When newly elected Sarasota City Commissioner Suzanne Atwell finished third in the city’s general election March 10, her challenge for the runoff was clear: Figure out how to overtake her closest competitor, second-place candidate Paul Caragiulo.
Atwell overcame a deficit of nearly 300 votes in the general election to claim her at-large seat in last week’s runoff. She finished 104 votes ahead of Caragiulo.
The Bird Key resident attributes her victory to fundamental campaigning — attracting new volunteers and personally knocking on doors. But interviews with others involved in the election also say an unknown political action committee’s efforts, bullet voting and the Democratic Party contributed to Atwell’s margin of victory.
Although she didn’t make mention of the fact often, the commission would be left without a woman if Atwell were not elected. Apparently, that fact was not lost on voters.
Atwell said a number of volunteers joined her campaign after the general election. She doesn’t know exactly how many, but she does know that most of them were women.
“I was the only woman in the race,” Atwell said. “That was part of it.”
Another strategy was to personally knock on doors in every precinct west of the Trail, such as Precinct 49, which includes the waterfront neighborhoods of Indian Beach, Sapphire Shores and Tahiti Park.
For several days before the election, Atwell and her husband, Bob, spent two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon talking to residents in those neighborhoods. It was time well spent.
In the general election, Atwell received 205 votes in that precinct. She won 305 in the runoff. Caragiulo went from 199 in the general election to 219 in the runoff.
Altogether, Atwell increased her percentage of the vote in 17 of 27 city precincts. Caragiulo gained ground in six precincts. (See chart).
Also claiming partial credit in her turnaround was a political-action committee called Neighbors United, which was created a couple of weeks before the runoff. Two hours after Atwell and Turner were declared the winners, the group e-mailed a press release trumpeting its results.
“We were able to help Suzanne Atwell go from the lowest vote-getter of the top three to securing a position on the City Commission,” the release stated.
Atwell said she hadn’t heard of the group until that e-mail was sent. “I have no idea who those people are,” she said.
Neighbors United is made up of about 40 volunteers who targeted female Democrats, who were 40 or older and who don’t traditionally vote in city elections, but did vote in the 2008 presidential election. The group thought that demographic would relate to Atwell.
The volunteers distributed 1,200 handwritten notes and made nearly 800 phone calls urging those women to vote for Atwell.
None of the volunteers The Sarasota Observer contacted wanted to reveal their names. According to the group’s press release, its members wanted to remain in the background.
“Our goal was to keep our names 100% out of the picture, so the message could not be discounted by any baseless attacks,” the e-mail stated. “We have been successful in keeping our group from being labeled ‘pro-neighborhood’ or ‘pro-business.’ We are neither. Our financial support comes from both businesses and neighborhood residents.”
An analysis of its contribution records shows from March 24 to April 9, Neighbors United raised $4,000 from 13 donations. The contributors include well-known names in Sarasota, including Realtors Michael Saunders, Drayton Saunders and Joe Hembree; builder/developer John Cox III; developer and yacht builder Piero Rivolta; banker H.R. Foxworthy; and the Gulf Coast Builders Exchange (see box for a complete list of contributors).
Sam Stern, owner of Cap Creative advertising agency, contributed $200, and his company created the group’s direct-mail campaign.
“I wanted to help Paul (Caragiulo) and Suzanne (Atwell) because I felt they were the best candidates,” said Stern.
Caragiulo, who finished second in the general election, declined assistance from Neighbors United because he pledged not to use PACs.
“They wanted to be in control of my message,” Caragiulo said. “I didn’t want to drink anyone’s Kool-Aid.”
Two other factors contributed to the final outcome — bullet voting and the Democratic Party.
Bullet voting is when voters choose only one instead of two candidates in the runoff. There were 5,125 ballots cast. If all of those voters had voted for two candidates, there would have been 10,250 total votes.
There were only 8,846 total votes.
The Democratic Party, meanwhile, broke an unspoken tradition with its Republican Party counterpart to keep the election nonpartisan by delivering automated telephone calls to Democratic Party voters in favor of Atwell. The calls noted that Atwell was a lifelong Democrat.
When Atwell assesses how she went from third to victory, she gives her volunteers all of the credit. Said the new commissioner: “When you’re in third place, the only hope is to get more people out (to vote).”
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