fightin' words

HAIL to the Chief

Brian Hughes: Lenny Curry’s gutsiest hire

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Rarely is a column of mine obsolete before the ink dries—you usually have to wait until at least the weekend for that.

But that was the case with my column here last week, which outlined how Florida state Sen. Jack Latvala could deploy serious money against candidates working with Brian Hughes, Mayor Lenny Curry’s chief consultant. Latvala is fighting for his political life; Hughes’ wife, a senate staffer, went public with accusations of serial sexual harassment in the workplace against her.

As issues were being dropped off at Folio Weekly advertisers and partners, the news went out: Brian Hughes was in ... as Curry’s chief of staff.

This move was a long time coming. As far back as 2015, there was talk that Hughes was being looked at for a senior post in the administration. However, that was said to be controversial: Hughes had just run a nasty campaign against Alvin Brown, and ended up outside the mayor’s staff, handling the political business.

Of course, that’s just an org chart. In reality, Hughes was there all along.

Kerri Stewart was brought in as chief of staff; the self-described moderate Republican was a lauded hire outside the building, even as old questions about a Peyton-era purchase of “consulting services” from a company she went to work for arose.

Those questions came to nothing; however, word was that Stewart wasn’t fully on board with the Curry agenda, at least not as much as his political team thought she should be. Stewart was gone in May, moving over to another $200K-a-year job at JEA, and Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa took on her portfolio.

Not that people said much about it; Stewart was not seen as a particularly visible chief of staff.

Hughes, by contrast, will be so visible that they might as well put up a mural on the side of the St. James Building. He’s expected to be in everything, said one person close to him, transcending the org chart.

Hughes passes the Sam Mousa test: Word is that he’s delighted to be working with Hughes, and it’s easy to see how Mousa and Hughes will function in tandem—two blunt men prone to curse words and flashes of temper, pushing the mayor’s agenda.

And that’s a big deal. Mousa won’t be in City Hall forever. It’s hard to imagine Mousa staying much longer after the 2019 election, in part because of the job demands, and in part because people usually spend a single term in those ultra-senior staff roles.

Hughes, an alumnus of Governor Rick Scott’s comms staff and of at least one Congressional office, has been on the policy side before. But this is a new animal: an apprenticeship in local politics.

Curry is confident this will go without a hitch.

“Obviously through the campaign, and then after I got into office, we’ve had a number of very public policy issues that we’ve worked on and successfully won, and he’s been a part of that,” Curry told me last week. “I’ve been without a chief of staff since May and I felt like it was time to bring someone in, and he’s my guy.”

Curry, of course, has no issue bringing people from the campaign side—especially out-of-area operatives (and one of their spouses)—over to the policy side. So far it’s worked out fine. Curry is massively popular, per polls, and good luck asking Democrats if they even intend to field a real candidate against him in 2019.

The closest thing they have to credible competition, Garrett Dennis, has already said he’s running for City Council re-election. And in the context of having no meaningful opposition, moving Hughes to the policy shop also makes sense for Curry, who will need political capital and arm-twisting for certain moves ahead.

The JEA privatization scheme, specifically, is one that Curry and supporter/former JEA Board Chair Tom Petway like the sound of. But normal people are a harder sell. We’ve seen how it took Florida Power & Light 10 days to get power restored down south after Hurricane Irma, and wonder if the well-lobbied utility has any real incentive to improve on that front. Hughes will be able to help sell this to the public and City Council.

Worth noting: Virtually every reporter in this market has been cussed out by Hughes at least once. It’s a rite of passage, and some don’t forget. And there have been other interesting moments. One example: Hughes dissing former Florida Times-Union columnist Tonyaa Weathersbee when she tried to get quotes from Curry after a debate, telling her TV was more important.

That said, the move made sense for Curry. And for Hughes, there likely was no better time for him to step over to the policy sphere.

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Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that it took Florida Power & Light weeks to restore power.

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