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Curry Campaign Management Firm Conducted Focus Group On Privatizing JEA

Data Targeting, Inc., a Gainesville firm that worked to elect Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, conducted a focus group study in late February asking participants whether they support selling municipal utility JEA.

Two callers to WJCT’s First Coast Connect Friday morning said a group of so-called “super voters,” who have consistent records of participating in general elections, were asked how they felt about JEA’s performance, whether the utility should be privatized and whether they would vote to reelect Curry if the election were held that day.

Catherine, a Northwest Jacksonville resident who asked that her last name be withheld, also spoke to WJCT News in an interview after the show.

She said the group of at least 10-to-15 focus group participants “knew it was about the privatization of JEA” after the first question.

She said Data Targeting told her “a private group of investors” who are “non-partisan” funded the research.

Catherine said she took meticulous notes on the meeting that lasted a couple of hours, but they were taken from her before she left the Hilton DoubleTree by the Jacksonville Airport on Feb. 26. When she returned home that night she rewrote them from memory, she said. 

Tim Baker, a political consultant for Mayor Curry, was a cofounder of Data Targeting Research, LLC. with Pat Bainter in 2013, as ourFlorida Times-Union news partner reported. Bainter later departed, but he stayed on as the CEO of Data Targeting, Inc., which he founded in 1987.

Baker is now the sole managing partner of Data Targeting Research, according to state business filings. 

In a text message to WJCT News, Baker said, “I can tell you that we've not done a focus group for any Curry entity or Curry-funded entity since the pension reform campaign, and we did not conduct a group for any such Curry-aligned entities on JEA privatization.”

He also said he could not confirm whether Data Targeting held the February focus group "as a course of doing business." 

Baker has also worked closely with Meteoric Media Strategies, which was founded and managed by Brian Hughes before Hughes became Curry’s chief of staff in December 2017. At the time of Hughes’ hiring, Curry toldFlorida Politics he met him “in the fall of 2011 when [Curry] became state [Republican] party chairman” and that “he’s been a trusted adviser for many years.”

Like Catherine, First Coast Connect caller Dewayne Sweet said he was paid $100 to participate in the February focus group. He said he felt Data Targeting’s researchers “asked leading questions.”

“They called me and asked me would I be a part of it. When I went into it I didn’t know what it was going to be about. They said they were doing this throughout the city. They didn’t say [who was behind it],” he said.

Stewart said the majority of the people in his focus group said the city shouldn’t sell JEA and wanted to know who was pushing the idea.

WJCT News has called Data Targeting, Inc. and the office of Mayor Lenny Curry for comment and is awaiting their responses. This story will be updated. 

This story was updated at 4:50 p.m. with Tim Baker's response. 

Ryan Benk is a former WJCT News reporter who joined the station in 2015 after working as a news researcher and reporter for NPR affiliate WFSU in Tallahassee.