Jolly is a Jack Kemp Conservative with a true chance to open the GOP tent
Anticipating disaster, lots of people — not just Republicans — are already turning their attention to what sort of GOP will rise from the dumpster fire that has been Donald Trump’s campaign for the White House.
Those pondering the latest presumed post-mortem could do worse than pay attention to what’s going on in Florida’s 13th Congressional District, spread across most of Pinellas County.
There, faced with an uphill battle to retain his House seat, pseudo-incumbent David Jolly — we’ll explain the qualified descriptor in a moment — appears to be running as Jack Kemp.
Which makes a certain amount of sense, because, since he became a congressman in the heated special election to succeed his boss, the late Bill Young, in the spring of 2014, Indian Shores’ Jolly has been serving as Kemp: A legitimate big-tent conservative who believed to his marrow that an optimistic message of liberty, equality, targeted government bootstrapping and free-market opportunity work not only boost all Americans, but could sell wherever it was authentically delivered.
Thus is Jolly — faced with the daunting task of winning a district redrawn to favor a Democrat (in this case the chameleonesque Charlie Crist) — resolutely campaigning in Pinellas’ minority-dominant Democratic strongholds in central and south St. Petersburg, believing, as Kemp did once upon a time, that there are impressions to be made, minds to be changed and votes to be harvested.
“It’s all about investing people across the county,” he says, “regardless of their ZIP code.”
To that end, upon reelection, Jolly pledges to open a district office “in the heart of Midtown,” which isn’t just foreign turf for Republicans, it’s been a community too far even for their soon-to-be-former Democratic representative in Washington, South Tampa’s Kathy Castor, who put her Pinellas office in upscale downtown St. Petersburg.
Digging deeper, Jolly wonders what it says about the Crist campaign that “Charlie put his campaign office at 300 Beach Drive (also in the tony part of town, within sniffing distance of Tampa Bay). … I plan to lead by example.”
Grassroots Republicans might find some of Jolly’s example-setting difficult to stomach. He favors open primaries, on the theory that allowing crossover voting will quell some of appeals to extremists that, for example, vexed both major parties’ presidential nominating contests.
On the other hand, open primaries gave Trump momentum in the early going. OK, we can argue about that another time.
And Jolly vigorously supports early education programs, most of which have proven to be long on promises but short on delivery.
Still, his advocacy of both, plus stepped-up job training, lowering the costs of acquiring a graduate-equivalency diploma, criminal justice reform, job security and other bottom-up plans have begun to resonate in unlikely places — if he can gain an audience.
“Many community leaders don’t want to sit down with me,” Jolly concedes. But when, through hook, crook or mutual acquaintance he’s able to arrange visits, he begins by being a thoughtful listener. When, at last, he responds, Jolly reports what he hears most often is, “You’re not who I thought you were.”
One of those who was turned around, he says, was the pastor of a major south St. Petersburg church, who invited him to services and, at the end, had him approach the altar where deacons performed the ceremony of laying on hands.
“It’s the old saying,” Jolly says. “They don’t care what you know if they don’t know that you care.”
He’s spending lots of precious campaign time demonstrating the latter. He and his wife, Laura, spent a chunk of Tuesday reading to and interacting with youngsters attending a pre-kindergarten center in Midtown. Before that, he was in meetings with Midtown leaders.
Those are not the sort of events that make news. This is: Jolly attended Saturday night’s forum held by the St. Petersburg NAACP, but Crist did not, earning a scolding from chapter President Maria Scruggs, who made it abundantly clear she did not approve of Democrats who take minority voters for granted.
Will it matter? Maybe. A race that once seemed well out of reach has narrowed to within the margin of error — Crist has a three-point lead, according to StPetePolls.com — with less than two weeks to Election Day.
And that result was reported before Crist was shamed into demanding the national Democratic Party withdraw a commercial erroneously linking Jolly to Trump. Jolly, meanwhile, has received absolutely zero financial aid from the National Republican Congressional Committee, nor from its reliable surrogates, such as the Chamber of Commerce.
What that means, the congressman says, is if his bid succeeds, “We will answer to no one.” And by “we” he means not just him and his staff, but all of the residents of CD-13. “I don’t know what we’ll do with that currency,” he says, “but we’ll do it together.”
All of this adds up to momentum, Jolly says. It’s in the air, like the salt breeze coming off the Gulf. “It’s what every candidate wants,” he says, “and every politician needs.”
So we’ll be watching. And by “we,” I mean everyone who has a stake in what comes next for the GOP. David Jolly, running and serving as the honorable heir to Jack Kemp’s legitimate big-tent legacy, might be onto something. And in a presumed post-Trump universe, that something could be special.
Tom talks David Jolly and all of the latest political news on the newest edition of The Politically Incorrect Podcast. He is joined by Joe Henderson and Jim Williams, so enjoy.