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Tom Wills: Tommy Hazouri was a man of the people

File photo of Tommy Hazouri. (WJXT)

Of all the public officials this reporter has ever interviewed, Tommy Hazouri is the only one who ever began many of our conversations on various issues by asking me this question: “What do you want me to say?”

The first time we spoke was in the 1976 session of the Florida Legislature. He was a third-year state representative. I was a second-year News4Jax TV reporter.

MORE | Fighter, mentor, friend: Tommy Hazouri dies at 76

I was startled by his question and after stumbling over my words said, “Mr. Hazouri, I can’t tell you what to say. I just want to ask you about…”

I’ve long since forgotten what issue was the subject of our interview.

The lasting memory, however, is how approachable he always was. He was a politician who genuinely liked reporters because he liked everyone.

Unlike many members of the state House, Hazouri’s ambition was not to move up to the state Senate as a possible stepping stone toward seeking statewide office.

This Jacksonville native, the pride of Jackson High School, dreamed of becoming mayor. His dream came true in the 1987 city election.

He showed himself to be a shrewd politician.

Tommy Hazouri wins the election as mayor of Jacksonville in May 1987. (WJXT)

As he was taking office, News4Jax had been investigating the inefficiency and unfairness of the city’s dependence on bridge and expressway tolls.

Public opposition to the tolls was growing, partly because the JTA had recently raised them.

A fledgling effort was beginning to replace the tolls with a half-cent local option sales tax.

The new Mayor Hazouri seized upon the anti-toll momentum. He lead a successful campaign and convinced a narrow majority of Duval County voters to abolish tolls and approve the tax.

Hazouri was a natural politician and celebrated with friends the day he presided over the toll plazas coming down on the Mathews Bridge. (WJXT)

GALLERY: Tommy Hazouri through the years

Unfortunately for Hazouri, his political instincts failed him on another issue, an increase in the fees residents are charged for trash collection.

It cost him a second term in 1991. The dream of being mayor didn’t fade away, however. He ran for the job and lost two more times -- once in 1993 and then again in 2003.

Always a man of undaunted spirit, he was elected to the school board in 2004 and then won a countywide race for Jacksonville City Council in 2015.

In the 46 years I’ve lived here, he is the only one I know who has served in the legislature, the mayor’s office, the school board and the City Council.

Lifelong Jacksonville resident was elected 11 times and held four different local and state offices over nearly five decades.

I’ve saved my favorite memory for last. Anyone who has ever been in the Mandarin Walmart at the same time as Tommy Hazouri knows it’s like being in the store with Elvis. Everyone knows him. Everyone wants to talk with him, and he wants to talk with them.

Tommy Hazouri truly was a man of the people.

News4Jax viewer Tish Wright shared this photo (see below) with me, looking back at the time she met Tommy Hazouri.

Tish and her children are to Hazouri’s right in the photograph. She said that Hazouri wished the children “a wonderful future.” She said his wish came true. Her son is in the Navy and her daughter is a school teacher.

Tish Wright and her children are to his right in the picture next to Tommy Hazouri. She told News4Jax that Hazouri wished the children "a wonderful future." She said his wish has come true in her family. Her son is in the Navy. Her daughter is a teacher.

About the Author:

Tom Wills joined Channel 4 in 1975 and has co-anchored Jacksonville's highest-rated evening newscasts for more than 40 years.