This is part of a series of election previews The Tributary is publishing examining who is running for Jacksonville City Council.
Three seasoned politicians who last won elections in the 1990s are competing to represent Jacksonville’s new City Council District 14 in the Westside.
Republicans John Draper and Alberta Hipps and Democrat Rahman Johnson each bring experience but very different views on city policy to a race rooted in development, infrastructure and safety.
For 66-year-old Draper and 80-year-old Hipps, both former City Council members, the race is an opportunity to represent their districts again. It’s also a rematch — in 1995, Hipps beat Draper for the then-District 13 seat.
For Johnson, now 46, the race is a return to politics after spending more than 20 years working as a journalist, actor and college professor. At age 22, Johnson was elected as a Duval County Soil and Water Conservation District representative in 1999, believed at the time to be the youngest Black elected official in Florida history.
Early voting has already started and runs through March 19 for the district’s more than 49,000 registered voters. The first election takes place on March 21. If a candidate wins the majority of the votes, they’ll be elected. If not, the two candidates with the most votes will move forward into May’s general election.
District 14 is the city’s most diverse council district. The district, which is home to Naval Air Station Jacksonville and growing neighborhoods like Argyle Forest, Oakleaf and Chimney Lakes in the southwestern part of the city, is about 39% white, 39% Black, 15% Hispanic and 7% Asian.
The district was central to a redistricting fight that the City Council lost last year with a federal court ruling that council members had racially gerrymandered to make the previous District 14 whiter than it otherwise would be. The city has continued to appeal that ruling.
Each of the candidates said they thought the city should stop fighting the court order. Of the three, Draper was the only one to speak out at city meetings, protesting the council’s gerrymandering and supporting the lawsuit brought by the Jacksonville Branch of the NAACP.
Johnson’s term on the Duval Soil and Water Conservation District got off to a rocky start when controversy over a tax-exempt cell phone led his fellow soil and water supervisors to censure him, though the Florida Commission on Ethics later cleared Johnson. Then in 2002, Johnson lost a race for the state house and turned to his passion for storytelling. He worked as a host on Nickelodeon Splat!, a children’s show. He later worked as a TV reporter for a Tallahassee news station. Most recently, he has taught journalism at Edward Waters University and currently serves as the faculty union’s vice president.
“In all of those experiences, I told the story, I amplified voice,” he said. “Now, here’s a chance for me, as a member of the City Council, to not just hear the stories and amplify the voices but to be able to do something about it.”
During Draper’s last time on the City Council, from 1991 to 1995, he distinguished himself as an often-dissenting voice protesting taxpayer spending and giveaways to developers. He opposed the Skyway transportation system and money for the Jaguars, and once out of office, he opposed the city’s Better Jacksonville Plan, a wide-ranging initiative that included preserving land, expanding infrastructure and building a new courthouse, largely funded through a sales tax increase.
Hipps, on the other hand, championed the tax increase as the then-City Council president. She also helped shepherd a number of development and incentive deals that earned unanimous votes at the City Council, and after leaving office, she became a lobbyist.
Hipps said her passion for bringing people together makes her stand out from other candidates.
“I really enjoy interacting with people and understanding their point of view,” she said. “I think I would be able to continue to help not only the residents in my community but in general.”
After he left office, Draper joined and led civic and advocacy organizations like the Argyle Civic Association, advocating for neighborhood improvements, and the Concerned Taxpayers of Duval County, a watchdog group that has sued the city over its pension plans, transparency and the previous appointment of a general counsel.
“I have a history of fighting for my neighborhood,” he said. “The areas that I lived in, we fought hard to make sure we got what we needed. And I will take that same fight to the whole district.”
Draper still complains that the Better Jacksonville Plan never prioritized the Westside, and some proposed road projects, like the widening of Old Middleburg Road, still haven’t been completed.
Draper also voted against the $235 million River City Renaissance infrastructure plan. The funds were used to redevelop the Jacksonville Center for the Performing Arts, the stadium and City Hall. The plan also led to the demolition of much of the LaVilla neighborhood in hopes it would lead to revitalization. At the time, Draper criticized the plan for not prioritizing drainage projects.
If money is set aside for certain projects, Hipps said, then the council needs to ensure the city follows through on those plans. “If you’re a representative of a district, you have to be ever mindful of how the money is moving around for the infrastructure,” she said.
Both Draper and Hipps said the city needs to do more to attract businesses to Southwest Jacksonville, and Johnson said the city also needs to prioritize the needs of residents and workers in the area.
Johnson said he wants to focus on making roads safer, increasing accessibility and increasing public transportation options.
“The Westside is uniquely positioned as a great place for unique businesses to be,” Johnson said. “It would be great for people not to have to go to Mandarin or go to Southside or other parts of this city but to have jobs that pay living wages and unique industries right here in our community.”
Draper and Hipps both spoke of the need to widen and improve roads on the Westside. Draper also said he’d prioritize improving parks so that they can accommodate youth sports. Hipps said she’d focus on increasing internet access.
Both Johnson and Hipps said they would support spending some amount of taxpayer dollars on upgrading TIAA Bank Field, where the Jaguars play, while Draper said any proposal should have to be approved by taxpayers with a referendum at the ballot box.
Johnson said the city needed to explore innovative solutions to the rising costs of housing, like housing made from shipping containers or tiny houses, but he said the city also had to prioritize ensuring residents earned a living wage.
Hipps said the City Council should “carefully consider” the recommendations a special committee came up with, which include, among other things, zoning reform, tenant protections and regulating real-estate investors.
On the council, Draper and Hipps both fought the addition of public housing projects on Jacksonville’s Westside. That fight eventually led the U.S. Department of Justice to successfully sue the city for violating the Fair Housing Act.
Draper said he thought the city today needed to commit to not increasing property taxes.
Both Draper and Johnson said they would support increasing the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office budget, with Johnson saying the city needs more police officers.
Hipps said she would also support increasing the budget if Sheriff T.K. Waters provided “documented support and justifications for proposed increases.”
If elected, she said she would walk door-to-door with police officers to talk to residents about safety, a practice she held her last time on City Council.
Name: John Draper
Occupation: Co-owns a sign-making business / former Naval supply officer
Education: Bachelor’s degree in economics at Stetson University
Name: Alberta Hipps
Occupation: Lobbyist / President of Hipps Group Inc. / former nurse
Education: Bachelor’s in nursing from the University of North Florida, Master’s in business administration from Jacksonville University
Name: Rahman Johnson
Occupation: College professor / journalist
Education: Bachelor’s degree in mass communications and political science at Edward Waters University, Master’s degree in strategic communications and leadership at Seton Hall University, Doctoral candidate at Jackson State University