City Commission elections have traditionally been nonpartisan. And, although they officially still are, the Republican and Democratic parties are playing an increasing role in trying to determine the outcome of those races.
“I think we should let people know there’s an election and they should get out and vote,” said Rita Ferrandino, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Sarasota County.
Both parties have sent e-mails to their members identifying the Republicans and Democrats running for city commissioner.
“I sent the e-mail as a response to the Democrats doing the same thing,” said Joe Gruters, chairman of the Republican Party of Sarasota County. “We were caught flat-footed two years ago (in the City Commission election). We won’t let that happen again.”
Gruters said the Democratic Party was stumping for votes for Democratic candidates in the 2009 election.
“When the Democrats went after one of the nonpartisan races, it was like they declared war on us,” he said.
Because there are three Democrats in the District 1 race — Linda Holland, Willie Shaw and Frederick Williams — Ferrandino said her party will stay out of that race, because she will not pit one Democrat against another.
But in the District 3 race, which has just one Democrat — Diana Hamilton — Ferrandino is allowing party members to get involved.
“We’ve told anyone in District 3 that they can help Diana,” she said.
Hamilton has accepted some of that help.
She said some party members have helped her with voter lists and precinct lists.
“I asked some of my Democratic friends to help,” she said. “I could have asked my Republican friends to give me the same help, but I just happened to ask Democrats.”
Gruters said he is also refraining from making a recommendation in the races in which there are more than one Republican — District 2 and District 3.
But, according to one candidate, a Democratic Party member took involvement to a new level.
District 3 candidate Pete Theisen, a Republican, said he was approached after a Feb. 5 candidates forum and asked to drop out of the race.
“He said, ‘You’re distorting the race and taking support away from Diana,’” said Theisen.
Theisen alleges it was Democratic precinct Capt. Matthew Woodall who asked him to drop out of the race.
Woodall said he did, in fact, talk to Theisen but said they just exchanged pleasantries. He denied the candidate’s accusation.
“Never happened,” said Woodall.
Ferrandino laughed off Theisen’s claim, asking why any Democrat would want a Republican to drop out of a race in which two Republicans are running.
“It makes absolutely no sense,” she said. “It has no logic.”
Meanwhile, a former Democratic Party Executive Committee member had privately urged Theisen to leave the race for a different reason.
Virginia Hoffman quit the party specifically so she could support the other District 3 Republican, Shannon Snyder.
She e-mailed Theisen Feb. 21, saying “ … realistically, you understand that the CCNA is supporting Shannon, and because of that you (sic) chances of winning are very slim.”
Hoffman was surprised when Theisen forwarded the e-mail to others.
“I was under the impression it was a confidential conversation,” she said. “I thought it was a logical thing for him to consider, because of the amount of votes he got in the last election.”
Two years ago, when running for an at-large seat, Theisen received 217 votes, the least of all nine candidates.
“If he’s taking away votes from anyone, it would be Shannon, because they’re both Republicans,” Hoffman said. “He could also take some neighborhood votes away (from Snyder).”
Theisen has vowed to remain in the race.
Snyder said he didn’t know about Hoffman’s e-mail until it was already sent.
“That was totally on her own,” he said.
The District 3 candidate wishes the parties would stay out of the city elections.
“Most city stuff is not really party issues,” he said. “It’s common-sense stuff.”
Snyder believes that even though the parties are involved, city voters will see through partisanship.
“We have a bright electorate that doesn’t fall for talking points,” he said.
But it looks as if political-party involvement may be here to stay. Gruters said he’s reached out to
Ferrandino and called for a “truce,” but the Democrat chairwoman said she would have to talk to her executive committee and never called back.
Ferrandino said Gruters tried to “pigeonhole” her by springing the offer on her before an audience at a public forum.
“My job is get out the vote,” she said. “Turnout (in city elections) is abysmal.”
City Auditor and Clerk Pamela Nadelini, who oversees city elections, said there’s nothing illegal about the parties getting involved in the races.
“It doesn’t serve in the spirit of a nonpartisan election, but it doesn’t violate any law or code,” she said.
Nonpartisan races and the law
Florida law does not prohibit political parties from getting involved in nonpartisan election races. However, it does require candidates in nonpartisan races to abstain from mentioning their party affiliation.
Section 97.021(20) of the Florida Statutes defines a nonpartisan office as one “for which a candidate is prohibited from campaigning or qualifying for election or retention in office based upon party affiliation.”
Contact Robin Roy at firstname.lastname@example.org