Democrats at Odds Over Sarasota Contest



Whether the Democratic Party should be involved in a Sarasota City Commission contest once again has seeded dissent within the organization’s ranks. But this time, it’s opponents of a slow-growth agenda angry at the party backing a candidate. 

Jennifer Ahearn-Koch, the top vote-getter in the Sarasota municipal election on March 14, is one of three candidates still seeking one of two seats on the Sarasota City Commission. She’s also the candidate still in the contest most closely associated with STOP!, an organization focused on reforming the administrative approval process at City Hall and requiring more projects go to public hearings. Now, her opponents accuse her of misleading the public about how much input citizens have in setting development rules. 

Ken Shelin, a former Sarasota City Commissioner who debated Ahearn-Koch at a Better Government Association about approval processes, says STOP! has been misleading voters about the process, and wrote in an email to Democratic leadership that said of Ahearn-Koch, “the woman is fearless about lying.” “Jennifer doesn’t really understand government, and she is proposing to sit at the commission table and legislate,” Shelin told SRQ. “That’s why I’m upset at Democrats.”

Ahearn-Koch took umbrage with Shelin’s assessment and his willingness to complain to party leaders before bringing his accusations to her directly. “Shouldn’t I be a part of this conversation? I’m shocked by the statement,” she says. Ahearn-Koch sat on the planning board for the city and says she understands the approval process. Her push for a more public process has some leaders frightened, she says. “I’m wondering why they are so afraid of raising this discussion.”

As for party leadership, Sarasota Democratic Party Chair JoAnne DeVries says individuals who choose to support Ahearn-Koch will do so. “The bottom line is, the party supports the Democratic candidates,” she says. Hagen Brody, another Democrat, is also running for the seats. DeVries stressed the party will not be taking a major role in this or any city election. But many leaders of the party also have backed Ahearn-Koch. As for the candidate herself, Ahearn-Koch says party involvement in support of her candidacy has been very light. Brody could not be reached for comment.

Patrick Gannon, who was running for the seat before being eliminated in the March election, stated in an email to the party that he was “distressed” at the party backing Ahearn-Koch, and wrote some Democrats would “consider voting for a non-Democrat candidate in this runoff election.” Martin Hyde, a Republican running for the seat, says he remains unconcerned about party activity, and while he hopes Republican leaders can successfully encourage some people to vote for him, he doubts party involvement will be what decides the race. But he did say Gannon made strong points arguing against Ahearn-Koch’s position on administrative review. “He’s got a point,” Hyde says. “The whole STOP! principle is disinformation.”

Two years ago, Democrats controversially backed Democrat Liz Alpert over Republican and neighborhood leader Eileen Normile. Now, Normile is one of the leaders of STOP!. Gabriel Hament, who managed Alpert’s campaign, now wants the party to back off of Ahearn-Koch. “What I’m trying to do is protect the party from Trojan Horse candidates who are registered Democrats but don’t hold progressive principles,” he says. What Hament would like, he says, is for the party to better vet candidates.

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