10 years, and we can do that. What we need to do is start giving all those people who are driving through our city a reason to stop and really harness everyone we have here. I think that what the city’s ready for is change and someone who has a vision for the next 10-20 years and has a vision for the city.
Q: How would you say your résume and Hispanic roots help you form the strongest candidacy?
A: I grew up with my father who came here in 1961 from Cuba. His parents followed, and my grandfather was a lawyer in Cuba. My mom is from western New York, and my uncle was a racecar driver. I grew up in this world where the two sides of my family were very different. I grew up speaking Spanish and going to Miami for vacations and only ever spoke Spanish to my grandparents on my dad’s side. On my mom’s side, they go all the way back to the Revolutionary War. When I think about it now, being an adult and especially over the last 18 months going to every part of this county, it has allowed me to be able to talk to everyone and find common ground with everyone.
I grew up in an apartment — my kids are living in a very different world. I have the experiences in my life that have given me the opportunity to be able to walk in a room and find common ground with everyone. That’s what we really need. That’s what we need to teach our children, and it’s what I did when I really emphasized when I was teaching bilinguals in Texas, in California. It’s what I continue to teach our kids.
My life has always been focused, whether it’s on the work I do in domestic violence and violence against women or my work with kids. I see the world and what we should be doing as public servants. I see the world very pragmatically. We can always find common ground. But, if we insist on finding what’s different or finding what we don’t agree with, that’s where you get into this constant fighting. From a political science perspective, it doesn’t work at the end of the day. It’s why people get frustrated with politics. At the end of the day, parents all want the same thing.
About a year ago I was asked: What does the Hispanic community want? I said, “The same thing all communities want, right?” Parents want the best education for their kids in the best way that they can educate kids, and they want every choice out there. They want to be safe. We want to be able to grow our small businesses without bureaucracy and without having to know who to hire in order to get that business going. We want to be able to succeed, and we want our children to succeed. It’s why my husband is also a first generation. Our kids are the second generation on both sides. It’s why their grandparents came to this country because they knew the opportunity was there to be successful if you seized it. That’s what’s exciting to me about all this, is that it kind of shows that, yes, this is what we all want. We all want the same thing: We want our kids to be successful. We all want to live in safe, vibrant communities.
Q: Like many cities in Florida, sometimes you see the endless construction projects on sections of the highway. It’s just been a work in progress for decades, especially in Jacksonville. So, what would be some of your solutions as mayor to fix some of the infrastructure issues in Jacksonville?
A: I’ve had a 20-year history in the private sector. In working for the Department of Transportation under the Bush administration in D.C., working in infrastructure and transportation, it’s something that people don’t generally think about. But when you bring it to the forefront, you say, we need to have good infrastructure in order to open businesses and have successful communities. Communities can’t be successful if they have broken roads and sidewalks, lack of pedestrian and bike lanes, lack of parks, lack of lighting, etcetera.
How we build and what we build dictates how we live. As I said, my uncle is a racecar driver. I love driving. If you give me a long, straight stretch of road that’s very wide. I’m going to drive it, and I’m going to drive it fast. If you give me more of a boulevard with bike lanes then trees, something that well then it becomes more walkable, and it becomes safer. How we build and where we put our priorities dictates how people behave. It is critical that we get back to the basics. The way I look at government is that local governments should do what the state and federal government can’t and won’t do with the private sector.
Nobody else is going to pick up the trash. Nobody else is going to fix the potholes. Fixing the drainage set the stage for economic development. What we need to do is reassess our priorities. There are a lot of priorities currently, in the capital improvement plan that should be reallocated. The biggest one is the Skyway, which doesn’t serve anyone, and we spend $9 million a year on it today, just for maintenance, and we’re set to spend up to $500 million.
There is no world in which we should be doing that where I work at the airport, and I have to rely on a bus service to go to my job. I have a job at [St. Johns] Town Center, and it takes me an hour and a half to get there one way. That’s if the buses are all working well. Economic development is not just about giving incentives to developers. It’s about figuring out how people get to where they need to be in order to have the jobs they need to support their families and build up their neighborhoods.
If you look at cities that have been very successful, they’ve really focused on the basics of infrastructure. Spending money there rather than giving it to the private sector and saying we’re going to build up the Riverwalk, we’re going to build up the roads, make sure that again, the stage is set. I just feel so strongly that it’s the government’s job to set the stage. If we set the stage and keep taxes low, people can have more money in their pockets to be successful, and we can make sure that we handle those basic needs.
Q: So what are some of your ideas to implement as mayor to alleviate the housing crisis?
A: I think one of the things that we’ve really missed in Jacksonville is infill development. Downtown is really the most difficult place to open a business and develop. There’s a lot of area and people throughout 864 square miles. But it doesn’t mean that we need to use that land to build housing when we have so many neighborhoods where we could actually be focusing on infill, whether it’s downtown, whether it’s in Springfield. There are so many places that we should be focusing on that infill and making it easier to develop and that in and of itself.
The housing exists, but the question is whether we want to spend or if we want to refocus people on renovating in the infill by making our regulations more palatable, making the bureaucracy less opaque and less difficult to get through in these areas. There are also things other cities have done, like getting rid of parking requirements, since building a parking structure adds an incredible amount of money to a project that you won’t recoup. It’s dead space. There are various different ways we can reduce the cost of housing. The flip side of that is to get businesses that have higher wages. That would really attract tech businesses.
We have the second-best healthcare system in this country here in Jacksonville, outside of Houston. We should be really aggressively going after those biotech firms who are coming to Florida, but they’re not coming here.
Here, they could beta-test anything in our city. Those are high-paying jobs. If we get the marinas built downtown, the marine industry, those are very high paying well-paying jobs. You look at South Florida and Miami. There are so many jobs that stem from a healthy marine industry.We have the river, we’ve got 22,000 boat registrations. We have all the puzzle pieces. We need to just put them together.
Q: What are some of your ideas on how to protect the St. Johns River from the usual risks in Florida, which are sea level rise and sea life preservation?
A: I think that we need to look at examples all over the world, and we need to start getting creative. Some are natural, I know that the [Jacksonville] Zoo has piloted some natural reefs and natural barriers. We need to look at those things, we need to open up our tributaries. That helps if there are things we can do naturally, that help filter. The other thing is, if we build the marinas, if we give people places to go, when they have their boats, rather than private clubs in Clay County, then with more people on the river, there will be a heightened awareness of wanting to keep the river clean.
Right now, so many people drive over it or they’re on their boat and they might go to the intercoastal. They might go to Clay County, and they might go if we improve that and increase that kind of just usage of the river, which also helps to spread awareness. We really need to focus on what we can do naturally that can help. Certainly, we’re starting to open up the tributaries. I think that’s really going to help as well as to look at what other cities have done, so Jacksonville needs to start looking outside for solutions that could work here.
Q: At the candidate forum, you mentioned that there are a lot of boating restrictions, especially with the St. Johns River. Would you like to expand on your concerns?
A: I think the challenge is that people have boats, but there’s just nowhere to go. There’s nowhere to go downtown. There’s no marina and no restaurants. We really need to build up downtown to make sure that we have plenty of boat ownership in the city. Now we have about 22,000 boat registrations, which is an enormous number. But, we have to give people somewhere to go. It’s not that we shouldn’t be a city where you have to leave the county to find a restaurant that you can dock up to and find a place to have drinks with your friends or to take your kids. That’s what we really need to focus on, and we absolutely can.
Q: What are your views on school choice in Jacksonville — or education overall — in the city?
A: As a former teacher, as a mom, as the daughter and granddaughter of educators, I believe that education is so critical. Our third-grade reading scores are 47% in the city, and we’ve got to stop that. We’ve got to realize that we can’t just say that the school board will take care of it. We need everyone in the city, from the private sector, from the mayor and the school board to get on board on getting those literacy rates up. There are a variety of things we can do. Part of that is making sure that parents have the choice to educate their kids in the best way they know how. People talk about school choice, and they kind of debate on when did school choice start?
Well, I would say school choice started with the very first private school that was ever opened because it gave parents who could afford it the option to choose where their kids went to school. We need to make sure that every parent has that opportunity. As we talked about earlier, parents know that education is the key to success and is the key to moving forward and for their children. If they don’t get educated, they will continue in the cycle of poverty, crime, and so forth. Education is absolutely a pinnacle of what I’m focused on because it really does help in stopping crime, help in economic development and fuels success in life.
Q: What would be your perspectives on rising crime in the city?
A: We have to be proactive as well as reactive. We need to make sure that the sheriff’s office has all the resources it needs in order to be reactive and react to the crime that’s happening. But, we also need to focus on prevention and the proactive piece. It’s why I shut down the illegal gambling cafés. It’s why I passed a landmark sex trafficking bill and raised the stripping age to 21 and required licenses and further regulated the strip clubs because there’s so much crime happening there. This includes an immense amount of human trafficking and trafficking from women coming up from Miami. It’s also why I created a nuisance abatement board that for the very first time allows the city to actually hold businesses accountable, ones that are allowing criminal activity to happen. We need to continue doing things like that. If we can’t, we’re never going to solve the crime issue.
It helps when you hold a business owner accountable or shut down a business that’s allowing criminal activity to happen.It relieves resources on the sheriff’s office and improves communities. We need to take a multi-pronged approach. We also need to get our education level up so that those kids are not growing up to commit crimes. There are so many things that we can do to resolve the crime issue here in Jacksonville. We have to admit that we have a gang problem, and it must be addressed head-on because that’s what’s really causing the bulk of the violent crime. And so those are my three pillars: education, infrastructure, and crime. All three of those things work together.
Q: What would you say differentiates you from other mayoral candidates?
A: People want change in this city. I have been to every corner of the city talking to people and meeting with people every day for the last year and a half. What I hear consistently, regardless of what part of town you’re in, is that the city needs change. We need to stop talking about potential and realize what we can be. The only way to do that is to have a change in this city and have someone who has a vision for the city.
We should be an amazing Southern city when people think of it like they do when they hear Charleston and Savannah. They should be thinking of Charleston, Savannah and Jacksonville. We should be a biotech hub. People are also so tired of the politics that’s gone on over the last eight years where the current administration never stopped campaigning to govern. People want to be governed, people want to address the issues we have in a serious way and really celebrate all of the wonderful things we have. Going around, it’s really the change and my ability to talk to anyone and everyone and find commonality.
We’ve gone from a kind of smallish city decades ago to a major metropolitan city that is so diverse. I’m the only candidate that has a Spanish translation on my website, but it’s important. We’re 11% Hispanic now. It’s important to economic development and bring businesses with someone who can bring all the facets of the city together to solve the problems we have in a cohesive way and also celebrate all of the amazing things that we have. My campaign also raised about $4.2 million, so between the money and between talking to people we’ll definitely outwork everyone.
Q: What is your message to Florida students overall?
A: I want to make Jacksonville a place that is #1 on your list to come when you graduate from college, in whatever field you’re doing. I want you to spread the word that we have the best downtown, hippest, most fun, most vibrant city where you can really move up in whatever industry you want. We know the University of Florida is the fifth best university in the country now, right? It’s amazing! As the largest city in Florida and the 12th largest in the country, we need to be your #1 top choice for moving after graduation.
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.
Check out other recent articles from the Florida Political Review here.
Featured image: Florida Political Review candidate Q&A graphic depicting LeAnna Cumber. Image by Maria Varas.