Home Politics Politics News

Hair-Raising Political Tales of Jacksonville

The floating reactors, the bridge to nowhere and other tales of Jacksonville: some lessons for an election year

Jacksonville, Florida

Jacksonville, Florida

Richard Cummins/Getty

It’s a lovely afternoon at Sawgrass, pristine almost. The sun is shining, a light breeze riffles the palm trees. The tennis courts are empty and only a few stragglers mar the golf course. Modern condominium townhouses of award-winning, design blend perfectly into the planned landscape. An advertisement for Florida: The Good Life. None of the urban hassles, no winter, no crowds.

Very few people at all, in fact. One townhouse cluster — Bermuda Cove — is completely vacant. It is stunningly white and modern, a naked string of two-story buildings — priced from $65,000 to $90,000 per unit — along a gently curving road. They’ve been standing there, empty, for at least a year. The rest of Sawgrass isn’t doing too well either: it is, in effect, a clustered, modular ghost town.

The saleswoman at the main gate, tanned and blond, is optimistic. Even though the developer recently turned Sawgrass over to the bank, “it wasn’t really a bankruptcy,” she says. The economy is getting better and soon people will start coming around.

Soon, too, a long tentacle of highway will stretch out from the city of Jacksonville to incorporate Sawgrass. The road will connect with I-295, a freeway around the city, and I-295 will be climaxed by the Dame Point Bridge, a massive span across the St. Johns River which links the populous south side with…well, there really isn’t all that much on the other side. In fact, most people in town haven’t the vaguest idea why anyone would want to spend several hundred million dollars to build a bridge that goes nowhere. But the City Fathers (there are few City Mothers in Jacksonville; it’s a man’s town) look across the river and see thousands of acres waiting to be developed. Land for more industry, more jobs, more taxes, more residents for Sawgrass. Land that will make Jacksonville the economic jewel of the Southeast, surpassing Atlanta. A pipe dream, perhaps. But it doesn’t pay to be pessimistic — pessimism is akin to socialism here.

It’s not for nothing that Jacksonville calls itself the Bold New City of the South.

At the outset, it should be noted that this is a story about the presidential campaign in Jacksonville. Having said that, we can proceed: It began on the morning of January 17th, 1974, with the mail delivery at the Mandarin Supermarket. Joe Cury, the owner of the market, sat in an elevated cubicle near the cash registers which serves as his office, opening the morning bills. And then he screamed, “What the fuck is this?” It was the market’s electric bill, and it had doubled — from $700 to $1500. Immediately, he called the Jacksonville Electric Authority.

The young woman who answered said, in what appeared to be a prepared statement, the increase that Mr. Cury may have noticed in his electric bill was caused by an adjustment necessary because of the high price of oil. Joe Wasn’t satisfied. He wanted to know the exact price of oil, where it was coming from, how many barrels…. The woman didn’t know.

For the rest of the morning Joe fumed, talking to his customers and finding that they, too, had received ridiculous electric bills. That afternoon, he jumped into his new black Lincoln Continental and went downtown to the Electric Authority headquarters and started yelling at one of the receptionists. “I want facts,” he said.

Joe Cury can seem rather threatening when he is angry. He isn’t especially tall, but he is built like a sumo wrestler — thick neck, barrel chest, massive arms. All his clothes look too small. The receptionist went for help.

She came back with a middle manager of mild appearance, and Joe began to yell at him. “Who’re you buying this oil from? How much is it a barrel? Lemme see your books…I got a right. I’m a citizen, ain’t I?”

“We don’t have to show you shit,” said the middle manager.

Joe was somewhat taken aback by this response. “He actually said that,” Joe recalled. “I could have killed the little bastard. But I wasn’t about to give up. That’s how all this shit started.” The trip to the Electric Authority had been the first overt political act of Joe Cury’s life, but within a couple of months he had formed power — People Outraged With Electric Rates — and had filed a class-action suit demanding an open hearing on the rate increase. Soon he was at war with the entire political establishment in Jacksonville.

The entire political establishment in Jacksonville consists of a small group of businessmen who have grown rich together since World War II. At its center is the Florida Publishing Company, a subsidiary of the Seaboard Coast Line Industries, which produces the only two newspapers in town. The primary function of the papers is, apparently, to tell the rest of the community how wonderful Jacksonville and the businessmen are. Aside from that, the businessmen all belong to the Rotary Club and the Chamber of Commerce’s Committee of 100. They eat lunch together at the River Club atop the Prudential Building, play golf together and plan the future. The future, as they see it, is bright. In 25 years, Jacksonville has grown from 300,000 people to 600,000. It is a burgeoning financial and distribution center and has a wonderful deep-water port. The tallest building in Florida — the Independent Life Insurance Company — is located downtown.

Still, the city suffers from a very distinct inferiority complex. It is not as glamorous as Miami or as prosperous as Atlanta. It is cool in winter — sometimes, at night, it even freezes — and the tourists whiz past on their way to the warmer weather, often remembering Jacksonville as the town with the rotten smell (caused by paper mills and chemical factories).

And so, over the last decade, there’s been an outbreak of half-crazed macho boosterism. An effort to make Jacksonville so modern, so efficient, so enticing that corporations looking for gold along the Southern Rim can’t afford to pass it up. The first real step was taken in 1967, when Jacksonville managed to get its suburbs to agree to become part of the city. The entire government was consolidated at that point, with much of the power going to quasi-public Authorities (electric, port, transportation, downtown development) which would be controlled by, yes, that same small group of businessmen. “This assured,” one business leader told me, “that when a corporation came to town it could be welcomed by businessmen, not by bureaucrats waving red tape.”

The other effect of the consolidation was that it absolutely prevented blacks in the core city from taking control of the local government which, by most estimates, they would have done by 1970. “Let’s face it, the consolidation prevented a black mayor,” said a Chamber of Commerce staffer. “And now when businesses come down from the North, they’re more likely to choose us than Atlanta, with its black mayor and all the uncertainty that causes.”

The payoff came in 1972, when two corporate giants, Westinghouse Electric and Tenneco, announced they were forming a joint venture called Offshore Power Systems to build floating nuclear power plants, and they were considering Jacksonville as the location for their factory. The city went wild. The newspapers played it like the Second Coming: they even bought billboards and two-page ads which read: Westing-house Tenneco Can Bring You a Brighter Tomorrow…and a Greater Jacksonville. We Want Them Here. The local officials said they’d do everything in their power, and more, to welcome the new industry to town. Even those who thought the idea of floating nuclear power plants was a bit bizarre were awed by the scope of Offshore Power Systems: the world’s largest assembly line was promised on the banks of the St. Johns River, at least 10,000 new jobs. Atlanta didn’t have anything near as spectacular as that. All Miami had was old people. The unions loved the prospect of all those jobs. The blacks saw a way out of the ghetto. Only the environmentalists had doubts, and they could be counted on one hand. Even Joe Cury didn’t oppose it yet.

Joe Cury was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and arrived in Jacksonville by pure chance. He was a rough kid, the son of a Syrian steelworker. At age 16, he tried to fake his way into the Marines and almost made it. The next year he joined the Army. He was sent to Germany, where he had a lot of fun and learned how to box. When his hitch was up, Joe decided to try boxing professionally. He was a heavy-weight and, he says, won 27 straight fights. “Then my handlers took me to Miami and I was set up in this hotel suite. Miami was the place in those days, all kinds of wild broads and things going on. I lost eight straight fights; I was living too high.”

Joe went into public relations of a sort. “Budweiser had just come out with its idea of using those horses to promote the beer, and so Ballantine decided to try the same thing. They had a guy called King Ballantine who’d sit in a wagon that was pulled around by horses. My friend — his name was Joe too — was King Ballantine and I helped out. We traveled all over the place. One time we were here in Jacksonville and I’m in this A-rab restaurant and the guy who owns it says if I really want good food, I should go to this picnic they’re having. So we decided to take King Ballantine to the picnic and that’s where I met my wife.”

He was in his mid-20s, time to settle down. He tried opening a hardware store, which didn’t do well. He opened a grocery store, which did better. It was located in a well-to-do neighborhood and became known for good meats and huge open-house Christmas parties. He grew older, raised two children, bought a beautiful house near his market; the marriage survived but only after some rocky times. He was restless. When the electric bill arrived that morning, Joe was 45 and life wasn’t as exciting as it once had been.

For a while he was swept along by his anger, but gradually he found he was enjoying the political stuff. It was a new challenge. He was becoming famous in Jacksonville.

And rightly so. Joe found that the Electric Authority was buying its oil from a company named Ven-Fuel. Ven-Fuel had only one customer: the Jacksonville Electric Authority. The Jacksonville Electric Authority had siped a contract with an escalator clause, and the price just kept rising. It was all very mysterious — no one was really sure who owned Ven-Fuel. Eventually the Federal Energy Administration, the Internal Revenue Service and the Customs Service began to investigate, the city sued Ven-Fuel for overcharging, the company settled for $1.2 million and went out of business. A federal grand jury is still investigating the whole business.

The Ven-Fuel case led Joe to look more closely at the JEA, and the more he looked, the less he liked it. In one instance, the JEA wanted to build a tanker dock, and could have built it on free public land, but chose instead to buy property held by several well-connected local businessmen. The deal was exposed by an enterprising reporter at WJXT-TV, and a grand jury is looking into that too.

There seemed to be no end to the shady dealings. The businessmen who ran the Authorities bought and sold from each other, planned new developments and made money hand over fist, often at the expense of the taxpayers. The ultimate deal was the one the JEA proposed with Offshore Power Systems: it would buy two floating nuclear plants for $2.2 billion. Joe Cury had nothing against nuclear power at that point; in fact, he thought it might lower his electric bill. But because the JEA was involved, the deal was suspicious. He decided to check it out.

I think welcoming OPS was a great decision on our part,” said City Councilman Johnny Sanders. “One of the greatest decisions we ever made.”

To hear him speak, Jacksonville has made only great decisions. He is the ultimate booster, the poor local boy who made good. He grew up on the west side of town, a section noted for blue collars and red necks. Wallace country. When Johnny was two years old, his father — a railroad worker — deserted the family. “I grew up with the usual prejudices. I was a typical Southern boy,” he said, sitting in the office of his modest printing company. He is a small man, with short dark hair and kindly wrinkles around his eyes, wearing a gray leisure suit. “I think what really turned me around was Ax-Handle Saturday….”

Ax-Handle Saturday?

August 27th, 1960. Johnny Sanders happened to be downtown picking up some packages when a crowd of yahoos went on a rampage against 22 blacks who were staging a sit-in at a department store lunch counter. Johnny was disgusted by what he saw.

The more he thought about it, the more ridiculous segregation seemed. It wasn’t good for a growing city like Jacksonville. Wild mobs running around town with ax handles was not the sort of image the city needed. What’s more, segregation cost money — you had to build two of everything: two high schools, two water fountains, four bathrooms. It was bad business. It was not progressive.

Johnny became a voice of moderation in town and now, in 1976, he still spoke softly and calmly. Just like the man he was supporting for president, Jimmy Carter. Even though he wasn’t sure Carter would win, Johnny liked the man’s style. It was courtly, it was progressive, it was New South.

Johnny is one of the more prominent Carter supporters in town. Most of the others seem to be on the fringe of the local establishment — young teachers, lawyers, other professionals, blacks. Rational people, people who value quiet and compassion leavened with reason, people who don’t like to make waves. Jimmy Carter’s wife, speaking to a group of Jacksonville women at an elegant little reception one evening, hit the nail on the head: she said her husband would allow people to “trust the government” once again.

Johnny Sanders, sitting in his office, painted a picture of a Jacksonville where all was harmonious, where government was trusted. “I can go to a Chamber of Commerce meeting,” he said, “and sit between William Staten of OPS and John Bowden, the head of the construction unions, and all three of us can get along just fine. I go to the City Council and sit up there with Rodney Hurst, a black man. In fact, Rodney was the leader of the black sit-ins on Ax-Handle Saturday. That’s how far we have come.”

August 27th, 1960, is still very clear in Rodney Hurst’s mind. He remembers walking toward Hemming Park and seeing the rednecks gathering, knowing there would be trouble. He remembers joining his friends at the lunch counter at Grant’s, as they’d done at other lunch counters, waiting until it was absolutely clear they wouldn’t be served, then getting up to leave. The mob charged as soon as the demonstrators left the store. Grant’s employees locked the doors behind them, They were trapped outside. He remembers the Jacksonville police just standing there. He remembers the sound the ax handles made.

Rodney Hurst was a 16-year-old anathema when that happened; now he is 31 and a city councilman. He works for the Prudential Life Insurance Company. White folks like to point to Rodney Hurst as an example of how much the city has changed, a distinction he can live without.

Still, he couldn’t resist taking me to lunch at the Jury Room, a private club across from City Hall where, with his the only black face in the room, he trotted out the old rhetoric. “There’s only the facade of togetherness here. The black community is only inches away from a major disturbance. Conditions in the ghetto are worse than ever.” The words flowed easily; he obviously enjoyed the sound of “community” and “ghetto” — it made him feel like the good old days.

But wasn’t he adding to the facade? Wasn’t he Racial Harmony Exhibit A?

But sometimes, though, being that was important. Black community support was crucial, for example, in luring Offshore Power Systems to town, and Rodney defended it vigorously. “To hell with ecology,” he said. “I care about human ecology. My people need jobs. OPS had jobs; they guaranteed that 23% of their employees would be black.”

Still, he wasn’t entirely comfortable working the same side of the street as the local power brokers. “I’ll confront them when I have to,” he said. And what if they ignored him? “I’ll take it to the streets…I’ll call a press conference.”

Joe Cury almost died twice in 1974. Bad arteries, the doctors said. They took arteries from his legs and put them in his chest. They told him to quit smoking, lose weight and generally cool it. But Joe couldn’t cool it — not when the city government was beggaring itself for OPS. What’s more, he had begun to do some reading about nuclear energy. He knew the safety systems at a nuclear power plant had to be infallible — one mistake and an entire city could go. He knew there had been several near misses. “Those sons of bitches are dangerous,” he said. “The insurance companies won’t even cover them.”

Joe learned that Ralph Nader was interested in nuclear issues. He contacted Nader’s anti-nuke group, Critical Mass, and began receiving material from them. His store took on a distinctly political tinge: there were stacks of Critical Mass newspapers at the cash registers and a big bulletin board with clippings about the struggle against OPS. Eventually Joe convinced Nader to come to Jacksonville to speak (the Jacksonville Journal characterized Nader as one of the “perfectionists who…would certainly never have advised us to fight back after Pearl Harbor because war can conceivably kill you…”). Joe was so impressed with Nader that he changed the name of his group from Power to Consumer Power.

The grocer went out on the local lecture circuit, speaking to anyone who’d listen: the Kiwanis, the Young Republicans, the Southside Businessmen. He spoke about the dangers of nuclear power and all the shady deals the local government was making to help OPS:

  • The Jacksonville Port Authority (JPA), for all practical purposes, had given OPS 850 acres of choice land on Blount Island in the middle of St. Johns River. The floating nuclear plants would be built there and towed out to sea.
  • The JPA also gave OPS a money-back guarantee. If the project failed, the Authority would pay the company all expenses incurred in building the factory.
  • Going still further, the JPA agreed to float a $180-million bond issue to provide OPS with cash.
  • The Jacksonville Transportation Authority decided to build the Dame Point Bridge — the bridge to nowhere — to provide easier access to Blount Island.
  • And the Jacksonville Electric Authority would buy the two floating nuclear plants for $2.2 billion.

Why was all this happening? Joe had a ready answer: the businessmen who ran the Authorities also ran their own businesses and stood to make a bundle off OPS. Wesley Paxson, chairman of the Jacksonville Transportation Authority, owned a company that would do all the electrical contracting for OPS. Truett Ewton, then chairman of the JEA, would insure OPS employees through his company, Gulf Life. And there were other conflicts of interest.

But Joe was gaining some curious allies in addition to the handful of environmentalists in town. The local shipyards, not at all convinced there was any such thing as a floating nuclear power plant, thought the real purpose of all the development at Blount Island was to build a new and competitive shipyard, and smiled on the grocer’s efforts. But it appeared that Joe didn’t need much help because OPS had begun to sink of its own weight.

As the economy turned sour and nuclear safety became a major question, the utility companies that had been interested in floating plants decided they didn’t want them after all. Soon OPS had only the orders from Jacksonville and the New Jersey Public Service Electric and Gas Company, which had come up with the idea of floating nuclear power plants in the first place. Then the New Jersey utility “postponed” its orders. And Harry Shorstein, Jacksonville’s newly appointed general counsel, began to study the JEA’s proposed contract. Shorstein found not only that the city didn’t need any more power plants, but also that if the JEA signed the contract it would go bankrupt paying for the plants. The Jacksonville City Council decided not to approve the contract.

Tenneco pulled out, leaving Westinghouse sole owner of OPS. Faced with a half-completed factory and no customers, OPS laid off 500 employees, leaving an office staff of 311, and began to lobby in Washington for a federal bailout. But the dream still flickers in Jacksonville: Wesley Paxson, for example, still wants to build the Dame Point Bridge.

Wesley Paxson is a big, open, friendly man who, like so many others, made it on his own in Jacksonville: “In 1957, I started my electrical contracting company with $5000 I had borrowed. Had to hock my house, my kids, everything. But I made it, and so can anyone else who tries.”

Not surprisingly, Wesley is a Reagan man. He believes government should leave the free enterprise system alone. Except sometimes, when the government can give the free enterprise system a little nudge. Like the Dame Point Bridge.

“It’s difficult for people to understand,” Wesley said, frustrated. “They look across the river and see nothing there. I look over there and see jobs, taxes. The kind of growth that can help a community.

“These people who oppose growth are basically socialistic, I think. The same kind of people who want to break up big business and let the employees run the companies and do all this consumer stuff.” Wesley paused a moment, “Now some of that is okay, mind you. But you have to draw a line.”

But this bridge, Wesley Paxson, don’t you own land on the other side that will increase in value if it is built?

“You know where my land is? Ten miles from the bridge.”

And don’t your friends — including Bryant Skinner, the chairman of the Reagan campaign in Jacksonville — own land there too?

“Well sure, some of my friends own land there. But Jacksonville is a small town and…well, so what? If a business guy puts his money up and takes his chances, why shouldn’t he make a profit? Some people just can’t see the logic.”

In 1975, Joe Cury decided to run for mayor. Then, he said, he realized that he’d have to borrow so much to make the race that he might lose everything, even his market. So he decided to run for city council.

Soon after, he began getting phone calls. First, they offered to buy him out of the race. Then they offered to kill him. Then they offered to arrange an auto accident for his daughter. Then someone smashed in the front of his store. “These weren’t kooks,” he said. “These were educated, Northern voices on the phone. Like lawyers.”

When Joe Cury gets excited, he tends to exaggerate a bit and even his closest friends doubted that Joe’s life was in danger. In fact, Joe was close to becoming a complete laughingstock when he received two more phone calls.

The first came from Charles Charles, assistant chief of police in Allentown and an old friend of Joe’s. He said the Pennsylvania Crime Commission had made a formal request for Joe’s record. “Are you in some trouble down there?” Chief Charles asked.

The next call came from Mrs. Ivy Ogg, a customer at the market and a political supporter. She wanted to know if Joe had ever been a holdup man.

“Who told you that?” Joe asked.

Ivy Ogg said she’d received a phone call from her good friend Bill Staten, the vice-president of OPS. At about the same time, the local media and several politicians received material smearing Joe Cury.

As it happened, Joe did have a criminal record: after he left the Army and before he started boxing, Joe and a friend decided to go to Atlantic City for a bash. They “borrowed” $1200 from the friend’s father, who owned a drive-in movie, and took off. The friend’s father had them arrested when they got home. They pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and were fined $100.

When asked by a local TV station how he’d gotten hold of Joe Cury’s criminal record, William Staten (who, in addition to being Ivy Ogg’s friend, is also a former FBI agent) said the information came to his office in an unmarked envelope. He was later asked to tell the story in greater detail to a grand jury, which is still investigating the incident. Joe Cury narrowly lost the election.

Someone should probably take pains to see that William Staten and all his personal effects are preserved for the enlightenment of future generations. He is a classic figure of mid-century America: the businessman. Not that there is any one quality about him that stands out or that he has any special skill or says anything particularly memorable. He is a lawyer, public relations man, former FBI and IRS man. He is also finance chairman of President Ford’s campaign in Florida. He’s a nice guy who, like the president, exudes an air of easygoing athleticism.

He is a man without roots. He will go where Westinghouse sends him, sell what Westinghouse asks him to sell, and believe in the product to boot. He believes, for example, in floating nuclear power plants. Thinks they’ll be “good for the ecology.” He can see in the distant future a day when the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coasts will be ringed with floating nuclear reactors a few miles offshore. He doesn’t worry about safety. There’s a miniature floating nuclear plant in a tank of water over at the University of Florida, and it works just fine. They’ve crashed miniature oil tankers into the thing, hurled miniature tidal waves at it and it always comes out okay.

His office. There is a large poster of John Wayne dressed as a cowboy and waving a six-shooter. There is a smaller picture of Roger Staubach dressed as a Dallas Cowboy and waving a football. There are golf trophies and pictures of foursomes. There’s a framed letter from the president and pictures of the family. Still, the office is cold and efficient. White and chrome, with black indoor-outdoor carpeting.

He loves his country. He thinks the free enterprise system is great and shouldn’t be tampered with. “You know, you might say that $5000 is a lot for a car nowadays. But if it weren’t for big companies like Ford and GM, you’d be paying a lot more than that. Big business provides the jobs, pays the taxes, develops the new technologies….”

He thinks President Ford’s support will come from average, moderate guys like him. And there are plenty of them in Jacksonville. In the past decade or so, the entire south side of the city has been overrun by young Bill Statens. They work for large corporations and live in apartment complexes and tract houses strategically placed along wide, flat boulevards in between the 7-Elevens, the gas stations and steak pubs with salad bars. Bill Staten lives in a grown-up version of that — Deerwood, a private community of expensive homes and recreational facilities.

He loves Jacksonville. It’s the friendliest town the company has sent him to. “The business community, of course, has been great. But the city government has been cooperative too, and Mayor Hans Tanzler is just the greatest. They accept you very quickly here. There’s no real race problem. The unions are cooperative — I’d say Johnny Bowden of the Building Trades is just about the best union leader in the country.”

There have been problems, though. The business with Joe Cury was one of them. “I figured you’d ask about that,” he smiled, not offended. “But my lawyers say it’s inappropriate to comment about that until the grand jury is done with it.”

John Bowden’s Building Trades Council represents only about 5000 of the 30,000 trade unionists in Jacksonville, but he is the labor leader the local papers quote because he is part of the team (as opposed to Jim Deaton of the AFL-CIO, who has been known to disagree with the local establishment). Around town, John Bowden is known as “the establishment’s Joe Cury” because he’s sometimes embarrassingly outspoken.

John is rather diminutive. Like Cury, he’s a former boxer and he has a battered nose to show for 210 professional bouts. He originally became involved in construction work to help build his body for the ring, but remained an ironworker when his boxing career faded. He looks very distinguished now, sitting in the electrical workers’ union hall. He is wearing a three-piece pin-stripe suit, a gold tie clasp, a gold pocket watch with a gold chain. He is also wearing a gold ring with what appear to be diamond insets, and he’s smoking a big fat cigar.

“Did you ever,” John Bowden asked, “meet a labor leader who was as popular with the Chamber of Commerce, the contractors and the city government as I am? There isn’t a person in this part of the country that doesn’t know my name.”

John Bowden hews to the party line in Jacksonville and then some:

“I’ve been so successful because I’ve taken a realistic approach to the labor situation. No strikes. No work stoppages. We want to see this community grow.”

“The environmentalists are a dangerous group. The Audubon Society will bring this country to its knees.”

“Ralph Nader is someone we could probably do without. They say there’s a fine line between a genius and a nut and he’s right on it.”

“OPS will be a great thing for Jacksonville.”

His man for president is Henry “Scoop” Jackson. When Jackson came to town, Bowden arranged a big labor rally and gave him some good advice. “Hold it to about 15 minutes, Senator,” he said. “They might get a little bored after that.” Scoop was a big success and John Bowden takes some credit for it: “I think we lit a fire under him.”

John Bowden thinks Jackson will do well in the primary, but is worried that much of the rank and file would vote for Wallace. “You see, these rank and file guys don’t take the time to understand what’s going on in the world, so they can be led on easily.”

A cool, breezy day in January. For the first time, Offshore Power Systems has invited the community leaders of Jacksonville to inspect its Blount Island site and have some lunch. OPS is to announce the beginning of construction on a giant crane for the world’s largest assembly line. It is uncertain why OPS is doing this, since there still aren’t any immediate orders for floating nuclear power plants, but the suspicion is that the company wants to prove there’s still life in the corpse after a year of inactivity.

So the civic leaders come. About 200 or 300 of them crowd into an absolutely vacant building on desolate Blount Island. John Bowden is there, as are Johnny Sanders, Rodney Hurst, Wesley Paxson and, of course, Bill Staten. The room is filled with prosperous-looking men (there are two women, not counting waitresses) in patent-leather shoes discussing mergers, interest rates and golf. An impressive show of force on the part of the establishment.

In addition to “consolidating” its suburbs into the core city, it appears Jacksonville has consolidated its various warring factions — business, labor, blacks, reformed good ol’ boys. Representatives of four of the five active presidential campaigns — Ford, Reagan, Jackson, Carter — are present.

But where are the Wallace people?

It’s certainly curious. Everyone in town seems to agree that Wallace will sweep Jacksonville in the primary, as he did last time. But none of the organized factions seem to support him; in fact, they disdain him. He represents everything that Jacksonville has been striving to overcome. He is Old South. He has more support from elected officials in Boston than he does in Jacksonville.

After a buffet lunch, the civic leaders gather around to listen to speeches. Mayor Tanzler says a prayer, thanking God for OPS. Then he says, “There are those who have criticized this community’s welcoming of OPS. There are those who chose to believe that OPS was a mirage. But I’m here to say that if any other company wants to make the same kind of commitment to Jacksonville, I’ll be out front shining their shoes, strewing rose petals in their path and kissing them on both cheeks….”

An hour later, the building is locked and completely empty again.

The gun on the counter of Joe Cury’s little office looked like a toy, but it was very real. Joe took the day’s receipts and put them into a brown paper bag along with the gun. He was ready to go home.

“By the way, Joe,” I asked. “Who are you supporting for president?”

“Who am I supporting for president?”


“I’m voting for George Wallace,” he said, laughing. “I want to shake those bastards up.”


Powered by