Jacksonville’s mayoral candidates split on the Confederate monument

The Take ‘Em Down Jax protesters still gather every Friday in front of City Hall and demand the removal of the Confederate monument from Springfield Park.

They may still have protests in July when the next mayor and city council take office, because the current council has repeatedly postponed making a decision on whether the monument should stay or go.

Mayor Lenny Curry, who cannot run again due to term limits, has supported moving the monument and included $500,000 in this year’s budget to cover the cost if the City Council decided to make that change. Curry’s position has been that city-owned property should not be the site of a monument that divides the community and represents the racial hatred of some residents.

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JAX Chamber President Daniel Davis, a Republican, is the only candidate running to replace Curry who has not taken a position one way or the other on whether the city should move the monument.

“What I’ve said publicly is we’re not going to use taxpayer dollars to move any of the Confederate monuments,” Davis said in an interview with First Coast News. “I think there are some private solutions for a lot of them.”

Davis declined to meet with Times-Union reporters for an interview, but other candidates who fielded questions in wide-ranging sessions have stated clear positions on whether the city should move the monument.

The Republican-controlled state legislature is considering restrictions on local governments’ ability to move historic monuments, including those for the Confederacy, that could trump city decision-making authority if it gets through the Legislature.

Sharp division between Democrats and Republicans

The positions taken by mayoral candidates reflect the division in the city between Democratic voters and Republicans. A University of North Florida poll published on February 28 found that 79% of Democrats support moving Confederate monuments from public space. Among Republicans, the view was reversed with 83% against moving such monuments from public space.

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Both Democrats running for mayor say the city should move the monument, which is called “Tribute to the Women of the Southern Confederacy” and features a statue of a woman reading to two children and another statue of a cloaked woman holding a Confederate . flag.

“I think it’s critically important that we recognize the humanity of everyone in the city,” Donna Deegan said. “It’s hard to have the conversations you really need to have or to convince people that you really have their best interests at heart when they continue to have to — in their own neighborhoods — walk past a monument to slavery.”

Deegan said moving the monument also sends a positive message to business leaders considering moving to Jacksonville.

“No business wants to come to a city that’s still fighting the civil war,” she said. “We don’t have to do that in Jacksonville. I realize public opinion on this is very divided, but sometimes leaders just have to do what’s right.”

Former state senator Audrey Gibson also strongly advocates moving the monument from the park.

“I believe that any symbol of oppression, degradation, sexism should not be in the public space,” Gibson said.

She said the city should commission the Douglas Anderson School of the Arts to design and build “something that reflects who we are in the modern era as a city.”

“I know they would do a good job because I think what comes down should be replaced with something,” she said. “To me, it kind of puts the conversation completely out of whack.”

Republican candidates LeAnna Cumber, Al Ferraro and Frank Keasler say the monument should say where it has been since 1915.

“I don’t think we can erase or ignore history,” Cumber said at a Feb. 7 mayoral forum at the Interfaith Center of Northeast Florida. “I think we need to talk about it. I’m not in favor of trying to erase it.”

She said the city has an opportunity to “contextualize and discuss our history” by using the Confederate monument as a way to learn about the past.

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In her sit-down interview at the Times-Union office, she said the Confederate monument brings heated rhetoric during the public comment portion of City Council meetings, but it’s not at the top of the list that residents want the city to focus on in their daily lives.

“I think there’s a frustration that the government just doesn’t listen to what’s happening on the ground, and there’s a disconnect between what’s happening on the ground and what’s happening in the halls of government,” she said.

Ferraro said when he’s talked to advocates for moving the Confederate monument, they’ve also said they want a say in renaming city bridges, roads and even the name of the city itself.

“They are passionate about what they want,” he said. “I know people believe what they believe, but my belief is that these are historical markers. We have to tell the good, the bad, the whole story of everything that happens.”

He said if the city takes down the Confederate monument in Springfield Park, “it won’t end” because there will be demands to change or rename it to something else.

He said “instead of tearing down history,” the city should find ways to tell more about the city’s history, such as Freedom Park in the East Arlington part of his city council district, which will have historical markers about the Cosmo community that started as a land grant for freed slaves.

Keasler said the Confederate monument could become part of a reimagined park called Harmony Park that would have a “Wall of Truth” and a “Path of Truth” along with another new monument.

“If there will be harmony in our future, it will be because the truth of history runs through it, and I think you will be moved by what God has given me as a vision for what we should do there,” Keasler said.

Non-party-affiliated candidate proposes “monument park”

Omega Allen, who is running for mayor with no party affiliation, said she would prefer a city lot that would be a “monument park” that people could visit if they want to see the Confederate monument.

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“Just as slavery is history, it is history,” she said. “But because of some of the things they bring to mind, I don’t think they should be left where they are. But I don’t think they should be taken down and destroyed.”

She said that by having a site specifically for monuments, people who object to the monument would not see it when they went to Springfield Park, but if people want to see the “Tribute to the Women of the Southern Confederacy,” it would still be available to them.

Wells Todd, founder of Take ‘Em Down, said he believes the protests against the Confederate monuments have raised awareness of the city’s history for many people. He said it “really takes a movement to move politicians.”

“So this line and the size of right now we’re hoping to triple it, quadruple it,” he said during a protest line on Friday. “We’d like it to go around City Hall to send a message that the city is tired of celebrating white supremacy and that the statues need to come down.”

He said he doesn’t have much confidence in either candidate yet. He said the economic system has failed him and others because elected officials cannot serve both big corporations and “the common person.”

Hope McMath, who has participated in rallies and marches against the Confederate monuments, said she believes Deegan would follow through on moving the Confederate monument “and not just to remove a piece of stone or bronze,” but as a broader strategy to deal with reasonable housing, poverty and inequalities in education.

“If you can’t take these things down, you’re never going to touch the other issues,” she said.

Times-Union reporter Hanna Holthaus contributed to this report.

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