Susan Chapman looks down at her silver flip phone.
It says she has a missed call.
It’s the one she’s been waiting for all day.
The City Commission challenger steps outside the noisy gathering at Word of Mouth Café. It’s 7:14 p.m. on Election Night.
The call is from Carol Reynolds, a key campaign volunteer assigned to send updates as voting results come in.
Chapman tries calling Reynolds back, but there’s no answer. Chapman leaves a message. She paces. She waits five seconds, then calls back. This time, Reynolds answers.
“I had a missed call from you,” Chapman says.
Outside, where it is quiet and the sun is descending, Chapman listens intently.
She asks Reynolds to repeat some numbers.
“OK, so it’s 100%?” she asks before hanging up.
Chapman walks back inside the café.
“It’s over,” she tells her supporters.
An early start
Richard Dorfman is standing in the bathroom of his Alinari condo the morning of the City Commission runoff election. As he prepares for the 14-hour day ahead of him, he contemplates the last eight months he’s dedicated to his campaign.
“You start to second-guess everything you’ve done,” he says. “You wonder if you knocked on enough doors, or if you made enough phone calls. It’s easy to torture yourself like that.”
Midway through his morning shave, around 6:15 a.m., his iPhone rings — Dorfman doesn’t hesitate to answer. A voter is on the other end with some last-minute concerns before heading out to the polls. Dorfman switches his phone to speaker mode, sets it on the counter and fields the questions while he resumes shaving.
“Do you believe in God?” the caller asks.
“Well, Yes, I do — with my whole heart,” Dorfman responds.
This kind of voter interaction doesn’t come as a surprise to the second-time City Commission candidate; he’s included his contact information — including his cell phone number — in most of his campaign material. Dorfman has built his eight-month election campaign around personal interaction with the community, and since qualifying for the runoff in March, he’s increased his efforts. His greatest chance at winning the election, he says, depends on showing voters, in person, who he is and for what he stands.
“When I’m in front of people, and I get a chance to talk to them face to face, they get a different impression of me,” he says. “There’s a lot of misinformation about me out there — that I’m anti-neighborhood; I’m irrationally pro-business; I’m pro-growth at any cost; I’m going to pave paradise. Once I have the opportunity to talk to them and explain my position, it’s hard for them to object.”
His mission is clear on Election Day: reach as many voters as possible before they head into the polls. He’s aware of the difference one day can make in an election. In 2011, he missed qualifying for the runoff election by 16 votes.
As he finishes his morning routine, he politely wraps up the phone call and makes his way downstairs to the guest parking lot. Donned in khaki pants and a royal blue polo shirt, he meets his campaign manager, Valerie Dorr. The two load a few-dozen signs into the back of Dorfman’s Cadillac SUV and drive to the Sarasota Municipal Auditorium to place a few signs before the polls open at 7 a.m.
From here, they head to Precinct 209, located at First Presbyterian Church on Oak Street. The church is typically one of the busiest precincts in the city. Dorfman wants to catch the morning rush. He demonstrates his strategy almost immediately. After discussing his views on various issues with an on-the-fence voter, he successfully sways one person.
“Every vote counts,” he says.
Logic to the madness
Around 1 p.m. Susan Chapman stops her off-white PT Cruiser at a stop sign and pulls a wrinkled map from the car floor. The map covers her steering wheel.
“This is the hardest precinct to find,” she says just seconds before another car pulls up behind her and honks. Chapman drives forward off to the side of the road. Once stopped, she continues to read the map, which lists — in miniscule font — every neighborhood and each of the 18 voting precincts in the city.
Once she locates Southside Baptist Church, on Magnolia Street, on the map, she puts the car in drive and heads out to U.S. 41.
Today is anything but organized, as Chapman drives from precinct to precinct meeting with her volunteers and greeting voters.
Although she has helped on several city campaigns, including Kelly Kirschner’s successful 2007 City Commission bid and Dick Clapp’s 2007 and 2011 campaigns, it’s Chapman’s first time running her own campaign. It’s different this time.
“It’s a lot of multi-tasking,” Chapman says as she continues to drive.
But, there is logic to the madness for Chapman, a lawyer and longtime neighborhood advocate who calls herself “data-organized.”
Chapman is headed to Southside Baptist , because she came in third at one of two precincts at the church during the general city election in March, capturing only 19.5% of the vote there.
“That’s a tough one for us,” she said.
A group of 15 volunteers holding signs and donning blue “Chapman for Sarasota Commission” T-shirts greets her at Southside.
In the morning, Chapman visited Precinct 209, at First Presbyterian Church, and she spent a large part of the afternoon there. In March, she was in a virtual tie with Dorfman, with both candidates earning 24.4% of the votes cast at Precinct 209. (Chapman had 488 votes at Precinct 209; while Dorfman had 487.) The precinct covers downtown and some surrounding neighborhoods, including Hudson Bayou.
Chapman agrees with Dorfman — everything counts, even on Election Day, in a city where the 2011 commission election was decided by 14 votes.
Since January, Dorfman and his campaign volunteers have been relentless in their efforts to reach the public. He estimates he’s personally knocked on more than 2,000 doors. The efforts have left him visibly exhausted, and between the stress and exercise, he’s shaved about 25 pounds from his physique.
“Richard, if you lose any more weight, you’re going to blow away,” one voter at First Presbyterian jokingly says.
Voter traffic is slow at the precinct, and close friend and campaign supporter, Linda Holland, offers to make a coffee run for Dorfman — his second caffeine boost of the morning. She returns from Dunkin Donuts with coffee — his with cream and sugar.
The early indications of low voter turnout have Dorfman concerned. In his opinion, a low turnout will favor Chapman, and he anticipates a close race. He knows her neighborhood following is loyal and longstanding, and he hopes new voters and a higher turnout in the runoff will give him an edge.
At the next precinct visit at St. Armands Key Lutheran Church, Dorfman continues his push to converse with voters, and he reiterates his belief that many people have an inaccurate perception of him and his ideas. His typically calm demeanor gives way to frustration as he begins to reflect on what he perceives as negativity and personal attacks against him throughout the election.
“I’ve just seen so much hate,” he says. “It’s unbelievable. I’m a very pragmatic person. I’ve campaigned on the issues, but it seems like other people have decided to campaign on me as a person, and it’s gotten very personal. I think a lot of that is motivated by fear of change, or of losing control.”
Chapman’s Election Day plan is to visit as many polling locations as she can. But, most important, she coordinates and relies on her loyal band of supporters wearing the blue shirts.
Chapman had ordered 50 blue T-shirts saying “Chapman for Sarasota Commission” before the election. She ran out on Election Day and started giving out buttons.
In total, Chapman had more than a 100 supporters, some who worked behind the scenes. Some called “super voters,” who, according to Supervisor of Election forms had not yet voted in the runoff, and some canvassed for Chapman in their neighborhoods.
Chapman’s supporters range from some of the city’s most vocal neighborhood advocates whom she has known for years to new residents who feel Chapman’s message about protecting neighborhoods, fighting for compatible development and preserving the environment resonates with the kind of future they want to see for their city.
On this sunny Election Day, one of Chapman’s supporters, 74-year-old Al Abrams, sits in a lawn chair in the shade outside the Robert L. Taylor Community Center, Precinct 115. Abrams greets both voters and those who don’t plan to vote.
Abrams is involved in the Amaryllis Park Neighborhood Association, and he met Chapman when he was the neighborhood’s representative to the City Coalition of Neighborhood Associations (CCNA) in 2005.
Abrams, wearing a blue Chapman shirt and an “I Voted” sticker on his faded Florida A&M hat, suddenly forgets he didn’t call his niece, who, according to the latest paperwork from the Supervisor of Elections officer, has not yet voted.
Back at Precinct 209, just before 6 p.m., three Chapman supporters hold their signs outside the polls while Chapman runs back to her Hudson Bayou home to feed and let out her three Malteses, Abby, Lacy and Lucy.
Chapman’s neighbor, Becky Tharpe, got to know Chapman two years ago when they both worked to keep a convicted murderer and rapist in prison.
Another supporter, Cathy Antunes, is a downtown resident who ran for County Commission and is deeply involved in county politics.
Erika Brigham just moved from Miami Beach, and she believes Chapman will work to protect the local environment here.
All three agree about the decision made on the proposed Ringling Plaza Walmart.
“It should never have gotten as far as it did,” Antunes says, noting that Chapman, as a planning board member, voted against the project, saying it was a department store and that type of development did not fit in the plaza’s zoning.
As the day fades to late afternoon, Dorfman and Dorr continue to visit precincts around the city to check in with volunteers and attempt to earn votes.
The consistently low turnout, combined with hours of standing in the sun, adds to Dorfman’s exhaustion. He turns to Dorr, who reminds him the polls will close soon enough.
“I feel like a personal trainer,” she says with a laugh. “I just keep pushing him. ‘Three more houses, Richard.’ ‘A few more hours, Richard.’”
“I wouldn’t have made it this far without Suzette (Jones, Dorfman’s girlfriend) and Val,” he says. “Suzette has been my solace, and Val has been my motivator. She keeps me going.”
With fewer than 30 minutes remaining until polls close, Dorfman prepares to head to his watch party at Patrick’s.
“You know what’s really strange?” he asks. “In the next hour, the last eight months of work will be over, and I’ll either have the result I wanted, or I’ll go back to my old life.”
The winning moment
Chapman has just walked back into Word of Mouth and told her supporters, “It’s over.”
After a silent moment, she says the final results are in: Atwell and Chapman were the top two vote-getters. Atwell had 38% of votes; Chapman had 32%.
Several supporters yell, and everyone in the café, many wearing their blue “Chapman” shirts, take turns hugging and congratulating Chapman. Former Mayor Lou Ann Palmer and Chapman look over a printout of the final results. Chapman receives more congratulatory hugs.
"This was an old-fashioned grassroots campaign, and means a lot to me to have you as my roots,” Chapman says to her supporters, after news of the win.
Supporter Edie Jones comes up to give Chapman a hug.
“I was right,” Jones says. “It’s the two Susans. Or actually, Susan and Suzanne.”