Opening Predictions Too Early?

Under The Hood

BY JACOB OGLES SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION SATURDAY DEC 24, 2016

In the spirit of the eternal election cycle, folks in Sarasota started speculation early on the coming City Commission race. Why not? With the first election on March 14 and a runoff around the corner in May, now seems as good a time as any to gauge the mood of the electorate. We already know Commissioner Susan Chapman filed for re-election and Commissioner Suzanne Atwell announced she will not. Three new candidates—Tahiti Park neighborhood leader Jennifer Ahearn-Koch, attorney Hagen Brody and businessman Martin Hyde—have all filed. And right before Christmas, former Commissioner Fredd Atkins threw in as well.

I regularly hear people ponder odds each of these candidates, but that’s hard to measure until a full roster of candidates becomes, and candidates can qualify as late as Jan. 13. That’s especially true with Sarasota’s peculiar at-large election. When it comes to the two citywide seats on the commission, voters get presented with a slew of candidates on a single ballot and the ability to vote for two. The three top vote-getters advance to a May 9 runoff, and the top two candidates in that vote get sworn into office days later. It’s different than how most elected officials get elected, including the three district commissioners who make up the rest of the City Commission.

What’s this mean for candidates? Atwell can testify this system rewards moderates. She got more votes than any candidate in city history four years ago by standing rhetorically between the neighbors-come-first platform of Chapman and the growth-prioritizing stances of third-place finisher Richard Dorfman. In other words, Atwell became every extremists’ second choice while picking up a swath of voters in between. But while Chapman finished second, she won the same prize. Many a Chapman supporter four years ago quickly noted the candidate, the top vote-getter that March, had the most enthusiastic support of the six who ran. It’s a riskier approach, but you can still win this type of election with supporters who elevate you above all others.

Chapman wants 2017 to be a year when issues like overdevelopment drive voters. The formation of STOP!, a group concerned how The Vue and similar construction will impact traffic and infrastructure, guarantees that view will be strongly voiced. Ahearn-Koch sits on the steering committee for STOP!, and could also benefit from that wave. But the arrival of two relative outsiders early shows some anti-government force in the air. Hyde is best known for criticizing City Hall. While Chapman won an initial ruling on a Sunshine case (the decision has been appealed), Hyde heavily critiqued the decision to fight the matter with taxpayer dollars instead of settling early. And Brody when he announced suggested he would lead the city to new positions on handling homelessness and would act different than board members today.

Atkins arrives with his own history. The longest-serving city commissioner in Sarasota history, he previously represented North Sarasota. After a county commission run, where he did well within the city limits despite losing county-wide, expect him to run on a mix of experience and a need for different perspectives at the dais.

But for everyone, the election dynamic makes this terrain hard to play. Candidates won’t benefit from running together; one candidate usually absorbs their fellow’s negatives but no positives. That’s probably why Ahearn-Koch, a Chapman ally who needs some of the incumbent’s voters to win, also reminds folks that when the two sat on the Planning Board, they did not vote in unison.

The winner will ultimately be decided by who motivates the largest coalition. Hyde wants a broad range of supporters from all age groups, a strategy with potential but that risks wasting time on unattainable votes. Ahearn-Koch, meanwhile, can attract reliable neighbors and perhaps colleagues in the business world from work with chambers and in public relations. Chapman and Brody boast ties in the legal world. Atkins has won office here before, but only representing part of the city; he needs all his county voters to stick with him now.

But the real question remains, what disruptive force waits in the wings? It’s unlikely only these five will appear on the ballot. Every person who enters the contest cuts into someone else’s base. So put the crystal ball away until at least late January. This race just got started.

Jacob Ogles is contributing senior editor for SRQ Media Group.

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