The two Sarasota County Commission seats up for grabs in November’s election feature two candidates facing strong incumbents. In District 4, business owner Mark Hawkins is going up against Commissioner Nora Patterson, and in District 2 hospital sales representative Cathy Antunes is challenging Commission Chairman Joe Barbetta.
Despite the seeming mismatch, the two underdog candidates are exuding confidence, and the incumbents, who are better funded and more well-known, are not overconfident.
“I’m not taking anything for granted,” said Barbetta. “I think my opponent is bright and is a good candidate.”
During her victory speech after the Republican primary in August, Patterson said although her opponent is not that well-known, she realizes that anything can happen in the current anti-incumbent political climate.
Antunes is best known for her former role as the head of Sarasota Citizens for Responsible Government, which sued the county over negotiations to bring the Baltimore Orioles to town.
She acknowledges that outside of that notoriety, she’s largely known only to the medical community, because of her career and her husband, who is a doctor.
Trailing in fundraising (see box), Antunes requires a sharp strategy in order to defeat Barbetta, who, previous to his first term on the County Commission, sat on the Planning Commission.
That strategy, she said, is voter contact. Antunes and her support staff, which is made up of about 35 volunteers, have examined voter rolls and identified parts of the county in which Barbetta has the strongest support.
Armed with that information, they are avoiding those areas when conducting phone-call and door-knocking campaigns.
“We look at precincts and how they voted for issues and commissioners,” she said.
Antunes has put $8,000 of her own money into her campaign.
“It’s an investment I’m willing to make,” she said. “If different people don’t run, we’re going to get the same thing.”
Asked about his opponent’s campaign, Barbetta reiterates that he’s taking nothing for granted and cites the growing number of endorsements he’s getting.
“The reason why I have all the endorsements and money raised is because people think I’m the better candidate,” he said.
Hawkins is taking a different tack in his pursuit for Patterson’s seat. His campaign is not looking at voter rolls. He is not employing precinct captains. The Democratic Party is doing some of those things for him.
What Hawkins is doing himself is touting his small-business experience and hitting the county hard on being what he calls “anti-business.”
“I’m focusing on the unemployed and getting them back to work,” he said.
Hawkins runs Hawk’s Nest Construction, which is located on Tamiami Trail just south of Bee Ridge Road.
He frequently tries to draw a distinction between him and Patterson by saying that she hasn’t worked in private business since the 1970s. Although it may be true that Patterson last owned her landscaping business about 40 years ago, she did actively sell real estate until her election to the County Commission in 1998.
Patterson will be difficult to defeat. In the Republican primary, she beat Mark Smith by double-digit percentage points, and Smith, former president of the Siesta Key Village Association, was more well-known in the community than Hawkins.
Patterson has received more than $126,000 in campaign contributions, while Hawkins has received about $26,000 — more than $20,000 of which came from his own pocket.
Asked if he’s confident he can win, Hawkins says, “I’m confident Sarasota County wants change. Voters today aren’t concerned with financing or backing. They’re concerned with getting answers.”
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