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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.”