Former TV anchor Donna Deegan beat JAX Chamber CEO Daniel Davis in a stunning upset for Jacksonville mayor, becoming the first woman ever and only the second Democrat to win a mayor’s race here in three decades despite Davis outraising her four-to-one.
Deegan, a Democrat, campaigned on a promise to be a changemaker, railing against the political consultant class that surrounded both Davis and current Mayor Lenny Curry. She beat Davis by four percentage points, earning 52 percent of the vote to Davis’ 48 percent. Turnout reached about 33 percent of Duval County’s registered voters.
Deegan and Davis emerged from a field of eight candidates who competed in the March jungle primary.
“Love won today,” Deegan told a crowd at her watch party Tuesday night. She will take office on July 1. “I cannot tell you how excited I am to bring this city together and move us forward.”
She continued, “I am so excited about creating a city that sees everybody, that brings everybody in, that gives everybody a voice, a city that truly does finally reach its absolutely amazing potential. … We have the most beautiful mosaic of a city that you’ve ever seen in your entire life. And everybody’s going to have a voice in a Donna Deegan administration.”
Deegan, a fifth-generation Jaxson, hails from the Hazouri family, a prominent Jacksonville family in the city’s Arabic community. She will be the city’s second Arab American mayor, following her cousin, Tommy, who served as mayor from 1987 to 1991.
With Councilman Ron Salem expected to serve as the next City Council president, both of Jacksonville’s top two elected officials will be Arab Americans.
She spent nearly three decades as a TV journalist, including 24 years as an anchor at First Coast News. She also survived three breast cancer diagnoses, sharing her recovery with the public. In 2003, she founded the DONNA Foundation to support research and patients.
Davis, a former City Council member and state representative, had been preparing for this mayoral race for the last eight years ever since fellow Republican Lenny Curry was elected mayor. He mostly relied on his fundraising prowess to reach voters through mailers, text messages and advertisements. He raised a record-shattering $8.4 million by the end of April compared to Deegan’s $2.1 million.
In total, candidates for Jacksonville’s mayor, including those who ran in a March jungle primary, raised about $17 million for the election.
As the head of the chamber and as a lawmaker, Davis had developed a moderate reputation. Under his leadership, the chamber pushed the city to adopt an anti-discrimination ordinance protecting gay and transgender residents. The chamber also backed gas and sales tax increases to fund infrastructure and schools.
Yet, in his bid for mayor, Davis took a hard-right turn that focused primarily on social issues. He accused fellow Republicans, including conservative Al Ferraro, of being liberal for voting for Mayor Curry’s budgets.
While he earned the endorsement of Gov. Ron DeSantis, the governor didn’t campaign alongside Davis. Instead, Sen. Rick Scott, Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson and other Republican electeds came to Jacksonville to stump for Davis.
Davis vowed to cut city spending while increasing the number of police officers, and he falsely accused Deegan of wanting to defund the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. His campaign heavily featured Jacksonville Sheriff T.K. Waters, who said repeatedly that Deegan’s election would endanger police officers.
Bizarrely, Davis repeatedly said that if Deegan were elected, Jacksonville would become more like San Francisco or New York City, even though Jacksonville’s murder rate is three times higher than both cities’.
Davis also campaigned with the local chapter of Moms For Liberty, a conservative group that has challenged how schools teach race and sexuality. He signed the group’s pledge and vowed to give the group his “full support” if elected.
The only other time a Democrat has won a race for Jacksonville’s mayor in the last 30 years was when Alvin Brown beat Republican Mike Hogan in 2011. Like Davis, who skipped a News4Jax debate during early voting, Hogan also avoided debates and campaigned with particularly conservative rhetoric, at one point joking about bombing an abortion clinic.
Jacksonville, the 11th most populous city in the U.S., is the largest city in the country with a Republican mayor, and under the city’s consolidated government, Jacksonville’s mayor has extraordinary power that surpasses many other cities’ mayors.
One of the most important tasks for a new mayor is appointing a general counsel who can issue binding opinions over many levels of government, including the Duval County school district and the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.
In contrast with Davis, Deegan didn’t back down from her support for an independent police review panel, acknowledging that Florida law neuters the ability of any independent panel to discipline officers but still saying some form of civilian review could offer accountability to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.
She also emphasized three pillars of her platform: investing in infrastructure, including removing septic tanks; improving health outcomes with a designated chief health officer of the city; and helping small businesses.
Voters in both parties appeared to reject Davis’ tough-on-crime and social conservative rhetoric.
Even though about 7,000 more Republicans than Democrats voted in the election, Deegan won the race with about 9,000 more votes, indicating she won a combination of independent voters and Republicans.
Her campaign prominently featured bipartisan endorsements, including from Republican City Councilmembers Matt Carlucci and Randy DeFoor. Carlucci even donated $65,000 from his political committee to Deegan’s campaign.
After the race was called, Davis congratulated Deegan. “Jacksonville’s best days are ahead,” he told an audience. “They are. Whatever our mayor wants, I’m going to pledge to help and do whatever she asks.”
Sheriff Waters said at Davis’ watch party that despite his earlier rhetoric, he thought it would be easy to bridge the gap with Deegan. He told News4Jax, “Politics is politics. It is what it is. Now that that’s over, that part’s over. It’s been settled. The people of Jacksonville have decided what they wanted to do. It’s my job to move forward, sit down with Mayor-elect Deegan and move forward and make sure we take care of the people of this city the way they should be taken care of.”
Deegan told The Florida Times-Union she hopes her election means local politics might become less “fear-filled”.
“To me, it’s the fact that not only I get to make history” as the first female mayor, “she told the Times-Union Tuesday evening, “but that I get to turn the page on what has really been a very fear-filled time is something that I just can’t even tell you how grateful I am.”