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Rocky Hanna 'Taking The High Road' After Attack Ad Backfires On Superintendent Jackie Pons


Leon Superintendent Jackie Pons is dealing with the aftermath following a decision to run a negative tv ad against an opponent. The move has backfired, causing some of Pons’ supporters to disavow him. The ad was pulled Monday, but the damage may be permanent.

The ad focuses on a paternity lawsuit against former Leon High School principal and superintendent candidate Rocky Hanna. And the ad’s visual features the name of Hanna’s daughter. The ad also aired on local television during a Florida State University football game. But its subject matter, including the timing, has Democratic political consultant Kevin Cate to wonder what’s going on with Pons.

“Jackie Pons is either losing really bad, or losing it, but after watching the ad, I think it’s both. Because after watching the ad, I don’t know how anyone in their right mind would run that ad.”

In a twitter post, Republican Political consultant Brian Hughes called the decision to air the ad “stupid” and said “exposing the name of a child is probably the most despicable thing ever on tv.”

Pons says he takes full responsibility for the message and plans to replace it with something positive.

“My folks that are in there—who put it together and did this, we were all on the same page. And the ultimate responsibility lies with the candidate, not with anyone else. I made the decision and we pulled it down. We’re going to come back with a much more positive spot. That’s what our plan is now.”

When he ran for re-election four years ago, Pons was the county’s most popular local official. The group Kerr-Downs, now renamed Downs and St. Germaine, released a survey showing Pons with a 65 percent favorability rating and nearly 90 percent name recognition.  But two years ago, things began to go downhill. Hanna, along with former Lively Principal Woody Hildrebrant, compiled a list of documents that alleged Pons steered campaign contributions to political donors. And that’s hurt the superintendent.

“Leon County Schools is extremely corrupt. It’s a good-old-boy system," said Florida State University Student Alexander Olson. He's a graduate of the county school system.

“Our superintendent, Jackie Pons, is a failure.  At my school personally he built a gym for a school that doesn’t have any teams. And the reason for that is so that people could rent it out and give money to Leon County Schools. It’s just a money-making scheme to him.”

Olson is referencing the construction controversy and Pons' decision to build a gymnasium at SAIL High School. Several investigations cleared Pons of wrongdoing, but an FBI probe continues.

The Tallahassee Democrat reports Pons’ advisor Gary Yordon, has left the campaign over the feature. Meanwhile Hanna says he did not see the ad air, but got a call from his father-in-law afterward. He says he had to explain the situation to his daughter.   

“That document painted me as a monster," said Hanna. "That’s why I just ask people before they cast their vote talk to someone who knows me. Ask a teacher or a parent or the thousands of kids I’ve worked with in my 28 year career. Ask them what they have to say about me. They know the truth. The truth was not what you saw in that television ad on Sunday.”

Since the ad aired, Hanna has gotten an outpouring of public support. He received a text message from Pons Monday and the Superintendent says he plans to apologize to Hanna Thursday when the Tallahassee Democrat holds its superintendent’s race forum:

“I will see him then and talk to him at that time," said Pons.

But forgiveness may not be forthcoming.  

“I believe in forgiveness. But it’s raw to me still right now. And so fresh. I question if this apology would have come if the community had received it differently," Hanna said. " This wasn’t some off-the-cuff thing he did in the spur-of-the moment. People asked him not to do it, and he did it anyway.”

And Congresswoman Gwen Graham a longtime friend of Hanna’s and potential 2018 gubernatorial candidate, says that’s not good enough.

“I think he needs a much more thorough apology, not just to Rocky, but to his family and the people of Leon County who should not have been subjected to such an ugly, ugly political ad. Completely inappropriate.”

It may be too late to triage the incident. There are just five weeks left before Election Day, and some ballots are already in the mail.

Follow @HatterLynn

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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