Jacksonville lost one of its political legends last week, an icon and a friend to virtually all. She is irreplaceable. But we have the gift of legacy and remembrance all the same.
E. Denise Lee embraced many roles and, better than anyone I have covered, understood politics as it really is and has been in this city of contradictions and gray areas and unspeakable truths. Just as she passed peacefully, in life she was at peace with herself, unvarnished and real and human in a way one encounters more in fiction than the temporal realm. And it was that peace that made her such a singular communicator.
A Democrat through her entire elected career that included decades on the City Council, she proved to be pivotal in the 2015 mayoral race, though she couldn’t pick her successor to her and the city’s detriment. She lost out on that one to a rival.
Down the stretch toward the May election, Lee took umbrage with Democratic mayoral candidate Alvin Brown’s ad that suggested Republican Lenny Curry would “turn back the clock” if he were elected Mayor.
It’s a “shame and disgrace for any campaign to race-bait,” she said. In the end, that may have been one factor that helped Curry win an election against an incumbent whose approval rating was over 50% at the time of the election, according to one private poll at the time.
Lee never formally endorsed Curry for mayor. But she ended up in the Curry administration all the same.
She could not be an on-record source at that point in the way she did previously. But she liked to talk. If she was upset with the framing of the story, or the incidental yet unforgivable misidentification of a historic neighborhood, she would scold you in that way that let you know she was still good with you. She talked to reporters like people who were inside the curtain. An absolute atmosphere of mutual respect.
My most memorable event with her was back in 2015, during a District 8 candidate forum. She sat and watched her would-be successors.
One candidate running to replace her in District 8 kept talking through a smile about “continuing the work Denise Lee” has started. Lee said to me flat out that the candidate was lying and suggested that if she were up there, she would call the candidate out.
The candidates on stage seemed nervous in her presence. Especially when she talked about endorsements at a conversational clip, and her objection to one rival on the local turf’s preferred choice.
“If I’m not endorsing, I don’t see why anyone should,” she said in a clear acknowledgement of Corrine Brown’s “Quick Picks,” which successfully selected Katrina Brown to replace her. (Ultimately, Lee endorsed Pat Lockett-Felder, to no avail.)
Lee teased a primary run against Corrine Brown, but City Hall beckoned, and family circumstances wouldn’t have permitted. (Corrine Brown’s legal issues cropped up anyway, and Al Lawson took the newly redistricted seat.)
She also left the mayor’s office briefly in 2016 to consult for the “Yes for Jacksonville” campaign, a Curry priority that brought pension reform via defined contribution plans for city workers. Lee’s efforts helped ensure that half-cent tax passed with nearly two-thirds support locally. After that, she returned to her official position.
Local leaders from across the political spectrum mourned Denise Lee as Hurricane Idalia threatened and pushed the death of a local titan to a news cycle afterthought to the oscillations and vagaries of the “cone.” She would have understood that relegation. She was Jacksonville, and it was fitting that as she passed from this realm to the next, the fearsome storm tracked further away from Duval. Almost like her final act of self-sacrifice for the city she loved.
She was of a different time and fought for the things she valued in life, sometimes with very little backup.
She hazarded an arrest in 1989 by leaving a Council meeting to protest racial discrimination, and took that attitude and desire for true equity to be a proponent of the Human Rights Ordinance as far back as 2012: the protections of LGBTQ+ rights that took years thereafter to codify finally with Lenny Curry as mayor.
And ironically her replacement skipped the vote and said regarding that law: “HRO was not my campaign.”
E. Denise Lee never would have said that.
We need Lee’s clarity of vision to be actualized by a new generation. Her ability to unify people who disagree and diverge in so many ways. Her way to listen to but to deliver the long view of history, never with an eye toward self-promotion or congratulation but with an eye toward creating a better and fairer city.
It was hard to find anyone who spoke poorly of Denise Lee while she was alive. She was a bridge builder. One who is being mourned and celebrated simultaneously, a quintessential figure who spans eras and whose history is that of the city itself. No one would dare criticize her now.
In that sense, it is incumbent on the mayor and the City Council to find a way to suitably honor her memory, not just in commemoration, but in true collaboration, with her moral clarity and directness of purpose in mind.
There are unique divides in our local Democratic Party. Ju’Coby Pittman, who took over Lee’s former District 8 after Katrina Brown left office, took a lot of criticism after she hushed the crowd at the vigil in New Town so that the governor could speak.
There are always divides in the Democratic Party, of course, but this one got so much attention that it overshadowed in the news cycle the brutal and racist killing of three that a city of a million souls mourns. Pittman, originally appointed to District 8’s seat by Rick Scott, was apparently expected not to try to preserve order at an event laden with chaotic energy and a lightning rod governor.
It has not been a universally popular posture to take, and by the end of last week, Pittman herself walked it back, distancing from DeSantis’ “ideology” and saying she didn’t want him to speak.
I didn’t think to ask Denise Lee about any of this regarding the final person to represent the historic District 8, and it is clear she had concerns beyond this realm by then. But I sure wish I could have that conversation with my friend now.