Winning mayoral elections depends on many things, small and large. Timing is always important, and money usually matters, though not always, as Jacksonville’s 2023 election showed. But after a mayor leaves office, their legacy often depends on the length of their time in office. One-term mayors have a painfully short window of time to make a difference. Mayors who serve two terms are more likely to influence their city’s future, for a few reasons. First, winning a re-election campaign for a second term is tough without some success during the first four years. In a term-limited setting such as Jacksonville, once re-elected, second terms tend to be politically liberating, since there is no “next election” to worry about. Mayors may feel more free to think and act boldly. Finally, multiple-term mayors make a difference because of continuity – the policies that they adopt have more time to take root and grow. For better or for worse, the longer the time in office, the more durable the legacy.
One hundred years ago this year, Jacksonville elected the longest-serving mayor in its history. John T. Alsop Jr. (1874 – 1958) served from 1923 to 1937, and again from 1941 to 1945. He held office during an era that saw several other big-city American mayors also served multiple terms, such as Richard J. Daley, Chicago’s mayor from 1955 to 1976, and Atlanta’s famed William B. Hartsfield, that city’s mayor for six terms, from 1937 to 1941 and again from 1942 to 1961. Fiorello LaGuardia led New York City from 1934 to 1946.
Below left, John T. Alsop, Jr. (1874-1958), after whom the Main Street bridge is named. Right, William Haydon Burns (1912-1987), served as mayor for 16 years vs. Alsop’s 18 years.
Here in Florida, Tampa had just two mayors over the 25 years from 1931 to 1956. In Jacksonville, Haydon Burns gave John Alsop a run for his money by serving as mayor from 1949 to 1965, a tenure of 16 years, versus Alsop’s 18. The two regimes spanned a total of 34 years.
Term limits emerged from the reform impulse that also led to a 1967 vote consolidating the City of Jacksonville with Duval County. Jacksonville’s last pre-consolidation mayor was Hans Tanzler, elected in 1967, who then also served until 1979 as the first post consolidation mayor. That made him the first mayor subject to term limits. Since then, the voters have chosen seven subsequent mayors of consolidated Jacksonville: Godbold, Hazouri, Austin, Delaney, Peyton, Brown and Curry, with Donna Deegan now becoming the eighth. Of those seven, all but two, Hazouri and Brown, won second terms. Unless Jacksonville’s voters revise their charter, we will see no more mayors with the longevity in office of John Alsop or Haydon Burns, or even Hans Tanzler. A mayor must make her or his mark in four or eight years.
On July 1, 2023, Jacksonville’s 67th mayor will begin a four-year term of office. If she runs successfully for a second term, Donna Deegan may serve as the City’s CEO until 2031. The fact that this mayor is female is noteworthy, even if for no other reason than that women in Jacksonville won the right to vote in 1920, but more than a century passed before this city elected its first woman mayor. Among its peer Florida cities, Jacksonville has been late to the party. St. Petersburg elected its first woman mayor, Corinne Freeman, in 1977. Tampa’s first female mayor, Sandra Freedman, took office in 1986. Glenda Hood, the first woman to serve as mayor of Orlando won the office in 1992. It took longer in Southeast Florida, where Daniella Levine Cava was elected in 2020, the first woman mayor of Miami-Dade County, Florida’s other consolidated local government and the state’s second-largest city, after Jacksonville.
Mayor Deegan takes office during times of dizzying technological and cultural change. In 1923, John Alsop also took office in the midst of radical technological changes such as the advent of radio broadcasting and air travel, and cultural conflicts such as the prohibition of alcohol, the teaching of evolution and limiting immigration. Like her 1920s predecessor Alsop, Mayor Deegan will have little control over large external forces. But how she navigates them will shape her legacy, and like every term-limited mayor, she will have less time in office to accomplish her agenda than her predecessors of the last century.
Alan J. Bliss, Ph.D.
CEO, Jacksonville Historical Society and History Center