LAKEWOOD RANCH — It’s before business hours inside the jewelry store that bears her name, and Vanessa Baugh turns a flash of diamonds and pearls into an attractive display.
She steps away from behind the glass countertop to talk about her new life — one in which she serves as the District 5 commissioner for Manatee County.
But, before she can say a word, she nods toward her husband, Don, who has taken over arranging the jewels.
“You’re doing fine, honey,” she tells him. “You’re doing fine.”
For Baugh, whose brow furrows at the politics in politics, her business, Vanessa Fine Jewelry, on Lakewood Ranch Main Street, is never far away.
Six months into her first term as commissioner, the roles inside her home and business have changed, but her friend-of-the-people status has remained constant.
On the dais inside the Manatee County Commission chambers, Baugh treats her microphone time like her jewels — preciously.
In a session that has brought forth a rash of important decisions and the politics of a special referendum, Baugh returns to the same home after work, looks out from her lanai and watches deer stride onto her land.
She returns home to a meal cooked for her by Don, who has assumed responsibilities for their home and business.
“It’s been tough handing over the reins,” Baugh said. “As a leader, I know you need to delegate, but it’s been very hard to delegate duties at the store. But, it’s been a good thing for us. Don is my rock.”
Six months in, Baugh loves her new job of representing the residents of the East County, but the politics tire her.
“This has been good for her, but when she comes home emotionally drained, it’s tough,” Don Baugh said. “You don’t like to see your wife get beat up.”
Baugh vows to stand tough.
“You look at previous commissions and none has had to make the decisions Betsy (Benac, the other new commissioner) and I have had to make in rapid succession,” Baugh said. “It’s hard. You don’t know if you have thick skin until you do it. I’m a very strong person. I have not sold out. I got to bed every night knowing I can explain every vote I’ve done.”
For a woman in control and who has firm convictions, it’s been hard to let go.
In the lead-up to the June 18 special referendum, which resulted in a failed attempt by the county to raise the sales tax a half-percent to pay for indigent health care, Baugh almost prevented a ballot in the first place.
She voted against the referendum the first three times it came before her.
Baugh insisted individuals who qualified for the indigent care should have incomes up to 135% of federal poverty limits, not 200%.
She eventually got her way and voted for the referendum, but says the politics of the special election spun out of control.
Critics said the county and Healthy Manatee, a group in support of the sales-tax increase, muddled the facts of the proposed measure by linking higher sales taxes to property-tax cuts.
“The whole thing was a mess,” Baugh said. “You tell people the truth. Perhaps people should have been more transparent and had more trust in the people to make decisions.”
Baugh has also been vocal on development and infrastructure issues.
She’s exchanged emails with and attended meetings for neighborhoods displeased with the county’s long-planned 44th Avenue East extension, which will connect Cortez Road and its nearby beaches in the west to Lakewood Ranch.
The project and the inevitability of its completion shows Baugh the limits of her power.
“I know in my heart we can’t stop the road at (U.S.) 301,” Baugh said. “Once the road starts, they will complete it. And, I’ve told the people I’m not going to misrepresent anything to them. I’m going to continue to work with them. It’s sad you can’t please everybody.”
But on the dais, Baugh attempts just that.
She’s quickly developed a reputation as the commissioner who only speaks when it’s necessary — when she’s knowledgeable enough on a topic to say something worthy, when she’s not listening and learning.
“I hope people see me as someone who tries to use logic and common sense,” Baugh said. “I don’t just talk when I’m up there. I don’t waste their time with nonsense. My job is to sit and listen and set policy.”
Baugh tears up as she recalls the Tribute to Heroes Parade, held in honor of Memorial Day, when District 5 residents waved and clapped for her as she passed by in a car; her constituents were offering their public appreciation of her efforts.
“That’s what it’s all about,” Baugh said. “I enjoy helping people. I will continue to make decisions for District 5 and the people of Manatee. This is all I can do.”
Contact Josh Siegel at [email protected].