On a recent overcast afternoon, the seating area at Hughes Soul Food is almost empty. A couple of blue-collar white guys enjoy a late lunch at the homey Pearl Street establishment, just north of Martin Luther King Boulevard. In a back room, at a table strewn with plates of fried chicken, gravy-smothered pork chops, collard greens and cornbread muffins, Jacksonville City Councilmember Glorious Johnson is holding court. Deep in conversation with local railroad historian Bob Mann, his wife, Libby, and community activist Diane Melendez, Johnson interrupts herself with regular and infectious bouts of laughter.
Mann is eager to discuss his decision to re-incorporate the old Jacksonville Traction Company -- the corporation that once operated the city's trolley system -- but conversation is fluid, ebbing and flowing among all topics Jacksonville. Johnson is unhappy about the new fees her constituents will be faced with paying, including a storm water fee later approved by a 13-2 council vote (only Johnson and District 8 Councilmember Denise Lee opposed it). Melendez, as always, is furious about the city's handling of Old Brewster Hospital in LaVilla.
A waitress Johnson addresses as "Miss Vivian" stops by the table to deliver a drink and a Styrofoam to-go box. Having just completed a meal of baked spaghetti and garlic bread -- not exactly soul food, but, hey -- an indigestive Johnson asks, "Miss Vivian, will you bring me a Coke? I need to burp." Johnson laughs her signature explosive cackle, and the rest of the table laughs with her. Seconds later, and almost as spontaneous as the burp she was hoping to coax, Johnson wonders aloud, "Maybe I need to run for mayor."
It may be the first time she's vocalized the notion in the presence of a reporter, but it's obviously not the first time candidacy has crossed her mind. Johnson later admits that since stumbling across the suggestion on jaxoutloud.com
, an online community forum Melendez co-founded, she's been "praying about" a potential run every day.
"I think the reason," she explains, "is that I know what needs to be done."
With three whole years remaining before another mayoral election, Johnson isn't the only one toying with the notion of picking up the pieces post-Peyton. It's been said that Council President Daniel Davis is a sure-bet candidate, and rumors have it that fellow Councilmember Ronnie Fussell and Tax Collector Mike Hogan are prepared to throw their hats into the ring. After Jackie Brown's less-than-impressive showing against the incumbent Peyton in 2007, the question remains whether or not Jacksonville -- a city that has historically been helmed by white men -- is ready for a black female mayor. More pressing for Johnson in particular is whether or not her own party would be willing to support her.
As a black Republican, Johnson has always been regarded as something of an oddity. It's often taken for granted that African Americans will vote and register as Democrats, though Johnson rattles off a list of names to justify her choice of party affiliation: "Mary McCloud Bethune was a Republican, A. Philip Randolph was a Republican, Martin Luther King was a Republican." She adds, "And Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, and he freed the slaves! I said, 'I want to be one, too.'"
There are others, of course, including Colin Powell, Clarence Thomas and Condoleezza Rice on the national level, and state Rep. Jennifer Carroll (R-Green Cove Springs) locally. But Johnson's defining characteristic has never been her black conservatism; rather, that's just one aspect of her politics, which are impossible to pigeonhole. Despite her GOP credentials, Johnson has always remained an outsider to her party -- sometimes openly snubbed, sometimes politely ignored.
She occasionally returns the favor. Johnson has never been shy about criticizing those in the Republican Party she considers small-minded, backwards or even downright ignorant, even if those same folks are in leadership positions. And she has never allowed the local party to determine her political future. In fact, it doesn't appear as though she's even discussed the possibility of a mayoral run with local party leadership.
John Falconetti, the current chairman of the Republican Party of Duval County, was clearly taken aback in a phone interview by the suggestion that Johnson is considering a mayoral run, hemming and hawing before explaining that he was unprepared to comment because he hadn't yet heard that "rumor." Falconetti composed himself enough to refer to Johnson as "a good Republican" and say that she has "absolutely been an effective community steward. No question." Before hanging up, he admitted that he was "caught off guard" by the suggestion of her candidacy.
Johnson's rejection of party restraints doesn't mean she's a closet Democrat. Sheâ€™s made no secret of her displeasure with the black political status quo. "All of these forty-some years we've had black Democrats, and all I see is deterioration," she says. "I see our people being sold out. And they said I was a sellout because I was a Republican? Who else is out there fighting?"
Johnsonâ€™s fighting spirit isn't directed only at the opposition. When she ran against Democrat Ju'Coby Pittman-Peele for the Group 5 At-Large City Council seat in 2003, she was ostracized by local GOP leadership. Tom Slade, then GOP chair, flat-out refused to support her candidacy, and most of the party hierarchy followed suit. Party officials charged her for every copy she made at GOP headquarters, refused to fundraise or conduct neighborhood walks on her behalf and contributed to her Democratic opponent. (Some of the party's biggest donors, including Mike Hightower and Tom Petway, gave money to Pittman-Peele.) Even after Johnson won the election, she got the cold shoulder. Slade was dismissive of her victory, quipping to the Times-Union
that, "When you're a Republican, it don't take a helluva lot to win."
But Johnson refused to be deterred. In fact, she turned the snubbing into an opportunity. In need of funds and support, she was given no choice but to champion her own campaign. "From sun-up to sundown," she recalls, "I went everywhere. I made a promise to talk to 100 people each day -- and I did."
While other candidates were attending big-money fundraisers, Johnson was personally courting her constituency. She found support in unlikely places. Pittman-Peele had already garnered the endorsement of the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, but Johnson became friends with the late T.G. Carter, a former Jacksonville Sheriff's Officer, F.O.P. member and co-founder of the National Association of Retired Cops. Carter, who became one of Johnson's most ardent supporters, dubbed Johnson an "honorary redneck" for her ability to connect with the working-class, white residents of Duval County.
Far from being offended by the label, Johnson wears it as a badge of honor. "I had people with Confederate flags on their trucks with my name right next to it 'Vote for Glorious Johnson'," she laughs. She recalls being taken on a motorcycle ride by some of her newfound redneck buddies and still has a T-shirt they gave her, in a bizarre gesture of friendship, that reads, "Equal Rights for Southern Whites." Johnson explodes with laughter at the absurdity -- but she wore the shirt.
Glorious Johnson, the eldest of three children, grew up in segregated Jacksonville, and has seen with her own eyes the city at its best and absolute worst. Her parents moved to Jacksonville in 1940, and her father worked hard, maintaining two and three jobs at a time. He died relatively young, at age 45. Johnson says she never realized her family was struggling. After all, they had two cars, a home, and she was even sent to boarding school to get a better education -- until she cried her way back home.
Back in Jacksonville, Johnson attended old College Park Elementary -- now a parking lot on the Edward Waters College campus -- a stone's throw from the home she grew up in and where she still lives. She remembers getting cast-off textbooks from the white schools, with pages torn out and answers written in margins. Even with hand-me-down books, Johnson takes pride in the fact that she and her classmates learned to read, write and "respect our fellow man."
But Johnson's most salient childhood memory is of visiting Hemming Park at age 7 or 8. The park still had "white" and "colored" water fountains, and one day, out of curiosity, Johnson sampled the water from the white fountain. Before she had time to register the fact that the "white" water tasted no different than the "colored" water, a white mother jerked her young son away from the fountain and berated the Johnsons for daring to cross the color line.
"This lady was very nasty to me," Johnson recalls, in classic understatement. "She called me the N-word and asked me if my 'mammy' had ever taught me how to read."
Johnson admits she was affected by the experience, but has not allowed it to define her.
"I didn't become bitter," she explains, "It was hard. But like my mother said, when you become bitter, you can't do anything because bitterness has control over you.
"My mother and father taught me that that's not the way to do it," she continues. "The best revenge is to be successful."
It's another gloomy afternoon. Again Glorious Johnson and Diane Melendez sit in Hughes Soul Food. Again, it's baked spaghetti for Johnson, fried chicken with collards, rice and gravy for Melendez. They sit side-by-side at the table as they do in life -- an odd pair, connected by something deeper than demographics.
"I live in Avondale, she lives over near Edward Waters," explains Melendez. "She's a Republican, I'm a Democrat. She's black, I'm white, but we're like this," she gestures, intertwining her fingers. "Together we can kind of span both sides of the coin."
According to Melendez's account, their meeting was nothing short of kismet. She first saw a picture of Johnson when the Times-Union
ran a post-election story in 2003. "I was looking at the paper and her face just jumped out at me," Melendez recalls. "I pointed to her -- with God as my witness, and my husband could tell you -- and said, 'She and I are going to be great friends."
Johnson couldn't have realized it at the time, but with so few allies to be found on the council, Melendez's friendship would be invaluable. "I think what gives our relationship such a neat edge to it is that we have an open dialogue," says Melendez. "There's no restraint of any words." Johnson injects an emphatic, "Nope," and Melendez continues. "Say an issue comes up. She understands how it's going to affect the community she's in and I'll tell her what the perception is from our side, and vice-versa. We discovered that there was a huge gap between the perceptions and the realities."
Melendez, a former city official in the Lake Worth area, has run unsuccessfully for local office a couple of times. (She, along with Jackie Brown, challenged Peyton in 2007.) Sheâ€™s been a central figure in the fight to save Brewster Hospital, the regionâ€™s first all-black nursing school, located in downtown Jacksonville. Before Johnson was elected to the council, Melendez attempted to engage other council members in preserving the deteriorating African-American landmark, with little success. Johnson was the first city official Melendez dealt with that she says didn't have a hidden agenda.
Melendez describes her friend as being "hypersensitive to being honest," something borne out during last year's Grand Jury investigation into the council's Sunshine Law violations. Johnson was the first elected official to testify, doing so voluntarily, and was singled out in the Grand Jury report for her "openness and candor." Johnson was also the only councilmember to appear without an attorney advising her. In the immortal words of Billy Joel, honesty is such a lonely word. Johnson's unwillingness to "go along to get along," as she puts it, has made her persona non grata in some circles. To hear her tell it, she has few friends on the council and fewer still in the administration.
"I was the only one asking questions," Johnson says of her early days on the council. "I wanted to work with them and do things with them that would make changes in the community, and not just rubber-stamp anything. When I first got into office, you know, being fresh, they were talking about, 'Well, the mayor said, the mayor said,' and I said, 'Hold on.'"
A former music and reading teacher, Johnson said she tried to explain to her fellow councilmembers the basic structure of government: The legislature makes the laws, the executive director, i.e. the mayor, is responsible for implementing the laws, and the judicial system is meant to uphold them. Johnson's lesson was dismissed, and one councilmember even took out a pen and rewrote the structure for her benefit: 1. Executive, 2. Legislative and 3. Judicial.
Things weren't exactly hunky-dory outside council chamber walls. "Only Diane can really tell you," Johnson says, "because she's the only one I'd tell about the hurt." Melendez instantly picks up the prompt. "They were really nasty to her," she says.
When first elected, Johnson says she was never invited to lunch with other councilmembers and her greetings were ignored in the hallway. She even recalls former councilmember Pat Lockett-Felder calling her a "black bitch" in front of their colleagues. On another occasion, she says Lockett-Felder actually threatened her, saying, "I ought to stab you with my ice pick."
Johnson responded as only she can. "Oh, baby," she replied, "you bringing an ice pick to a gun fight?" (Asked if she recalled either event, Lockett-Felder responded, "Not to my knowledge.")
With five years under her belt, Johnson now believes she understands why she was treated so poorly initially. "Youâ€™ve got to play the game," she says. "But, see, I'm tired of playing the game. I'm too old. And the thing is, I don't play games. And thank God for my friend Diane, because she keeps me on level ground. She really does, because sometimes I call her and I'm ready to go postal."
Johnson laughs one of her big, open-mouthed laughs.
Things have improved for Johnson on the council since the arrival of several new members last year. She counts Bill Bishop, Jack Webb and Clay Yarborough -- whom she takes credit for convincing to run for a council seat -- among her allies. She and Webb recently collaborated on a proposal to procure additional city funds to assist Jacksonville Area Legal Aid in dealing with a population facing an increasing risk of foreclosure. Webb describes Johnson as a "wonderful human being, a plain talker and a no-nonsense person," and says that he appreciates all that she's done for this city. Webb wasn't aware that Johnson was flirting with the idea of a mayoral run, but upon hearing the suggestion, he simply laughs and offers an encouraging "God bless her."
Political consultant Paul McCormick praises Johnson's "chutzpah," but doesn't dismiss her candidacy.
"I would frame [a potential run] around a couple of statements," he says. "First, she has absolutely no fear and she works very hard at what she does. Second, there's some guy named Obama who seems to be changing the way Americans are looking at African Americans running for higher office -- I think that would be helpful to someone like her."
At this point, Johnson feels comfortable at least floating the idea of a run for higher office. At the risk of counting her mayoral chickens before they're hatched, Johnson has already thought about her priorities. "First thing would be to repeal all of these fees," she offers. "Second thing would be to request a forensic audit of the administration office and every department, because I want to know what the duplications are, how we've been wasting money and how we can trim it down so we donâ€™t have to threaten people that the services will be cut when they need the services."
Johnson consults her human cheat-sheet before continuing. "What's the third thing I need to do?" she asks Diane. "Obviously the crime," Melendez suggests, but she can't contain her concern for her friend.
"I've said to her that she'd make an excellent mayor," Melendez explains, "but I'd rather see her at the state level, and there's two reasons. One is that thereâ€™s going to be a huge mess to clean up." Glorious laughs, "I'd probably have a stroke." Melendez continues, "The second thing is that she hurts, literally, for injustices. That could be so huge for her mental state of mind that it might be better if she were separated to the degree that she'd be on the state legislation and still be conscious of whatâ€™s going on at the city level."
But one thing is for sure: "If I was mayor," Johnson says, "she'd be right there with me, and if she was running I'd be right there with her."