Candidates talk priorities, motivations ahead of Jacksonville City Council special elections

A bike rider tries to get through flooding on McCoy Creek Boulevard at King Street in 2019. Infrastructure improvements, including drainage and walkability, are a key issue in a pair of special elections this month to fill vacant City Council seats.
A bike rider tries to get through flooding on McCoy Creek Boulevard at King Street in 2019. Infrastructure improvements, including drainage and walkability, are a key issue in a pair of special elections this month to fill vacant City Council seats.

Counting down to the City Council special elections, candidates vying for seats in Districts 7 and 9 prepare for the 23rd – and 2023.

The resignations of City Council members Reggie Gaffney and Garrett Dennis, who are running for state Legislature, means their council seats will be filled in a special election on the Aug. 23 ballot. The winner will serve out the remainder of the term until running again next spring.

The community members looking to replace them told the Times-Union they are thinking ahead to the overall election regardless of whether they win this month.

The special election will follow district lines decided in 2015. Boundaries for the 2023 races are still undecided as a federal judge hears a case brought up by citizens and civil rights groups, including the Northside Coalition of Jacksonville, alleging the new lines are unconstitutionally gerrymandered.

Six candidates are running for Gaffney's District 7 seat: Charles Barr, Reggie Gaffney Jr., Karen Goins, Nahshon Nicks, Kim Pryor and Kimberly Scott. Three campaign for District 9: Tyrona Clark-Murray, Danny Grabill and Stanley McAllister Jr.

Almost every candidate agreed infrastructure was a main priority when speaking individually with the Times-Union, though they sometimes differed on which projects to start first. They also largely sought to find ways to help lower the crime rate – opinions ranged from funding social programs and expanding the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office to pushing for constitutional carry.

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Six in the running for District 7

Councilman Gaffney’s son and namesake, Reggie Gaffney Jr., joined the race but told the Times-Union he did not view his bid as a take for his father’s seat. He said it “just happened” that way as he grew up in the district and attends church and works there now as vice president of Community Rehabilitation Center.

Gaffney Jr. has raised the most money so far, totaling in around $80,000. Nicks and Barr follow him in funds raised, totaling around $31,000 and $30,000. Nicks owns Team Nitro MMA and is the CEO of The First Coast Leadership Foundation. Barr works in process control programming at Anheuser Busch.

As the only Republican in the race, Barr told the Times-Union he knew campaigning for a long-held blue seat would be an “uphill battle.” He thought that his message, however, transcended political parties and focused on fixing problems in the district – primarily infrastructure issues he thought had been largely ignored.

“I'm not campaigning on, ‘Hey, I'm the only Republican. Vote for me,’” Barr said. “I'm campaigning on, ‘I feel your pain, and I want to fix this.’”

Pryor, Scott and Goins have so far raised around $20,500, $14,700 and $300, respectively.

Pryor, Chair of the Urban Core Citizen Planning Advisory Council, told the Times-Union she did not think of the district as having “issues.” She instead wanted to focus on her “Pryorities” of increasing the district’s walkability, working to help areas most affected by flooding and helping downtown businesses.

As the former chief of the Municipal Code Compliance Division and lifelong Jacksonville resident, Scott said her experiences allowed her a unique perspective. She said she intended to focus on lowering the district’s crime rate, namely by supporting businesses and ensuring access to affordable housing.

“I've been in district seven almost my entire life,” Scott said. “I can see the improvements that I want all citizens in the district to experience, the good things that Jacksonville has to offer.”

As a current public school teacher with a background in mental health services, Goins also thought her experience qualified her for the role – especially because she is not originally from the city.

“I am so proud to be a civic-minded person,” Goins said. “I believe that I'm stepping up to the plate to make an impact in this beautiful city that I chose in my home.”

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Three in the running for District 9

The candidates’ opinions varied in regard to the biggest issues facing district nine, but they each rallied around working on various infrastructure problems, such as drainage, electrical issues and housing. Their motivations for running for office, however, drastically differed.

McAllister, a pastor and business owner, said he first wanted to run in order to extend the humanitarian work he started in Durkeeville. When he discovered he would be the first Black, openly gay person to hold the seat, he said he became inspired.

“I decided that I would take the go-first principle, so that every LGBTQ+ person in the city would know that because I went first, they could go next,” McAllister said. He had been volunteering to go first his entire life, McAllister said, so he saw no reason for the campaign to be different.

So far, McAllister has raised and spent the most during the campaign. He has raised over $7,000 and donated $3,500 himself. He has spent around $6,600.

Grabill, who is also a pastor and the only Republican in the race, has raised over $3,700 in donations and loaned his campaign $800. He has spent around $3,600.

Running for office, Grabill told the Times-Union, was answering a call from God. He wanted every constituent to know his name and how to contact him if he won, he said, as well as know he would be serving them and not the people he considered “special interest groups,” such as the Northside Coalition of Jacksonville.

“It seems like our City Council is appeasing special interest groups, whereas they should be focusing more on appeasing the people that are paying their salaries, taking care of the community,” Grabill said.

He would turn a traditionally blue seat red, Grabill said, because his message mattered more than his party. For Grabill, he said this meant putting money toward infrastructure costs instead of removing “historic monuments,” that he believed should instead be contextualized, such as the highly contested "Tribute to the Women of the Southern Confederacy" monument in Springfield Park.

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Clark-Murray has raised over $2,500 in donations, loaning $300 herself. She is the only candidate to contribute in-kind donations to a campaign, totaling over $3,400. She has spent over $2,800.

Growing up in Jacksonville, Clark-Murray said she saw how the city could change for the better. After living in almost every corner of the district, working in the Duval County Public School system and as Vice Chair for the Northwest CPAC, she believed herself to be the best candidate for the job.

She said she decided to start a campaign when she realized that in her various volunteer positions and in her free time walking, running and cycling the district looking for problems to fix, she had already been doing the work of a city council member.

“Just in the back of my mind as a kid, I knew I would do something special for my community,” Clark-Murray said. “Forty years later, this is a special thing that I can do for my community.”

Early voting for both district elections begins Aug. 8, culminating election day Aug. 23. If a single candidate in each race does not gain a majority of the vote, the two top vote-getters will engage in a run-off in November.

This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Jacksonville City Council candidates prepare for special elections