Expect Emotional Battle for Sarasota Commission

Politics

BY JACOB OGLES SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION SATURDAY JAN 14, 2017

With a slate set for the Sarasota City Commission race, it’s clear what values and loyalties will be tested in this election. Experienced pols and active volunteers share a ballot with newcomers and long-time critics of City Hall. Messages of standing up for citizens against government go head-to-head with the desire for effective cooperation and building of consensus.

With qualification closed Friday, the final list of candidates includes: Tahiti Park neighborhood leader Jennifer Ahearn-Koch; former Sarasota Mayor Fredd "Glossie" Atkins; former prosecutor Hagen Brody; incumbent Commissioner Susan Chapman; Planning Board member Patrick Gannon; Gulf Business Systems owner Martin Hyde; pedestrian safety advocate Mikael Sandstrom; and retired stockbroker Matt Sperling. All run on one ballot, with voters able to select two candidates. Should no one win a majority on March 14, which is most likely, the top three candidates advance to a May 9 runoff, where two will win seats. Here’s my breakdown of forces at play and issues at stake.

Partisanship. The big story in district elections two years ago was the sudden dominance of the Democratic party in city contests. Registration long favored Team Blue within city limits but the involvement of the party varies year to year. But in 2015, two appointed Republican incumbents gave reason for the party’s involvement. Here, five of eight candidates, including incumbent Chapman, have a D on their registration, so expect the party to chill leading into March. Will lone GOPer Hyde get a boost from his party? It’s likely, and it will help in the first election, but the ID hurts him in May. If parties don’t consider this race a priority, other matters will dominate.

Discontent. From a seemingly eternal lift station project to a lack of improvement of the visible homeless situation, plenty of criticism will be lobbed at City Hall. Could that hurt incumbent Chapman? Yes, but Chapman’s supporters always liked her raucous fights with City Hall. Yet, she’s also been brought into the crossfire of city critics with a recent critique of speeding paramedics. Outsiders like Sperling, Brody, Sandstrom and Hyde—Hyde and Sperling in particular bring a Trump-esque sharpness to critiques of City Hall—can spin a toss-the-bums narrative, as can first-time candidates with some board involvement like Gannon and Ahearn-Koch, who have a tougher needle to thread with city critics but can also appeal to those who like to see qualifications.

Development. Bulldozers are back moving earth and boosting construction. Also rising? Concerns about uncontrolled growth. Arrival of The Vue inspired groups like STOP!; it’s hard to tell now if that’s just rebranding of the constant neighborhood presence in local politics or if widespread concern makes this a true anti-growth year. Atkins, who failed to win a November county election but won the city, could win votes on both sides with this as someone who challenged development countywide, but he also was on the commission when the Duany plan was approved. If there is anti-growth sentiment, that’s good for Ahearn-Koch and Chapman. Of course, if simple neighborhood politics are the true core of this, Gannon’s involvement with the downtown condo association gives him some bounce as well. And for those who like seeing sudden job activity downtown, Gannon seems more poised to win those pro-business supporters.

Of course, all of this oversimplifies a race destined to be complicated and dynamic. Who wins these low-turnout, local contests depends on which candidates can not just grab the attention of the city’s major blocs, but also inspire genuine enthusiasm. As important as issues will be at forums and in media pieces, it’s charisma and the ability to build trust that will determine the make-up of the board next year.

Jacob Ogles is contributing senior editor for SRQ Media Group.

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