Sarasota Race Enters Final, Volatile Stretch



Pointed and sometimes personal attacks mark the end of a heated Sarasota city election cycle, but the three remaining candidates—Jennifer Ahearn-Koch, Hagen Brody and Martin Hyde—each say they will spend the final days focused on their core issues and touching as many voters as possible. Voters citywide on Tuesday will elect two of the candidates to serve for the next four years.

Jennifer Ahearn-Koch

Knocking on a door this week, Ahearn-Koch found herself talking at length about tire marks and the dangers for trucks and pedestrians alike in driving around a corner by The Vue. The Tahiti Park neighborhood leaders have run a campaign driven on angst surrounding such developments, advocating a change in the level of public input before such buildings get approved, but acknowledged nothing will remove buildings already in place. She does hope the city gets further involved in infrastructure improvements to accommodate the growth. “The city doesn’t control those roads or that intersection,” she notes of the turn on U.S. 41, “but we can participate at the MPO (Metropolitan Planning Organization) level.” She wants further engagement with the state Department of Transportation to handle road planning.

In the final weeks of the campaign, Jennifer Ahearn-Koch hears frequently about traffic and handling the homeless issue, the latter a matter she says the city has been leading on with a Housing First approach. She does bristle when the subject of a sanctuary city, something she said she would consider at a progressive forum, comes up. She never raised or advocated fighting the government, but the Republican Party has used to matter to target her (she’s a registered Democrat). Online, she responded with a statement calling attacks “outright lies” intended to distract from bad press for Republican Hyde.

The issues she does care about? She wants to address allowable setbacks in the city, and sees how zero-lot lines that allow near adjacent construction have disrupted lives and marred city views. But she wants voters to see her as a constructive city voice. Even when she’s dealt with legal conflicts with the city, such as when Tahiti Park residents fought a waterfront development that could have brought more boat traffic to a nearby waterway, she’s wanted to maintain communication with officials. “We never have taken an action that was frivolous and just about throwing sand in the wheels. It’s always been real arguments about compatibility.”

Martin Hyde

Hyde also has needed to address a narrative set by outside forces in the final days. Critics of the Gulf Business Systems owner point to nasty divorce proceedings and notable negative interactions with police over his 18 years in Sarasota. Hyde’s never been arrested, and says most of the complaints speak to a younger, testier version of himself. “We can get better as we go along,” he says. "I’ve learned to manage my emotions better.”

He’d rather talk about fiscal discipline, something he finds lacking at City Hall. Just this week, he went to a commission meeting and critiqued the need for “any form of sanity with other people’s money.” From pension management to ending nepotism in awarding city contracts, he says someone in city leadership must learn to say no to financial irresponsibility. “I found early on as a business owner, the easiest this is to say yes,” he says, “but in the end you will go out of business if you say yes to everything.” And as the city added some 70 positions in the years after the recession, Hyde’s surprised only a handful of those have been police positions. As a commissioner, Hyde would want a bigger picture view on spending. “In practical terms, you can’t run government like a business, but you have to have a plan,” he says. “Bless them, but I don’t think the current commission or the ones running the city have the wherewithal to understand.”

At forums, he’s developed a reputation for provocation, and the Democratic Party of Sarasota sent a mailer attacking his temperament as “Just Like Trump,” a comparison to a president who won the county in November but not the city. Hyde says attacks come with running for office. “At a certain stage in life if you can’t see the irony and fun in the fact someone spent time creating artwork and spent thousands of dollars on naked aspersions, I don’t know what to tell you,” he says. “It’s funny if you don’t allow it to become bothersome.” 

Hagen Brody

Somehow, former prosecutor Hagen Brody in the waning days of the election cycle has avoided many of the personal barbs tossed at his opponents. He says he’s paid no attention to campaign noise, and continues knocking on doors and reaching voters. “I am solely focused on my campaign,” he says, “continuing to learn about the issues that are important to people.”

He does take offense at questions about his resume. The 35-year-old candidate hasn’t been heavily engaged in city government, but notes he spent years as a public servant working as a prosecutor in the State Attorney’s Office. “I feel I’m the most qualified to handle the issues facing the city,” he says. “Procedures of a city commission meeting are something you can learn very quickly.” But his work on nitty-gritty legal matters, like working on the city’s anti-pill mill ordinance in 2014, will be more valuable to a city commissioner. Of course, his time at the state attorney’s office came to an inauspicious close; he resigned after realizing he’d allowed a lapse in his law license. It’s an issue he resolved quickly, and never caused the office to lose a case. The matter only comes up with the press, though, and he says voters haven’t questioned him about it. “Voters decided to send me into the next round,” he notes, referencing making the runoff after entering a field of eight candidates.

His legal experience also gives him a better grasp of matters like dealing with the homelessness. He agrees the city has been heading in the right direction. “I’m pleased to have the city and county rowing in the same direction when they were at odds just four months ago,” he says. Putting aside arguments like funding a larger shelter instead of relying on existing nonprofits to address the need for beds has been a good approach for the city, he says. But he hopes voters on Tuesday also consider which candidate can best handle issues that no-one can force coming up over the next four years, and he believes his background makes him the right fit for that job.

Photos: Jennifer Ahearn-Koch, Martin Hyde, Hagen Brody

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