Terri Wonder's grassroots uprising in Manatee County - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

Terri Wonder’s grassroots uprising in Manatee County


A look at November’s most important race you haven’t heard of

Something is wrong in Manatee County, Florida.

Floridians living in the other 66 counties of the state could be forgiven for not noticing. There’s no shortage of high-stakes electoral contests in the Sunshine State this year, and as Florida’s top two politicians duel for the right to lead the state for the next four years, the peninsula has been inundated with attack ads and free-flowing campaign spending that come with only the biggest political storms.

But there’s something about the situation in Manatee County that feels… different. There’s an anger and disbelief over local scandals and backroom deals made by the county’s government that have shocked and disturbed people, while galvanizing many more.

The county’s chief administrator moved to impose a half-cent sales tax on the county that will direct funds to hospitals already recording record profits. And there was the Board’s tone-deaf response to a wave of outrage in Manatee over the callous and universally-condemned mistreatment and killing of former pets and strays in animal shelters, which appalled most people in Manatee and inspired activists to take the fight to the Board of Commissioners, which had appointed the County’s chief administrator, Ed Hunzeker, to the position where he oversaw a departure from Manatee’s “No Kill” resolution.

And then there was the Board’s vote to allow phosphate mining in Manatee, which activists see as a deadly environmental hazard. The 7-0 vote in favor of handing a five-year mining permit to Mosaic Fertilizer left many people in Manatee wondering why the Board was prioritizing a corporate handout over making sure the residents had a safe supply of drinking water.

Terri Wonder (Campaign photo)

Terri Wonder (Campaign photo)

But the biggest grievance has to be the willingness of the County Board of Commissioners to open up the pristine shoreline of Manatee County to the development of a sprawling hotel, the pet project of the powerful and well-connected businessman Carlos Beruff.

With the Governor’s favor and an unrivaled Rolodex, Beruff is one of the most powerful developers in Florida. He bundled tens of thousands of dollars to Rick Scott’s election, and the love was requited. Scott has appointed Beruff to the State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota District Board of Trustees, while also putting him on the Governing Board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the Sarasota Manatee Airport Authority.

With all of these duties, it’s a wonder Beruff still has time for development. But in a packed town hall last year he described his vision, the Long Bar Pointe project, as a dream that had come to him while visiting Barcelona. But he didn’t make many converts in the meeting, and there were groans when he revealed he was teaming up with the legendary Bain Capital to make his dream a reality.

The Tea Party is upset. Local Democrats are up in arms. And plenty of card-carrying Republicans are voicing their displeasure with a County Board of Commissioners that has pushed an agenda that has caused Manatee’s citizens to shake their heads and even protest on the streets.

Katie Pierola is an 81-year old former mayor who thought she’d seen it all. But she’s never seen anything like this.

“Who would imagine,” the former mayor of Bradenton Beach lamented, “that these people would think the construction of this hotel, this project of Carlos Beruff, is more important than the county shoreline?”

Pierola isn’t alone in her indignation.

Local activist Nathan Levinson is furious from the scandal at the animal shelters. He said two dogs, Angel and Powder, were dropped off at the shelter after the caretakers gave assurances to the owner that the dogs who were attached to each other would be treated well and were not to be separated. But they were immediately separated and later killed, despite earlier promises and the fact that adherence to Manatee’s “No Kill” policy would have saved the county taxpayer money.

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Activists take to the street – Animal Shelters are a hot topic in Manatee County.

“No one’s been held accountable,” Levinson said forcefully. “I’ve always said, this is the worst government money can buy.”

And the Tea Party’s not happy either. The half-cent sales tax was seen as a betrayal, enough to earn county administrator Hunzeker the moniker “King Ed.” And the local Tea Party also shares a frustration over the departure of the county’s “No Kill” policy for stray animals that is rooted in more than just compassion. The killing of these animals was more expensive than humane care for them, making the killings not just cruel, but also fiscally irresponsible.

From all of these scandals and controversies, it’s clear that the credibility of the Board of Commissioners hasn’t been undermined by a thousand cuts so much as a thousand body blows. The frustration and outrage is everywhere, and from the public demonstrations outside the county administrator’s building to the vocal protests and marches known as “Ticked-off Tuesdays”, to discussions around the water coolers, Manatee’s residents are shaking their heads as they ask one another, “Aren’t we better than this?”

And now they’ve found a candidate who is betting they are.

The woman at the center of the people’s push-back has taken up their mantle cheerfully. It’s been four years since she was last deployed to Iraq, but Terri Wonder is ready to fight a new battle on several fronts.

“It’s a fight against waste,” Wonder asserts as she describes her motives for running for a seat on the Manatee County Board of Commissioners. “It’s a fight against graft. What it really comes down to is ensuring that the 330,000 people in this county have their quality of life and the fiscal health of their county protected from a few powerful actors who are already circling overhead.”

Terri Wonder

Terri Wonder

A second-generation Floridian, Wonder has built a life that’s been based on public service. For several years she served in Iraq as a social scientist and demographer for the United States Army, forging a record that earned her the Superior Civilian Service Award in 2010. She currently works as a consultant to an international organization that fights human trafficking, and now her activism has led her to a struggle in which she will certainly be outspent, but never be outworked.

“It’s very difficult for a David to unseat a Goliath in a county-wide race,” Wonder told me. “But that makes it all the more noticeable. If I’m elected, it’s a signal to other commissioners that the ways of this Board have got to change.”

“Our Democrats are working hard to get out the vote in Manatee this November,” she continued. “The NAACP, the Hispanic Caucus, they’re all involved. We’re focusing on Districts 1,2, our local core, where most Democrats win. And we’re waging peripheral battle in GOP precincts.”

It’s a necessary start, but not enough in itself to unseat an entrenched incumbent like her opponent Carol Whitmore, who has received contributions from Carlos Beruff and the other business players who have counted on her votes. Whitmore defeated her 2010 opponent by 38 points thanks in part to a massive cash advantage, and by 2014 she had already amassed a war chest to bury a similar generic Democrat.

Unfortunately for Commissioner Whitmore, Terri Wonder isn’t just another brand Democrat. In fact, from her views to her demeanor, she’s a very unusual Democrat indeed, one who galvanizes her party faithful while also winning impressed reviews from the local Tea Party that many had assumed would be off-limits.

“Terri Wonder is the most incredible candidate we’ve ever had here,” Mayor Pierola said. “Others, they’ve been too afraid to dwell on the environment, admit how bad the situation is. Terri’s a champion for our shoreline… she is a phenomenon.”

Carlos Beruff

Carlos Beruff

It’s definitely unusual for a candidate who is described as a “phenomenon” by one wing of her party to hold appeal across the ideological spectrum. And southeastern Florida, the birthplace of the Tea Party movement that saw the overthrow of the moderate Governor Crist and the rise of the true-blood conservative Rubio might seem like the very last place one might expect a local Democrat-Tea Party alliance the form.

But that’s exactly what’s happening with the candidacy of Terri Wonder.

“She resonated with our group, she definitely gets it that unrestrained spending threatens Manatee County and Florida,” said Linda Neely, official secretary of the Manatee Tea Party. “And she can tie in the Constitution to her arguments, which is rare to see a Democrat do.”

Whitmore, by contrast, has been a disappointment. Neely still winces when remembering what she sees as Whitmore’s greatest faux pas, when the Commissioner referred to the Board’s response to the heinous departure of the county’s “No Kill” resolution as “my proudest moment on the Board.”

“We endorsed her in the 2010 Republican primary,” Neely told me. “But if there’d been a primary challenge to her in 2014… I don’t think we’d be endorsing her today.”

The local Tea Party has declined to endorse any candidate before they become their party’s official nominee on August 26. But judging from the revulsion to Whitmore’s role in the runaway spending and deference to special interests that’s turned off so many fiscal conservatives, it won’t be surprising if the Tea Party lends its muscle to the cause of Terri Wonder… in a big way.

In the meantime, activists on the other side of the aisle are also pledging their support. The Terri Wonder bumper sticker is already on the back of Nathan Levinson’s 2001 Chevrolet S10, and he predicts that dozens of activists will follow his lead and work their hearts out canvassing for Wonder until November.

“There’s huge excitement on the ground,” he says, “because we finally have a candidate who will get in there and do what she says.” The Long Pointe Bar project, he continues, will “destroy our wildlife habitat. Terri won’t let that happen.”

He confidently predicted that the local outrage will power Wonder to victory, and was never surprised by her warm reception by the Tea Party. “Her support runs deep across the political spectrum.”

But anyone who is too sanguine about the political hurdle that Wonder is facing should bear in mind at least a few daunting numbers. Commissioners have historically been reelected by big margins, as Wonder herself observed. And Whitmore will be able to count on checks from her political benefactors like Carlos Beruff and others who are determined to see their development projects become a reality.

Of course, that institutional support could become an anvil around Whitmore’s neck. The Commissioner has to be praying that the 1,000-strong crowd that turned out to oppose Beruff’s Long Pointe Bar design doesn’t come to the polls in November.

And if they do? If the people of the city Cortez, which stands the most to lose from Beruff’s development dream, turn out in force this November, alongside the many other potential victims of Board-approved projects, Manatee County could be ground zero for the midterm rebuke of 2014. A Tea Party-environmentalist coalition would make for an unusual pairing, but the mandate for fiscal conservatism and environmental protection would be plain to see.

And it would be just the first victory of Manatee’s people vs. Florida’s powerful.

“If we can break this cycle, turn back the figures who win all the time, that’s huge,” Mayor Pierola said. “The message is that others can come forward and not be afraid of big money.”


About the author

Wills Dahl

William Dahl is a recent graduate of The College of William and Mary, where he majored in Government and studied abroad in La Plata, Argentina. He has worked for community foundations in Argentina and Miami dedicated to community engagement and prosecution for human rights abuses. A native Virginian, he moved to Baltimore in 2013 to join a financial research firm, where he enjoys being able to write on the side. Contact the author.
  • Agatha Mantanes

    Beruff Goes to Cortez But Can’t Find Fish

    Published Friday, July 12, 2013 1:00 pm

    by John Rehill

    CORTEZ – Carlos Beruff arrived at Fishermen’s Hall in the Cortez Fishing Village just shortly after his entourage. The room was growing full of local residents and other concerned citizens who had traveled to the historic hall to hear Beruff’s proposal to build a small town – complete with a hotel, marina and convention center – all on the shore of a channel in the eco-sensitive Sarasota Bay. Despite some creative assurances by the politically-powerful developer, most attendees remained unimpressed with the proposal.

    The 55 year old, Miami-born developer says he had a vision to create a village, one that had a 5-star hotel, surrounded by luxury homes with docks from which to watch the sunset.

    Carlos Beruff

    photo by John Rehill

    It probably wouldn’t be difficult to find a community that just shivered with joy to hear of such a place, where seagrass is removed, and not missed, and where mangroves are seen as needless trees that stop many of the water lovers from beaching their boats to picnic. However, Mr. Beruff was now in Cortez – a place where quality of life is not measured in mere dollars and cents and where respect for the waters that have sustained generations of residents trumps all.

    The meeting was scheduled to start at 5 p.m. and when that rolled around, the attendees had far exceeded the number of chairs. From the beginning, Beruff made it clear that to pursue his vision, he is merely exercising his rights within the boundaries of the law – though without mention of his considerable efforts to have those laws changed in his favor.

    From a proposed comp plan “text amendment” regarding coastal development, to expanding the newly-approved “Urban Service Area” and its relaxed development requirements to include the Longbar Pointe project, to substantial modifications of the project’s current approval (click here to view PDF), Beruff and his partner Larry Lieberman have sought more than a little flexibility to those rules from a county commission that the duo has been very generous to in terms of campaign contributions and PAC funding.

    The first question to Beruff was an inquiry into why he chose Long Bar Pointe as the place to build the proposed development. And as if he were in his own humble abode, Beruff asked for permission for the five minutes it would take to cascade through the series of events that led to his decision.

    That’s when the first clue was revealed that Beruff came to the meeting with little more than an entourage and a briefcase full of contradictions.

    Almost within the same sentence, Beruff went from announcing his once in a lifetime vision, to stating, “I probably have less imagination than anyone in this room.”

    Beruff’s cajoling gesture fell flat, and even he knew it was time to move on to more substantial issues.

    The theme that Beruff and his attorney Ed Vogler kept bouncing off of the walls of the hall was “net public benefit.” The phrase that sounds okay, but what does it mean?

    If 100 acres of wetlands have been deemed expendable, the agreed amount of replacement wetlands to compensate that loss is mitigated through a “Mitigation Bank.” The value of that wetland is measured by the quality of the wetland, which in Florida, is determined by its UMAM (Uniform Mitigation Assessment Method) score.

    If it is determined that 100 acres of wetland is to be replaced at a three to one ratio, the state or applicant must present 300 acres to be available in the region’s mitigation bank.

    But the trouble with this phony exchange is two fold.

    1. Beruff says, “retention ponds are almost wetlands.” How scary or comical (choose your words) is that? Beruff now sits as chairman of SWFWMD (Southwest Florida Water Management District), so one would think an acceptable level of scientific knowledge is required for the job.

    Perhaps Beruff and his eco-scientist, along with the county officials that sit quietly when he makes such claims, can shout it from the rooftops, so the rest of the real-world scientific community can hear just how knowledgeable they actually are.

    2. The exchange of wetlands being mitigated, need not be replaced in the county of the loss. That’s like borrowing money and promising to give it back to someone else, somewhere at some other time. Now there’s a comfort zone.

    Beruff said he would only be removing 225 acres of mangroves and was only going to dredge down five feet for his 2,100 ft. long, 60 ft. wide channel. At that depth, even flat, glass-bottom boats are at risk.

    That would be fine if he decided to follow some of the many suggestions. One was that he and his project partner, Larry Lieberman, donate the property for something like a Robinson Preserve.

    But instead, Beruff says that the now scaled-down vision consists of 2,700 resident dwellings, 15,000 square feet of retail space, a 250-room hotel and a convention hall; and let’s not forget the pond, and a marina that will house 80 boats.

    Beruff was asked what the maximum height of structures in the project were going to be, his answer: five stories. That’s kind of hard to believe. Maybe Beruff will sign a agreement to not sue the county if any change orders or permit modifications are refused. Now that would be a sign of good faith.

    Beruff was also asked about building in a flood-prone zone, followed-up by a comment on the cost to everyone else, should something like a hurricane occur.

    Beruff answered, “I believe those who live in high-risk areas should have to pay premiums that reflect that risk … If this wasn’t insured, I couldn’t build it.”

    What Beruff didn’t address is that all insurance underwriters will use the revenue from all of their policies to pay off all of their claims, and then raise rates for all of their customers, even before they reduce their profits. In this way, the true cost of high-risk development is subsidized by everyone, even those who will never catch a sunset off one of Longbar’s docks.

    When enormous losses are the reason an insurance company goes out of business, another company may come in to pick up the customers. But when that happens, the premiums are not sharply escalated, but spread out among many policy holders. We all pay higher premiums when huge payouts occur; it doesn’t matter who it happened to.

    Beruff was also asked what his backup plan was, in case he is turned away by the BOCC for the permits on August 6 and everything collapses.

    Beruff said he didn’t have another plan and in the case of everything falling down, said, “I always keep a couple of back doors open and a window too.”

    Beruff is right about that. With over 40 different entities, there is always someplace else to let things fall. When his company built homes using contaminated Chinese drywall, customers expected him to spring for repairs. But Beruff threatened to declare bankruptcy – despite boasting $80 million in annual sales. Whether that was a “back door” or a “window,” I’m not sure.

    Thursday night in Cortez, Judy Bud said it best. She told Beruff he didn’t understand what was going on in Cortez. Bud said, “This place and the people in it are feeding the community. This is not fair.”

    And Plum Taylor said, “My father was the first boat builder in Cortez. My daughter fished to put herself through college, and we have to deal with people like you?”

    Clearly Beruff doesn’t get it. He says he didn’t know there were Indian mounds on the property in question, nor what to do about it, and that he has attempted to change all of the numbers to suit the criticism.

    As Mary Green, the “Queen of Cortez,” said, “I can tell you where to put your project.” She didn’t specify the location, but I doubt there would be any sunshine … or sunsets for that matter.

  • Agatha Mantanes
  • Agatha Mantanes
  • Agatha Mantanes

    if I am not mistaken I think we have thank this pos developer Carlos Beruff for the Chinese drywall debacle.

  • roblimo

    1) Bradenton, not Bradenton Beach, is the largest city in Manatee County.
    2) This is western or southwestern Florida. Not eastern

    Small errors, and Terri Wonder is still our best commission candidate in a long time, party affiliation aside.

  • Carole Atkins

    Manatee County, Florida, needs more people to stand up to development along our waterways. Enough is enough. The beauty of our beach areas should be left for all to enjoy, not behind a gate of a private community. Terri Wonder understands what we would have to sacrifice. Nature should be admired not mired in muck of developments.

  • Debbie Glow

    You hit the nail square on the head. Terri Wonder for Commissioner at Large! #NOMOREWHITMORE. I too am a republican that is proud to stand behind Ms. Wonder. I also display a Vote for Terri Wonder on the back of my car. Manatee county resembles Cook County in Illinois where I was raised. Pay-olla time is over for the good old boys. No more big development in Manatee County. The ecology and our animals come first. That also means replacing the staff at Animal Services and bringing in a compassionate Director who is willing to work hard to implement NO KILL. A shelter should be a half-way house for animals to find a forever home. Not a facility where they wait to be exterminated.

  • Agatha Mantanes

    Awesome article, you don’t live here and you actually GOT IT !!! we are tired of the current manatee government and its sweet heart deals and its ways of dismissing the local taxpayers we are a force to be reckoned with because we have had enough. T am one of those republican’s that will gladly vote for Terri Wonder. Thank you.