Experimenting with Extremism

Under The Hood

Sarasota has long been a Republican County. Records from 1966 show the county was the only one in Florida with more Republicans than Democrats. A dozen years before that, Dwight Eisenhower in 1954 became the first Republican president to win the county.

But that’s not to say the county has been some type of conservative beacon. Earlier this century, a majority of the all-Republican County Commission financially supported Planned Parenthood’s presence in the county. Democrat Barack Obama came within hundreds of votes of winning Sarasota County as recently as 2008. Two years before that, the region hosted the closest congressional election in the nation when now-U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, won his seat by just 369 votes.

A majority of Sarasota City Commissioners have been Democrats for yeats. A majority of School Board members were for a brief period that ended in November.

Nonetheless, Republicans long won political battles here far more often than they lost them. But often the Republicans who did win were of the corporate variety, more interested in empowering economic growth or privatizing social programs than in forcing any kind of cultural revolution. So it’s a bit surprising that in recent months, Sarasota politics became not simply fiscally conservative but genuinely right-wing. You see it in Hospital Board meetings, School Board workshops and gatherings at the park.

Honestly, the resulting attacks on once-untouchable institutions have delivered a shock to the system I’m not so sure local leaders know quite how to handle it. Ask Patricia Okker, who cordially welcomed a slate of trustees at New College in hopes they weren’t sent to destroy the place, only to be unceremoniously fired and replaced with an outspoken conservative political leader.

Or ask medical directors at Sarasota Memorial Hospital who two years ago were revered as frontline heroes and now must answer to anti-vaxxer extremists mobbing seats at meetings and quacks actually elected to seats on the governing board.

Politics always produces winners and losers, and elections indeed have consequences. The skyline and environment of the future will be sculpted by elected officials many can’t name without the help of an internet search. 

But this sudden lurch to the right produced visceral responses in the public square. At a meeting this week, School Board member Tom Edwards walked out after homophobes said he wanted to harm children in schools, two weeks after he was called a “groomer” during public input. His critics called him “Tommy Drama” and the walkout staged.

As all this unfolds, right-wing puppet master Michael Flynn from his home in Venice cultivates national paranoia from election denial to QAnon conspiracies. Now he’s going local, calling for privatizing the area’s largest hospital. He and associates have fed false outrage over a tasteless display at a local Pride event. They also accuse doctors of malpractice and defying some version of “medical freedom” that requires institutions to provide COVID-19 patients with untested treatments and even some proven as dangerous.

The result is a culture clash with dangerous potency. Already the progressive element within the community amped up rhetoric of its own, sometimes to equally disturbing levels. At the School Board meeting Edwards fled, nasty remarks attacked political associations of Republican School Board members Robyn Marinelli and Bridget Ziegler. Richard Corcoran, the new president of New College, was greeted at his first meeting by protestors calling him a fascist.

Extremism, predicably, will be met with extremism. The appearance of Proud Boys and open appeals to nationalism pull local leftists like a rubber band, in this case snapping openly socialist organizations to speak up at college trustee meetings.

But at some point, the region’s longtime leaders need to step up and restore the rhetoric and tone of local politics. It’s become en vogue to diminish the establish, but Sarasota needs reason and moderation to rise in prominence again. The alternative is an experimentation in what might happen to extremism left to fester unchecked.

Jacob Ogles is contributing senior editor for SRQ Media Group.

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