Nearly $20 Billion for Florida Infrastructure: The Untold Story
An old riddle asks this question: If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
When it comes to government, the answer to that question is usually no. Citizens don’t typically become aware of legislative or executive actions through osmosis. Elected officials and their teams must communicate clearly, repeatedly, and locally.
At least here in Florida, that local focus is where the Biden Administration could do more in its efforts to tout a major infrastructure accomplishment that eluded previous presidents — an achievement that will send Florida more than $19 billion to pay for roads, bridges, airports, transit, broadband, clean water, and other needs.
As former U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill famously proclaimed, “all politics is local.” Most people care about what happens in Washington, D.C. only to the extent it affects them personally or impacts their communities. But If they don’t hear about it directly or through local media sources that connect the dots between federal action and community impact, they are less likely to internalize the news.
Yet it does not appear the Biden Administration is following Speaker O’Neill’s advice as it relates to the Sunshine State. Though President Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act on November 15, 2021 — exactly three months ago — the White House has not maximized opportunities to communicate directly with Florida communities about the positive impacts of its $19 billion investment. The result has been a news vacuum that elected officials who opposed the federal government’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure initiative have filled.
For example, the infrastructure law directed $1.1 billion to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for Everglades restoration. Given the statewide, national, and global importance of saving the River of Grass, we might have expected the President, Vice President, and/or Interior Secretary to fly to South Florida and announce the investment. That visit would have received extensive media coverage throughout the state, especially in the Miami, West Palm Beach, and Fort Myers media markets. But it hasn’t happened yet.
While the Biden Administration has not yet found its way to the Everglades since November, other elected officials have. In January, two U.S. Senators who voted against the infrastructure bill — Rick Scott and Marco Rubio — held Everglades-related press events of their own. Scott toured the Herbert Hoover Dike surrounding Lake Okeechobee and touted his and Rubio’s roles in securing the $1.1 billion in Everglades funding in the infrastructure bill they opposed. Rubio visited the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) Reservoir and criticized the president for underfunding restoration efforts — an ironic take given his opposition to a bill with $1.1 billion for the Everglades.
Are these messaging efforts cynical? Yes. Disingenuous? Just ask PolitiFact. But they were possible and effective because Senators Scott and Rubio had the media environment to themselves. The administration was not there to tell its positive Everglades story, so others told a different story.
While the Everglades investment was (and still is) an opportunity for in-person communication, the Biden Administration cannot always send one of its principals to Florida to highlight state-specific aspects of the historic infrastructure bill or other accomplishments. But there are many opportunities for officials to connect with Floridians remotely through local news outlets, and it appears at least some of those opportunities have not yet been realized in the three months since the infrastructure bill became law.
As a case study, let’s look at one Florida media market — the one in which I live. Jacksonville and the surrounding region are important for the Biden Administration. With one million residents, Jacksonville is the largest city by area in the contiguous United States, the 12th largest city by population in the entire nation and the most populated city in Florida. Those of you who closely followed the 2020 election know that Joe Biden became the first Democrat since Jimmy Carter in 1976 to win Jacksonville/Duval County (the city and county share the same borders since consolidating 55 years ago). Any hope President Biden has for winning Florida in 2024 hinges on repeating that 2020 Jacksonville result. Jacksonville is also key to 2022 elections, such as the upcoming U.S. Senate contest between incumbent Marco Rubio and Congresswoman Val Demings (who grew up in Jacksonville). The Demings-Rubio result could reverberate across the country given its impact on control of the U.S. Senate.
But the scope of the media market is not limited to Jacksonville. It includes seven other North Florida counties with 800,000 additional residents. The market also crosses state lines and reaches six Georgia counties. That’s right, Georgia — the state which narrowly gave President Biden 16 of his 306 electoral votes and provided the Democrats with a one-seat U.S. Senate majority through the victories of Senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. Warnock is seeking a full six-year term in 2022, and the 225,000 Georgia residents living in the Jacksonville media market could well make a difference in that nationally impactful Senate contest.
Jacksonville is also an ideal market to discuss infrastructure. It is a major logistics hub that is home to the mighty St. Johns River, three deep-water seaports (the Jacksonville Port Authority, Port of Brunswick, Georgia, Port of Fernandina) and one of the best airports in the nation. The city also has significant infrastructure needs which the bipartisan investment could help address, including decades-old unfulfilled promises to Jacksonville citizens like the paving and illumination of roads, building of sidewalks, replacement of septic tanks, enhancement of drainage, and provision of potable drinking water to neighborhoods previously lacking those amenities.
While Jacksonville may need public infrastructure, it has ample news media infrastructure which includes a daily print/online publication (the Florida Times-Union) which has two widely read columnists (Nate Monroe and Mark Woods) and often shares coverage with 18 other daily Gannett outlets across the state; a variety of digital media outlets (such as Florida Politics, The Jaxson, and The Tributary) with statewide or regional appeal, prolific columnists (like A.G. Gancarski and Bill Delaney), and a demonstrated interest in infrastructure; three local television stations, two of which have weekly public affairs shows for discussion of key government issues (This Week in Jacksonville and Action News Sunday), a National Public Radio affiliate that hosts a daily news/talk program (First Coast Connect with Melissa Ross) and collaborates with the Miami public radio station on a weekly show that airs statewide (The Florida Roundup); key community publications such as the Florida Star and Jacksonville Free Press; two outlets that focus on economic issues like infrastructure (the Jacksonville Business Journal and Jacksonville Daily Record, both of which collaborate with sister publications in other Florida regions); and more.
Yet in the three months since the bipartisanship infrastructure initiative became law, the Biden Administration’s outreach to local media outlets appears minimal. As far as I can tell, few if any administration officials have directly engaged the above-mentioned programs, publications, or columnists to communicate directly how the infrastructure investment might benefit the more than two million people living in Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia. And, as the Everglades episode suggests, Jacksonville is not the only Florida community where the White House may be under-communicating. The result is a media narrative largely shaped by elected officials who opposed the infrastructure bill yet are now claiming the Biden Administration “shortchanged” Florida.
The good news for the Biden Administration is that it is not too late to supplement its local communications efforts. All of the ingredients for successful media engagement exist. The president and his team have a strong message: A bipartisan infrastructure investment which will create jobs, stimulate economic development, and enhance quality of life. They have plenty of Florida local media outlets with which to share that news. And as demonstrated by the President’s January visit to Pennsylvania and his upcoming trip to Ohio, the White House appears to be communicating directly with some impacted communities. Now it just needs to tell its infrastructure story more in Florida — a state which has $19 billion worth of reasons to welcome the news, could decide control of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives after 2022, and will cast 30 electoral votes in 2024.
Chris Hand is a government law attorney who previously served as Chief of Staff at the Consolidated City of Jacksonville and as a U.S. Senate Press Secretary. He co-authored America, the Owner’s Manual: You Can Fight City Hall — and Win and authored the 50th anniversary update to A Quiet Revolution: The Consolidation of Jacksonville-Duval County & the Dynamics of Urban Political Reform.