When Mayor Suzanne Atwell ran for the City Commission in 2009, she didn’t have a page on Facebook or a Twitter account.
This campaign, however, she has been using social media for such things as highlighting her recent endorsements or chatting about Nik Wallenda’s bayfront high-wire walk. The mayor even posted a photo while working out at the Robert L. Taylor Community Complex with the description, “Politics is a contact sport, so I like to stay in good physical condition to keep at the top of my game!”
“I’ve grown in four years,” said Atwell, who is 65. “Baby boomers are really, really starting to catch on with social media.”
Facebook has become the essential campaign tool if candidates want to reach younger voters, Atwell said. The mayor has 85 Facebook likes and 76 Twitter followers on her campaign page.
“There has been a history of low voter turnout among people under age 35,” Atwell said. “I think this will help.”
Atwell is also blogging, a first for the mayor. Recently on Facebook she’s linked to her blog posts about issues such as her support for a proposed North Trail Overlay District and a Benderson Development project at the corner of Beneva and Fruitville roads.
Atwell also uses Facebook to get in touch with voters whom she might not have time to chat with after campaign events.
“Years ago, someone would call on a landline phone and you would meet in the office,” Atwell said. “The whole dynamic has changed.”
Richard Dorfman — the most social-media proficient of the candidate field, with 454 Facebook likes on his campaign page and 16,317 Twitter followers — posted a photo from the Orioles’ spring-training opener Feb. 23. Two days earlier he had asked his Facebook fans what they loved most about Sarasota.
But one of Dorfman’s most popular posts, with 25 likes, was a photo of him donning a hooded rain jacket a few weeks earlier as he went door-to-door campaigning on a rainy day.
“Sure was wet out there today! But I met a lot of great voters!” Dorfman wrote.
Dorfman said part of the reasoning behind using social media is to reach the younger demographic of voters who might not otherwise get involved in local politics. Dorfman guesses the average age of the person he reaches through Facebook is 40 or younger.
The former National Basketball Association director of broadcasting estimates that about 20% of his campaign is focused on social media, while 50% is one going door-to-door; mailings and signage makes up 30%.
Like Atwell, Dorfman didn’t have a Facebook page when he ran his first campaign in 2011 for a District 1 seat. In that election, Dorfman missed the run-off election by 16 votes, to current opponent Linda Holland.
“I sure as heck didn’t have Twitter,” Dorfman said. Dorfman’s campaign posts a half-dozen times a day on Facebook and about three times a day on Twitter. Although Dorfman personally posts “about a third” of the Facebook posts, he gets help running the social-media campaign from the HuB and Dorfman’s girlfriend, marketing consultant Suzette Jones.
Kelvin Lumpkin is trying to use social media to reach out to voters of all ages.
“Even my mom is on Facebook, and she is 75,” Lumpkin said.
Lumpkin met with his campaign staff over the weekend to see how the team can “maximize social media even more in the final stretch.”
“Twitter is something I had never done before,” said Lumpkin, the 39-year-old senior pastor of Life of the World International Church. “I had an account, but I never used it. People at church would tell me I have to use it.”
As of Monday, Lumpkin had 13 followers on Twitter. Lumpkin had 98 likes on his campaign Facebook page.
As the campaign intensifies, social media has been more than just a platform for campaign cheerleading.
The candidates have addressed some of the major issues the city faces.
On Facebook, Atwell balances photos of her swinging on the new playset at Sapphire Shores’ upgraded park with a link to the mayor’s blog post on the Benderson project and the North Trail Overlay District — two controversial topics.
In her blog posts, Atwell addresses issues such as a drainage ditch across the property and neighbors’ desire to preserve the park space.
“Given the desire expressed to preserve the park land and the difficulty factors as I mentioned, the whole deal might be thrown out,” Atwell posted on Facebook. “We have not come to a conclusion, and this is nowhere near over.”
Lumpkin asked his Facebook fans what they thought about the homeless population in the city and possible solutions.
“That is something important to all of us,” Lumpkin said. “It has been a plank in my campaign. I am driven to try to help find a solution to the homeless situation.”
A resident replied with an article from the Huffington Post, detailing a live-in community farm in Miami that aims to tackle the city’s homeless population by getting people back to work.
“Sarasota should look into something like that,” Lumpkin said. “Something that would help (homeless people) become independent for themselves.”
On his page, Dorfman congratulated “musicians, small-business owners and lovers of a vibrant downtown” after a group convinced the City Commission Feb. 19 to repeal part of the city code that prohibited outdoor live music.
Dorfman has touted tweaking the city’s noise ordinance as a major initiative.
Not every candidate has become a new-media guru.
Pete Theisen uses his personal Facebook profile to promote his casual “Pizza with Pete” campaign events and videos from forums.
“I post some comments, and people will post some comments,” Theisen said.
But Theisen doesn’t have a fan page on Facebook or a Twitter account.
“I have a Twitter account, but I don’t have any followers,” Theisen said. “It’s not really working for my campaign.”
Theisen said he prefers to utilize email and his website, along with occasional election-related posts on his Facebook profile. He also posts unedited, raw videos on his website — including one of a dark street where street lamps are burned out.
“Street lights are a core government function,” Theisen said. “What is the main function of government? It seems like the main function of government in Sarasota right now is to have a cat fight.”
Susan Chapman, a neighborhood advocate who sits on the Sarasota Planning Board, said she has avoided using social media as part of her campaign because of legal advice she received warning Planning Board members from discussing upcoming issues on social media.
“We have been specifically instructed not to use social media on any upcoming issues,” Chapman said. “A lot of big issues are planning issues. It is too risky.”
Gillespie Park neighborhood leader Linda Holland also hasn’t been using social media.
“Because I don’t have a lot of experience with it, and it can be as much of an disadvantage as an advantage, I’ve chosen not to use it,” Holland said. “I’m on the phone and knocking on doors.”