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More than a half-million dollars dumped into Jacksonville council race

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Claire Heddles
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WJCT News
Democrat Tracye Polson and Republican Nick Howland will face a runoff election this month.

Democrat Tracye Polson has now poured about a quarter-million dollars of her own money into her race for Jacksonville's at-large City Council group 3 seat

The licensed therapist also raised more from individual donations than Republican Nick Howland has received in the entire race, according to new campaign finance records filed Thursday.

Howland is head of the veteran suicide prevention nonprofit The Fire Watch. The largest share of his funds — more than $63,000 — are from businesses. He's pitched in just $5,000 to his own race, compared with Polson's $236,000 to her campaign.

Both candidates have gone after each other's funding streams in recent weeks to discredit one another.

Fact-checking attack ads

An advertisement published by Nick Howland's campaign stated, "Out of state donors are pouring thousands of dollars into her campaign to make Jacksonville more like San Francisco."

Campaign finance records show that, of Polson's more than 600 donors, about a hundred are from out of state. Of Howland's about 200 donors, fewer than five have out-of-state addresses.

Howland also has characterized Polson's #PostcardstoVoters campaign as "out-of-town special interests."

According to Polson campaign manager Mara Strobel-Lanka (who was paid $5,500 by Polson's campaign last month), the Georgia-based progressive organization Postcards to Voters reached out to Polson's campaign, not the other way around.

Strobel-Lanka said the organization picked this council race, in part, because it is election offseason, with few races nationwide. She said Polson's campaign is not paying for the postcards, nor are there any expenditure reports for Postcards to Voters.

Polson's campaign has been spending money attacking her opponent's funding streams in recent advertisements.

"He's bought, he's paid for, and there's no receipt," her recent advertisement says. The ad also reads that Howland is "covering up dark-money donations."

Polson's claims about dark money likely stem back to a string of campaign donations last fall from more than a dozen political committees listing a single address in Tallahassee.

Those PACs are also chaired by an Alachua County Republican, William Stafford Jones, who is known for shuffling money between dozens of PACs, obscuring the donors' origin.

Jones has also been accused of skirting tax restrictions to funnel nonprofit money into political campaigns.

Money like this, with no traceable origin, is often called "dark money."

Jones has chaired more than a hundred active and closed political committees funding Republican races up and down the state, including in past Jacksonville Republican council races.

Howland received about $15,000 from political committees chaired by Jones last fall, but he has not received money from one of these PACs so far this year.

He did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the characterization of hiding dark money.

Who's paying for all these ads?

Meanwhile, a large portion of all this money has gone into the ads blasting on local news stations and on social media.

The largest share of Howland's spending last month went to a DC-area political ad agency with the near anonymous name Multi Media Services.

Howland has spent about $40,000 on the ad agency.

Over the course of the campaign, Nick Howland’s campaign has also paid $6,000 to Data Targeting Research, a political consulting firm run by Tim Baker.

Baker is a long-time consultant for Mayor Lenny Curry, and was hired by NextEra, the parent company of Florida Power and Light, during the failed attempt to privatize JEA.

Polson's largest expenditure last month, about $15,000, was also to a marketing company. This one, Statecraft Digital, is based in Orlando.

She also spent about $10,000 on an LLC formed in May, with the registered agent as community organizer and voting rights activist Ebony Hardy-Allen. Mara Strobel-Lanka, the Polson spokeswoman, said Hardy-Allen is the campaign's field consultant.

Polson also invested $3,000 into a Florida-based company called True Stories Research, which digs up dirt on opposing candidates, according to its website.

Back to the issues

Meanwhile, as candidates duke it out over money, there are real issues at stake with who wins the race. More information on where each candidate stands on key issues impacting Jacksonville can be found here.

The candidates also will appear at a forum on Friday, Feb. 18, at the Tiger Bay Club.

Early voting starts Saturday and continues through Sunday, Feb. 20.

Election day is Tuesday, Feb. 22.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Howland's campaign had paid the political consulting firm Data Targeting Inc., run by Pat Bainter. Howland's campaign actually hired the consulting firm Data Targeting Research, which is run by Tim Baker.