Jacksonville Special Election a Prelude for 2022 Elections in Florida

A special election race in Jacksonville for an open citywide City Council seat on Tuesday may provide an insight to the upcoming 2022 elections in Florida.

The race pits the Democrat Dr. Tracye Polson, a licensed clinical social worker, against Republican Nick Howland, the executive director of the Fire Watch, a group working to end veteran suicide in Northeast Florida.

This race isn’t the classic liberal versus conservative contest. Instead it pits a liberal against a moderate Republican with the backing of the GOP’s establishment.

DEMOCRAT TRACEY POLSON

Polson is no stranger to politics. She ran for the Florida House in 2018 and lost to state Rep. Wyman Duggan, R-Jacksonville.

But this time around Paulson has a better chance of getting elected. She won the first round in December but didn’t crack the 50 percent margin.

Polson’s platform fits the current mold of liberal progressives in the Democratic party, including on LGBT issues and supporting mask and vaccine mandates to deal with COVID. She calls for “Environmental Justice” and “dealing with climate change and sea level rising.”

On race, Polson said she believes there is systemic racism in Jacksonville and “income inequality” has been one of the main parts of her campaign. leading her opponents to compare her to U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY, and the liberal “Squad” on Capitol Hill. While Polson talks about supporting small businesses, her site says nothing about taxes and spending.

REPUBLICAN NICK HOWLAND

Howland is also no stranger to running for office. He ran for a seat on the Duval County School Board and was soundly defeated with his opponent getting almost 60 percent of the vote.

Howland has been described as the establishment candidate by several local Republicans and he has had a tough time proving he is a conservative.

The local Republican Liberty Caucus (RLC) chose not to endorse Howland in the first round, instead endorsing another Republican running for the seat. Some members of the RLC told Florida Daily that Howland comes off as a moderate not willing to take a stance on several key issues.

TAXES AND SPENDING

Howland has been silent on some tax and spending issues, primarily on the recent passage of the local option gas tax that was passed by the Republican-led Jacksonville City Council and millions of dollars on infrastructure projects that have been opposed by local elected Republicans.

During the middle of the campaign, a vote to stop the gas tax failed but Howland did not take a public position on the issue.

On the 2020 school sales tax, which several Republicans opposed, Howland was also quiet. His website is vague on a host of issues ranging from taxes and spending and other items dealing with the city.

On COVID, Howland’s positions haven’t been much different than where the Democrats stand. He told News4Jax that he supported the local government’s lockdown policies and applauded Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry’s mask mandates.

With the FBI investigating the proposed sale on JEA and Jacksonville residents insisting there has been a lack of transparency on the matter, Howland said “that ship has sailed,” and insisted it was time to move forward.

CRIME AND DEFUNDING THE POLICE

One issue that may give Howland the upper hand to a victory on Tuesday has been crime and defunding the police which he has made the focus of his campaign.

In recent years, polls of Jacksonville voters show that crime remains the top issue and local citizens don’t support defunding the police. Howland has the support of Duval County Sheriff Mike Williams and the Fraternal Order of Police.

While Polson opposes defunding the police, her campaign has garnered support from some backers of defunding the police.

Polson’s campaign manager Mara Strobel-Lanka has had a history of supporting the Black Lives Matter Movement and going after police. In May 2020, Strobel-Lanka retweeted a post on Twitter that read “New York’s Finest Disgusting” and included #BlackLivesMatter and #riots 2020.

When confronted about Howland’s accusations that she would support defunding the police, Polson has responded by focusing on how local police need to expand mental health and counseling services.

If voters have crime as their top issue when they hit the polls on Tuesday, that could propel Howland to victory.

Though several local political agree that Polson is a typical liberal, some of them think Howland has been too moderate on past positions and is not a real conservative,

In June 2020, Howland wrote an op-ed for the Florida Times-Union on race. “Every one of us can do our part to eliminate institutional racism,” he wrote.

“What? This is the same language liberals in 2020 when the whole Black Lives Matter movement was taking place,” said former Jacksonville City Councilman Matt Schellenberg, a Republican.

Schellenberg has been critical of Howland calling him a clone of the “Curry crowd” in a shot at the mayor. “Seriously, ask Howland one issue he differs from the mayor on,” Schellenberg said. “He can’t name one.”

Conservatives have also said Howland is weak on guns.

In June 2018, when Howland was a school board candidate, he came out in support of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act. Howland said he supported the bill because of the increased funding for mental health and school security. However, most Republicans opposed the bill for its efforts to undermine gun owner’s rights The bill contained new measures taking away the right of 18-20-year-olds to purchase a firearm, including mandating someone had to be 21 to buy a rifle even if the person was using it for hunting purposes. The bill also required a three-day waiting period for all firearms, not just handguns.

Pro-gun advocates opposed the proposal as the Florida National Rifle Association (NRA) came out in opposition and several conservative Republicans in the Florida House voted against their own party on the matter.

Some active local Republicans told Florida Daily, as much as they don’t like Polson, they are disappointed with Howland for not being more vocal on the issues. Howland does have the backing of several Republicans including U.S. Rep. John Rutherford, R-Fla., and popular conservative Jacksonville City Councilman Rory Diamond.

“I don’t even have to pause when I tell people I fully one hundred percent support Nick Howland,” said Diamond.

With early voting underway, a new poll from the University of North Florida (UNF) shows the race is neck and neck with Polson at 50.3 percent and Howland at 49.7 percent.

“People with a history of voting in these types of elections lean more toward Howland, so Polson will need to make up for that with new voters in the coming days,” Michael Binder, a professor of political science and public administration at UNF, said on Thursday.

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