Historic Mandates at City Hall

Under The Hood

BY JACOB OGLES SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION SATURDAY NOV 28, 2020

The November election for Sarasota marked the first time Sarasota City Commissioners won office the same day voters elected a president. During SRQ’s Where The Votes Are post-election workshop, the question predictably arose how this affected city politics. I suggested at the time that it will take a few election cycles to know exactly what this change will mean in terms of how commissioners govern.

But one thing that became clear immediately was the number of voters who participated in the election. To the degree that elections deliver mandates, the three city commissioners sworn into four-year terms this month enjoy a larger endorsement than any elected since the implementation of district level voting.

The most noticeable shift — albeit the most unfair comparison in many ways — could be found in District 1. Kyle Scott Battie won 3,485 votes as he unseated Commissioner Willie Shaw, who garnered 2,987 votes. Shaw notably won election without opposition in 2015. The last time he appeared on the ballot was actually when he won his first term in 2011 over Linda Holland. Back then, he won office with a mere 735 votes to Linda Holland’s 499 in a May election.

Commissioner Liz Alpert in District 2 won reelection with 6,066 votes to Terry Turner’s 5,688. By comparison, Alpert won office in 2015 with 2,126 votes over Eileen Normile’s 1,885 votes.

In the open District 3 race this year, Erik Arroyo won with 3,666 votes to Dan Clermont’s 3,486 votes. About five years ago, Shelli Freeland Eddie won the same seat with 894 votes to Stan Zimmerman’s 774 votes.

To unpack things a little further, that means Sarasotans just went from having a commission with two members elected by less than 1,000 voters to one where the commissioner with the most modest level of support was put in office by nearly 3,500 votes. In fact, Alpert received more votes than at-large Commissioner Jennifer Ahearn-Koch received in 2017, when she took 5,080 votes, and nearly as many as Commissioner Hagen Brody's 6,371 votes the same election. That’s remarkable considering Ahearn-Koch and Brody were running city-wide; the top two vote-getters win seats in Sarasota's at-large contest.

Of course, commissioners never set the rules of elections, and their legitimacy means no more or less based on the raw number of ballots. John F. Kennedy, when asked in 1960 about whether his narrow win over Richard Nixon would weaken his presidency, replied “Mandate, schmandate, the mandate is that I am here and you’re not.” Commissioners win their seats and get to cast votes as they choose for the duration of their term, period.

But it’s fair to say the commissioners sworn this month can more confidently claim to hold the support of the people.

Yes, maybe it’s just the people who bothered to vote for commission when they really came to vote for president, while the voters in May elections were all die-hard City Hall watchers. There’s a case to be made special election and off-cycle contests measure a candidate’s ability to organize a coalition from scratch, rather than coat-tailing the sentiments of voters whose eye is on a larger ball. Regardless, that’s now how Sarasota elections work anymore.

When voters in 2018 — 13,787 of them in fact — decided to “Change The Date,” they also changed the philosophy of choosing leaders. A premium was placed on winning over the participating electorate during major cycles. The result is these commissioners all have a stamp of approval on their respective agendas greater than any district-level commissioners in city history.

And just wait until someone in two years shatters records when it comes to a city-wide vote.

Jacob Ogles is contributing senior editor for SRQ Media Group.

Photos: Kyle Scott Battie, Erik Arroyo, Liz Alpert.

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