Veteran Jacksonville Republican politico Robin Lumb has some harsh words for the local Republican Party.
“Dark money PACs, which operate with virtually no oversight or accountability, have thoroughly corrupted Republican politics in Duval County,” he said. “If Republican voters knew what was happening behind the scenes, often with the tacit approval of party leaders, they would be in open revolt.”
What makes the 69-year-old Lumb’s words intriguing is that he himself is a veteran leader of the very party he’s excoriating. Lumb is a former Duval GOP chair, Jacksonville city councilman, and City Hall policy adviser who says he watched from the inside as city hall was overtaken by rogue Republican profiteers.
For the past year he’s been intent on exposing some of his former associates, most specifically Tim Baker, the scandal-prone Republican consultant who has served as Jacksonville’s chief powerbroker for nearly a decade.
“We are in a new phase of Republican Party politics since the arrival of Tim Baker,” Lumb said. “Candidates in northeast Florida are being drowned out by a ‘political machine’ and its cadre of hired-gun consultants.”
Baker refused an interview request from the Florida Trident, but early last year, called Lumb a “pathetic old man desperately searching for relevance.”
“I have no interest in talking about the hurt feelings of sore losers,” Baker responded to the Trident.
But Baker is himself the talk of the town among Duval Republicans, and while their comments lack the same name-calling and personal insults, they’re undeniably damning.
Tim Baker rose to local power in 2015, when his Tallahassee political consulting firm, Data Targeting, supported former GOP boss Lenny Curry’s run for Jacksonville Mayor, and then played a leading role in getting Curry elected.
After the election, Baker and his associate Brian Hughes, a Republican lobbyist who was also a close friend of Lenny Curry, set up a political consulting firm called Bold City Strategic Partners (BCSP) just blocks from Jacksonville City Hall. There the two men, who referred to themselves as “the boys,” provided political consulting and campaign services for Curry and numerous city council members while also lobbying for clients who came before the council.
Curry also hired Lumb as his policy director, which provided Lumb an insider’s view of what he describes as BCSP’s abject influence peddling.
“Major donors, such as real estate developers and property investors, have gotten millions of dollars in tax breaks and city paid infrastructure,” he said.
Four current and former Jacksonville city council members, who spoke to the Trident on condition of anonymity, said Curry urged both elected officials and the companies appearing before them to hire BCSP as “consultants.”
“Generally,” one of the four said, “you always knew how council people were going to vote if Tim and Brian had represented them, especially if it was a special interest that had a big ‘ask’ before the council.”
According to the four, a corrupt machine, funded by special interests, poured money into campaigns and PACs run by Baker and Hughes. The machine spent large amounts on scorched-earth attack campaigns against any candidate who challenged the consultants or their clients.
“Republican and Democrat candidates were terrified when Baker’s clients signed to run against them,” said 42-year old Raymond Johnson, a political consultant and member of the Duval GOP. “They knew what was coming. Candidates felt they could be elected in a ‘fair fight,’ but Baker and Hughes didn’t fight fair.”
Such was the case when Baker’s wife ran against conservative Republican Christina Meredith for House District 17. Mailers in the heavily Republican district were sent out decrying Meredith as a “liberal” who took money from donors who supported “open borders and illegal immigration,” among other false accusations. Baker’s wife won.
In December 2017, Curry effectively brought the fox into the henhouse when he appointed Brian Hughes as his Chief of Staff.
“It’s my understanding that this is just formalizing how things have functioned for quite some time,” City Council President Anna Brosche told the media at the time.
The mayor later tapped Hughes as his Chief Administrative Officer, with a city-paid salary of $313,500, roughly $100,000 more than Curry was making as mayor and nearly $200,000 more than the Florida governor’s annual salary.
Hughes left BCSP, but council members and city employees said he still worked on behalf of the company’s interests behind the scenes, informally “advising” BCSP on issues coming before the commission involving the firm’s clients.
In 2019, the Duval County School Board asked the Jacksonville City Council to put a half-cent sales tax on the November ballot.
While Curry and other BCSP-linked council members publicly appeared to oppose placing the tax on the ballot, Baker and Curry’s former chief administrative officer turned lobbyist, Sam Mousa, met with School Board Chair Lori Hershey with an offer. Hershey said they asked for $150,000 annually from the school board for a minimum of three years in exchange for moving the sales tax referendum through city hall and then getting it passed by voters.
Hershey said it felt like “extortion as well as being held hostage.” State Senate Minority Leader Audrey Gibson had another name for it: “shakedown.”
“It’s an attack on the independence of the school district,” she said in a Florida Times Union interview.
After the school board rejected Baker’s offer, the city council blocked the sales tax from being placed on the November 2019 ballot. Only after the school board and a group of Jacksonville residents sued the city council did the council put the measure on the November 2020 ballot. It was passed by 67 percent of the voters.
The following year came another major Baker-involved scandal, this one involving a nefarious plan to sell the Jacksonville Electric Authority (JEA) to a private buyer. Backing the plan was Mayor Curry, who replaced the entire JEA board of directors with new members who were agreeable to a sale. He also facilitated the hiring of close friend Aaron Zahn as CEO of the city-owned utility.
Despite a 2018 Auditor’s report that listed numerous negative aspects of a JEA sale, by January 2019, the sale appeared to be on track to be finalized.
Firms across the globe were bidding to buy JEA, and a Baker lobbying client, Florida Power & Light (FPL), was ultimately selected by the committee chosen by the mayor’s administration to purchase the utility for $11.1 billion.
But the sale of the JEA had to be approved by the city, and several council members began to pose questions and concerns regarding the sale. Finally, members of the city council were able to obtain approval to form a Special Investigatory Committee, led by Jacksonville attorney Steve Busey, to investigate all aspects of the sale.
Busey’s committee found that Zahn and others involved in the deal had devised a scheme to allow them to take $1.1 billion off the top of the sale and split it amongst themselves. Zahn alone would have received $40 million. Baker was advising the city and JEA while being paid by FPL to lobby council members regarding the sale.
At the same time, Baker attended off-site meetings at the Club Continental in Orange Park to give presentations regarding the procurement of JEA and advise those involved in the sale process how to proceed for an “Intent to Negotiate” the sale.
“Why he was there and who was paying him to do what raises huge ethical issues.” Busey questioned.
Busey’s investigation led to a federal grand jury investigation. The grand jury ultimately indicted Zahn and JEA finance chief Ryan Wannemacher in March 2022 on criminal charges of conspiracy and wire fraud charges. Zahn and Wannemacker’s trial has been postponed three times, but is presently scheduled to start in February of this year.
Rick Mulaney, director of the Jacksonville University Public Policy Institute and former general counsel for the city, said the JEA sale was “potentially one of the greatest schemes to defraud the taxpayers in the history of our city.”
The “Front Man”
Public distrust of Tim Baker grew after the JEA sale debacle and grand jury indictment, but Lumb, Johnson, and others in political circles said it was soon evident Baker had a plan to shroud his continuing role at City Hall by serving up a “front man” to do his bidding.
“Tim Baker teamed up with a young political nobody, then made him a somebody,” said Johnson.
The “nobody” was 29-year-old Alexander Pantinakis, a Republican Executive Committee member and founder of a political consulting firm called On Target Messaging.
“Pantinakis became Baker’s eyes and ears,” said Lumb. “This allowed Baker and Pantinakis to work as a team rounding up clients and generating large sums of revenue using Baker’s connections.”
In addition to Pantinakis, Baker found another “go-to” within the Republican Party – current GOP Chairman Dean Black, who is another close Baker ally.
Typically, party chairs step down if they run for office. Black however held on to the chairmanship when he ran against conservative Republican Emily Nunez for Florida House District 15 in 2022.
Black not only hired Pantinakis to consult for his campaign, but also, in his role as GOP chair, awarded Pantinakis a $430,000 no-bid contract from the Duval Republicans.
Concerned about what seemed an obvious conflict of interest, Lumb requested copies of all invoices from Pantinakis to the Duval GOP. Black, who defeated Nunez, refused to release any documentation as to how the $430,000 was spent. He simply stated it was used for advertising and communication for the Republican Party.
The Republican Divide
When Curry left office in 2023, Baker’s chosen candidate for Jacksonville mayor was Daniel Davis, CEO of the Chamber of Commerce and a former Republican council member. Davis’s Democratic opponent was Donna Deegan, a former local TV news anchor.
Davis out-raised Deegan $8.4 million to $2.3 million and spent much of the money on attack ads alleging that Deegan planned to defund the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. Deegan, however, had publicly stated she planned to “fully fund the police and add more officers to the streets.”
As Deegan’s campaign account was dwindling and the election was neck-and-neck, a surprising coalition led by Republican city council members Randy DeFoor and Matt Carlucci formed to publicly support and raise money for Deegan, the Democratic candidate.
Both DeFoor and Carlucci told the Trident they felt Baker and Hughes would remain in power if Davis was elected. Publicly, Carlucci said Jacksonville needed a “change in city government—to a more transparent, collaborative, future-forward culture.”
But Defoor was more outspoken in her opposition to Davis’ candidacy.
“I believe that four, potentially eight more years of that kind of thuggery shown in the [Davis] campaign will wreak havoc on our city.” she told the media.
Deegan won the election by 5 percent of the votes.
After leaving the mayor’s office on June 30, Curry landed a job as a lobbyist with Ballard Partners, a high-profile GOP firm that had been contracted by the city while Curry was serving as mayor. Two weeks later, Deegan, in a clear power play, cut ties between Ballard and the city, exercising a termination clause in the contract.
Hughes is now working with former President Donald Trump’s campaign in Florida and didn’t respond to voicemails left on his cellphone by the Trident for comment.
Lumb, along with a number of other activists, have created a website called First Coast Alliance of Conservative Voters aimed at both rallying the right-wing base of the county GOP and exposing its seamy underbelly.
“Our goal,” said Lumb, “is to use the website and email database to expose the dark money PACs and campaign consultants that are corrupting the political process in Jacksonville.”
Lumb and Johnson, who both said they abstained from voting in the Deegan election, hope the Baker political machine will lose some of its clout in city hall with the new mayor. At least eight members of the city council were Baker clients, so both men believe Baker still holds a great deal of influence with issues that come before the council.
But Johnson, Lumb, and other Republicans said they are going on the offensive and plan to track, heavily scrutinize and even publish the names and voting records of all council members and candidates who employ Baker and Pantinakis.
As far as Deegan’s mayorship, Lumb sees it as a step up so far, at least in terms of restricting what he sees as Baker’s toxic influence.
Johnson is optimistic about the Democrat in terms of removing some of Baker’s control over important city matters.
“Given his history as a lobbyist and establishment insider, it’s difficult to believe he’s not still calling the shots,” said Lumb. “But at least now, he doesn’t have a direct pipeline into the mayor’s office.
About the author: Susan Clark Armstrong is a veteran investigative reporter and former Florida Times-Union columnist who lives in the Jacksonville area.