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Mike Tolbert remembers 50 years of Tommy Hazouri’s service to Jacksonville

A remembrance: ‘My relationship with Tommy ... survived the test of time’

Tommy Hazouri
Tommy Hazouri

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Way back in the spring of 1971, when we were both much younger, Tommy Hazouri and I were roommates at the infamous Tallahassee Howard Johnson’s during the state legislative session. Hazouri was an aide to Rep. Carl Ogden, who was the House Majority Leader. I was there as an aide to Sen. Bruce Smathers with the primary intent on helping him run for Secretary of State in 1972.

I tell you that because it lets you know that, like so many other people in Jacksonville, my relationship with Tommy is not newly born. Best yet, by several miracles, it has survived the test of time.

All of us were stunned by a gut punch when we learned that Tommy’s recent lung transplant was failing him and Mayo Clinic has sent him home to hospice. The news took away my breath then, and I am still having battles with disbelief.

If you were to ask me one word to describe Tommy Hazouri, it would be, “Warrior.”

He grew up in Springfield over his dad’s grocery and first determined he wanted a life of public service in the sixth grade when Tommy became leader of the school safety patrol. After working as a legislative aide, he ran off six straight wins and 12 years of service in the legislature, before being elected mayor in 1987.

As mayor, it seemed he wanted to undo most of what had been accomplished by his predecessor, Jake Godbold, but aggressively continued Godbold’s quest for an NFL team.

Tommy was ambitious and unafraid to take on contentious and challenging issues.

Two of his successes altered the course of Jacksonville’s future for the good. He rid Jacksonville of the odors that often made the city smell like a bag of garbage that had been sitting in the blistering sun for two weeks. His opponents argued the odors from paper mills and chemical plants was the “Smell of Money.”

Always quick with a witty retort, during a news conference outside a chemical plant, Hazouri delivered one of the best political responses I ever heard. He was speaking to the media about the smell generated by the plant when the operation’s general manager came out. “You are trespassing on our property,” the man said. Hazouri quickly replied, “Your odors are trespassing on my town.”

The second future-changing achievement was leading a referendum to abolish Jacksonville’s toll roads and replace the revenue with an increase in the sales tax, a quest that was met with a well-funded resistance by some of Jacksonville’s biggest players that the campaign labeled “Fat Cats.”

He also had some political blunders, a couple that proved fatal. For instance, as a last-second “Hail Mary,” Hazouri had a proposal to create a first time every garbage fee and insert it into his budget address to the city council. As someone suggested at the time, it was like tossing a grenade into an elevator just as the doors are closing and announcing, “There’s going to be a noise.” The political results were not pretty.

Another miscue was when he declined to support a referendum effort to dedicate one mill of property taxes to create a permanent funding source for the Children’s Commission. The referendum campaign was chaired by State Attorney Ed Austin, who was passionate about the issue and unhappy that Hazouri chose to sit it out. It motivated Austin in 1991 to run against Hazouri for re-election and use the garbage fee as a political club.

Tommy obviously made some enemies along the way who dedicated themselves to making sure he didn’t get re-elected in 1991. Instead, they threw their weight behind State Attorney Austin, who narrowly won. In 1995, Tommy tried to return to the mayor’s office but finished third behind both Godbold and John Delaney in the first election. Delaney defeated Godbold in the general election.

Mike Tolbert at book signing with Jake Godbold
Mike Tolbert with the late Jake Godbold in August 2019 to celebrate the publication of "Jake!" (Photo from Jacksonville Daily Record)

For most politicians, two high-profile losses for mayor would be enough to push them into retirement. But not warrior Hazouri, who went on two serve two terms on the School Board, including as chairman. When the horrible news came about his illness, Tommy was in his second term as an at-large member of the City Council. He just relinquished the gavel two months ago after an incredible year of leadership as council president.

He is Jacksonville’s only official who hit for the political cycle: legislator, mayor, school board member and chair, and city council member and president. That’s not only historic, but it’s also heroic.

Shortly before he was set to be elected council president in the spring of 2020, some folks in town were worried if Tommy was up to the task. He had confoundingly supported Lenny Curry’s re-election as mayor. It was thought he would be under pressure to bend to Curry, who was being vilified by the public and investigated by a special council committee for his efforts to sale JEA. There was concern that Hazouri would end the work of the special investigative committee. There was also a worry about his health.

After Tommy assured those who were apprehensive that he would retain the committee and put himself on it as a member, any hesitation vanished.

Tommy became council president on July 1, 2020. He served during a pandemic and in the midst of a lung transplant.

Hazouri made sure the work of the JEA special investigative committee was finished. He then turned quickly and stood strong to stop the scheme for the city to give millions of dollars to the Jaguars to build an ill-conceived development at the stadium called Lot J, a proposal that like the plan to sell JEA was born in darkness behind closed doors and absent the city’s established protections and protocols.

Those skeptical of his ability to stand strong and not bow under the tremendous political pressures became his cheerleaders because he demonstrated, just as he did with tolls and odors, he still had the will to hold back the political weight of interests trying to knock him down.

Finally, I would suggest that Jacksonville was fortunate to have Tommy Hazouri as council president during those troubling and challenging times, just as his town has been blessed to enjoy his leadership and service for 50 years.