Incumbency Brought No Strength in 2017

Under The Hood


Are voters on the Gulf Coast satisfied with political leadership? Elections held this week in smaller jurisdictions says not, and while it may be foolish to read too much into off-year election results in a handful of municipalities, there’s signs here people want more than a familiar name when they head to the ballot box.

Incumbents got the boot in Venice, Bradenton Beach and Holmes Beach on Tuesday, and about six months ago, Sarasota voters tossed the only incumbent on the ballot. Additionally, Venice voters picked a newcomer over a former commissioner looking to return to office. Of course, Anna Maria voters did return a slate of incumbents back for new terms, but they were the exception, not the rule. Indeed, when you look at every election held in Manatee or Sarasota in 2017, voters have chosen to bring new blood into office over experienced office-holders in five out of the seven times they were given the chance. Every election works differently, obviously, and every candidate brought their own strengths and weaknesses to their own contests.

Take Venice, the largest city to hold an election this year. Incumbent Deborah Anderson faced voters after rather high-profile friction with her political party. She lost the race, but voters also opted against electing former Councilman Emilio Carlesimo, a politician who has been publicly at odds with Anderson a number of times and who was running for a different seat. Voters instead put into office Charles Newsom and Mitzie Fiedler, two newcomers to the City Council.

Meanwhile, voters in Holmes Beach went into voting booths able to elect four voters in a five-candidate slate. Four of those candidates sit on the council now, but the top vote-getter turned out to be first-time candidate Jim Kihm who got more than 200 votes more than Commissioner Marvin Grossman, the last-place finisher. In fact, Kihm won 126 more than Carol Soustek, the second-place finisher. One wonders if more challengers had thrown their hat in the ring if Kihm would be joined more newcomers.

In Bradenton Beach, where Mayor Bill Shearon’s fate in the last few years came down repeatedly to razor thin victory or defeat—and the draw of cards after one tie—voters on Tuesday more decisively sent him packing and elected Vice Mayor John Chappie over to the post, while also brushing Commissioner Ralph Cole out of office in favor of newcomer Randy White. White, as it happens, has historically been a political ally of Shearon.

Looking at results, pro-growth and pro-conservation candidates both enjoyed successes and defeats. And looking at the party registration of the candidates—who all sought nonpartisan offices Tuesday—offered no great indication of success or failure there. In fact, newness to the ballot seemed the greatest boost a candidate could have. Only Laurie Jo Higgins in Anna Maria failed to best the more experienced opponents, coming in behind Commissioners Carol Carter, Dale Woodland and Doug Copeland in a race where the top three won terms on the board.

With better than respectable turnout in all of these races, you can’t simply blame apathy and low engagement. It seems voters sought change, whether aggressively or subconsciously.

There’s no incumbent in a spring special election for state House, which will be a partisan affair. But what’s all this mean when primary season next year? The mood could change before then, but I’d guess this is an election cycle where holding office now means nothing to voters heading to the polls. 

Jacob Ogles is contributing senior editor for SRQ Media Group.

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