Peyton's actions hint at campaign preparation

Mayor has been scheduling firehouse visits, discussing future of his political career.

By DAVID DECAMP, The Times-Union

Sitting around a table at Jacksonville Fire Station No. 9, men traded stories over lasagna and spaghetti, salad and tea. Several years ago, this was where their path began. It may be where it renews.

John Peyton built his mayoral campaign in 2003 by visiting each shift at every fire station. Firefighters' exuberance for him became as much a part of his image as his boyish looks.

Peyton returned for dinner at the station Tuesday night, nearing the halfway point in his four-year term. As the next race begins to form, his chances hinge as much on his mixed record as the weaker positions of his would-be opponents.

Peyton's visit was among the subtle signs of how much he is thinking ahead to the spring 2007 election. Since taking office, he has made occasional visits to firehouses but this month began scheduling them several months out.

Peyton also said he wants to retain his 2003 pollster, Dave Sackett of Washington, for the same job for 2007. He has begun speaking with supporters about the shape of a re-election campaign. However, he has not begun raising money. He said he'll decide whether $2.5 million is needed -- as he raised in 2003 -- depending on the environment, but "we'll do whatever it takes."

That, too, echoed his planning in 2003.

"I have not made a formal announcement or a formal decision. But I will tell you there's a lot of work to be done, and it takes eight years to do it," Peyton said, referring to a second term.

Meanwhile, potential challengers -- fellow Republicans so far -- seem reticent. Mike Weinstein, who ran in 2003, said he would not run if Peyton does. Incoming City Council President Kevin Hyde said he has no plans to run against Peyton. Others mentioned include Tax Collector Mike Hogan and Councilwoman Suzanne Jenkins, but neither has moved publicly to run against Peyton.

Even former city Chief Administrator Sam Mousa, who works for Peyton critic John Coxwell, has talked with his boss about running. Coxwell, a major Jacksonville contractor, said he would support him. But Mousa declined any more comment.

Questions of Peyton's future hang around his life outside City Hall and his record inside. He has a child on the way, a home being built and a sure job at his father's Gate Petroleum business -- potential reasons to leave for calmer surroundings.

As mayor, residents have praised his program to promote literacy, which includes a reading club with 8,500 youngsters. He recently began a drive to raise wages in the community. The Super Bowl in February went over well, and the community could add thousands of military-related jobs instead of losing them in the Pentagon's proposed base cuts. Polls in January showed Peyton with high approval ratings.

"Without a doubt, John intends to run," said Larry Peterson, a Fire and Rescue division chief and a key volunteer in 2003. "Because that was a rumor around, I asked John and he said, without a doubt, make no mistake, I intend to run."

But the beleaguered, over-budget proposed county courthouse has dragged on his agenda. Road construction projects have budgets that have yet to be reigned. City Council members complain about the lack of communication from him on small and large matters, like changing the library opening date or vetoing a major development project in Baymeadows. The upcoming city budget is promising stringent cuts for some programs, forcing departments -- including Fire and Rescue -- to figure out how they might deal with 7 percent cuts.

Several former allies formed a non-profit group capable of spending money in political campaigns against him. The Issues Group, led by Coxwell, consultant Mike Tolbert and victims advocate Ted Hires, spent the spring questioning his early financial decisions, such as spending a budget reserve account and a new investment strategy he abandoned this spring.

Tolbert, who was Peyton's strategist in 2003, noted that it's still early for a challenger. Key issues over the budget and building projects make it possible for Peyton to stumble. The group already has succeeded by focusing media attention on Peyton's decisions, often putting them in harsh light, Tolbert said.

Jenkins, who is term-limited from seeking her council seat again, said unidentified business leaders approached her to run after watching Peyton perform. "I think they're frustrated," she said.

But other politicians say Peyton has some strategic advantages. He easily defeated Democratic former Sheriff Nat Glover last time, and the local Democratic Party is rebuilding. Peyton remains generally popular and well-known -- and, most powerfully perhaps, can raise much money.

"I don't see anyone mounting a challenge," said Republican Councilman Lad Daniels, who also has to leave office for term limits. He said he will support Peyton. "I think the criticism has been that he's been unable to get on top of that, but I think some of that is unfair."

Around the station Tuesday, Fire and Rescue members sat at dinner tables quietly listening to Peyton explain the city's tight budget and construction problems. Firefighters were key to Peyton's 2003 victory, but the department has changed.

Since 2003, early retirements have turned over about a fifth of the 1,000-member department. Many new members weren't around to see past dissension with former Fire Chief Ray Alfred and Mayor John Delaney, or the downtrodden shape of equipment. A new round of contract talks will begin soon, and budget cuts weigh on firefighters' minds.

"Politics is a constantly changing and evolving process, and everything can spark an interest with the firefighters out there," firefighters union President Roger Lewis said.

Peyton remains popular among union members, but he's no lock for endorsement, Lewis said. Unpleasant choices today may bring a different candidate to dinner in 2007.

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