When I moved to Jacksonville in June 2021, three-fourths of the way through Mayor Lenny Curry’s tenure, I immediately encountered several contradictions. I was back in my native South, somewhat against my will, ready to be irritated if not actually harmed by our Governor’s particular brand of performative, aggrieved cultural conservatism. But I also found myself in a city that seemed to be flourishing despite the very reasons I expected to find it distasteful.
Jacksonville had recently removed a statue of a Confederate soldier in a downtown park, but still had a high school named for Robert E. Lee. The city had a vibrant and growing LGBTQ community, but DeSantis gloried in punching down at them. Local development had begun to consider ecological factors, but climate change mitigation efforts statewide faced fierce opposition in Tallahassee. In all these areas and more, I found that the sensible, progressive side had an unlikely ally in our Republican Mayor.
As for Curry himself, I have only known him as a Twitter persona. But whereas I found that my new social circle almost without exception despised the man, I actually thought he seemed pretty cool. He struck me as an earnest family man and a mostly cheerful booster of the city. On social media, he congratulated local graduates who earned athletic scholarships, he acknowledged with pride his wife’s and children’s accomplishments, and he offered occasional commentary on his public and private life.
As for his job performance, I generally liked what I saw. This could be because I already felt inclined to like and appreciate Curry. And I only learned about the first six years of his tenure slowly as I became integrated into my new community. I knew there would be plenty I found objectionable, supposing his relationships with DeSantis and former President Donald Trump would unearth supportive comments I found cringe-worthy.
But the more I told my new friends I thought the Mayor was okay, the harder local Democrats, albeit with long years of frustrations and grievances, pushed back. They called him a fascist, a neo-Nazi sympathizer, a drunk, and a clown. It all seemed a little unhinged to me. None of it squared with my impressions.
So, I tried a new tack, and this remains my message to local liberals: Curry was about the best Republican Mayor a Democrat could have hoped for.
Given that he was Chair of the state party in the Tea Party era, Lenny Curry is eminently sane compared the legions of aggrieved Republicans, some lightly racist and actually fascist-adjacent, who came to power then and subsequently. Sure, he was tethered to the state and national Republican headwinds that produced DeSantis and Trump. But Curry was elected just weeks before the man who would become the 45th President descended the Trump Tower escalator in June 2015.
As a thought experiment, I ask progressives to imagine what Curry would be like if he had actually needed to turn out Republican votes in the years since.
Jacksonville has famously been the largest Republican-held mayoralty in the country. And I have come to admire how fiercely my Duval neighbors — Democrats and Republicans — love their consolidated city-county home. But have you seen some of the stuff Republican mayors have said and done in other cities? Next to them, Curry is a Republican in the mold of The Honorable Jeb Bush and the Republicans of old who are now attacked and hated.
The first thing I learned about Curry is that he was willing to devote resources to the removal of the Confederate monument in Springfield Park when most local Republicans were terrified to take that stance. I later learned that he greeted and addressed a Black Lives Matter march at a time when many Republicans around the country regarded protesters as equal to or worse than the racists.
I soon learned about the former Obama administration official Curry hired to lead the city’s climate resiliency efforts. Many powerful Republicans do not even believe that global warming exists, let alone that we should spend millions of dollars to mitigate its effects.
Last year, Curry supported the inclusion of Juneteenth as an official city holiday — and a paid day off for municipal employees. A cursory glance at the internet on June 19 shows throngs of Republicans and conservatives ignorantly and even cruelly denigrating the observance and everything it stands for.
Others told me about the long road to the Human Rights Ordinance that Curry eventually supported, requiring a humbling change of mind and facing unrelenting pressure from his right. And while I understand why LGBTQ people in particular would find Republican politicians difficult if not impossible to celebrate, even here I would say that Curry could have done less and worse and still been within the normal range of GOP officeholders.
I was disappointed when the Mayor attended a fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago in December 2021 for clown-show Georgia U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker. I have been disappointed a few other times, and this is without even digging into the history that predated my residence here: the debate over the proposed privatization of our public utility, the 2020 Republican National Convention site change eventuality, and his political support for self-discrediting Republicans whose slavish devotion to Trump’s lies and delusions I consider permanently disqualifying.
But I have also arrived at the judgment that, while Curry naturally has political relationships with state and national GOP leaders, his real friendships are closer to home. I respect that a lot. In a recent interview, Curry declined to comment publicly on the defeat of his preferred successor, JAX Chamber CEO Daniel Davis. The reason? “Because he’s my friend.” And Curry has experienced the grief of his own father’s death while working collaboratively with incoming Mayor Donna Deegan for a stable, effective transition.
Perhaps I feel a special kinship to Curry because my family came to the state in the 1880s and I am getting back in touch with my native-Florida roots. By then, the famed Curry clan had already been in Key West for two generations. Forgive the parochial attitude, but I am inclined to trust the intuitions of people like Lenny and myself when it comes to what about Florida ought to change and what ought to stay the same.
I just hope Curry doesn’t change too much in the wrong direction, especially as he considers entering the 2026 gubernatorial primary, which I fear will be an absolute race to the bottom. Yet if the country and the party are to recover from Trumpism and its incessant degradations of our norms of decency and democracy, it will take men and women of principle to stand up and speak out. I will probably register Republican to vote against Trump in the 2024 presidential preference primary. Perhaps I can stick around until the 2026 GOP primary to vote for Curry if he wants to lead the party’s path back to sanity.
Politics can really warp a person’s mind and character. But judging against the wholesale moral collapse of the Republican Party and conservative movement since the advent of Curry’s involvement, one can only conclude that he’s one of the good guys. And if Duval Democrats had to live under a Republican Mayor for the past eight years, they could not have done much better than Lenny Curry.
Jacob Lupfer is a writer and political analyst in Jacksonville.