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Arts and Entertainment Thursday, Mar. 14, 2013 6 years ago

Chapman, Atwell and Dorfman advance to next round of city elections

by: Joe Hendricks

And then there were three …

In what was essentially a Sarasota City Commission Primary, three candidates---Susan Chapman, incumbent Mayor Suzanne Atwell and Richard Dorfman---survived Election Day on Tuesday and advanced to the May 14 run-off election that will determine which two of the three remaining candidates will win the coveted four-year city commission terms.

Ms. Chapman was the leading vote-getter, receiving 2,712 votes and 44 percent of the vote (using the City's percentage calculation method that factors in each voter having two potential votes). Ms. Atwell finished second, with 2,611 votes (42.4 percent) and Mr. Dorfman came in third, with 2,313 votes (37.6 percent). Had any of the candidates recieeved 50 percent-plus one vote, they would have won a commission seat outright instead of advancing to the run-off.

The surprise of the day was longtime neighborhood champion and multiple-time candidate Linda Holland finishing a distant fourth, with 1,531 votes and 28.8 percent of the vote. Based on recent endorsements, conversations with those-in-the-know and my own observations, I thought this would be the year that Linda finally got her much-deserved shot at serving as a city commissioner.

By contrast, the 1,443 votes and 23.5 percent of the vote first-time candidate Kelvin Lumpkin received is considered to be a successful start for a 39-year-old believed to have a bright future in local politics; a belief based not only on election results, but also on his performances at the political forums leading up to election day, his effectiveness in dealing with the media and his many years of community service in the Newtown/North Sarasota area.

While Tuesday’s results may mark the end of Ms. Holland’s political aspirations, they will likely serve as a launching point for Mr. Lumpkin.

Bringing up the rear was Pete Theisen, the lovable, quirky, anti-growth fringe candidate who constantly (and correctly) rallied against the idea of local politicians being “bought and paid for” and “beholden” to local and not-so-local special interest groups.

Theisen, who had very little campaign money at his disposal, managed to pull in 434 votes (7%) of the  votes cast. Wednesday morning, Mr. Theisen sent me an email saying, “Although I came in dead last, as usual, I only spent $3.12 per vote. Dorfman was the highest, at $17.33. If the developers put in another $40K they may even elect him.”

Beyond the results themselves, the other main topic of conversation Tuesday night was was the to-be-expected low voter turnout. Only 6,144 of the city’s 35,480 registered voters (17.32%) cared enough about this election to bother going to the polls or voting by mail via absentee ballot. That means 29,336 registered voters don’t give a damn who sits on their city commission---a governmental body that often has a greater impact on a city resident’s daily life than the state or federal governments.

Extending the non-voter math a little further … According to the 2010 Census, there were 52,917 people living in Sarasota when the census was conducted. Factoring in that 16.8 percent of those counted are under the legal voting age of 18, that means approximately 37,050 city residents and potential voters (registered and non-registered combined) did not bother to vote.

Based on recent history, we can expect these voter turnout numbers to drop even further when the May 14 run-off election takes place. In the 2009 at-large race, 1,725 fewer ballots were cast in the run-off election than in the general election that preceded it. This happens, in part, because it’s hard enough to get local folks to the polls the first time, much less a second time, but also because some voters who supported losing candidates lose interest when they no longer have a horse in the race.These voter turnout numbers reveal a few things: 1) The large majority of Sarasota’s population could care less who sits on their city commission (at least until a particular issue pertains to them and their neighborhood).

2) For whatever reason, the candidates presented to the general public general seem to generate little city-wide interest to those outside the small circle of folks who closely follow local politics.

3) The time has probably come to move the city elections to  coincide with state and federal primaries and general elections---an idea supported by Sarasota Democratic Party Chair Rita Ferrandino and Republican Sarasota County Commissioner Joe Barbetta, both of whom expressed these views while watching the election results being posted at the Supervisor of Elections’ office Tuesday evening.

After a night of “victory” celebrations, the three advancing candidates, their supporters and their supporting political parties will now spend the next eight weeks raising additional money, campaigning and trying to turn out additional supporters as the campaign intensity rises another notch.

With the city’s de facto primary in the rearview mirror and the top three candidates now crystalized, it will be interesting to see what financial and logistical support pours in from the local Republican and Democratic parties---even though city commission races are supposed to be “non-partisan” affairs.

Tuesday’s results set up a fascinating three-way race between three distinctly different candidates, with the polarizing,  but loyally-supported, Ms. Chapman (a Democrat) on the left, incumbent Mayor Atwell (also a Democrat) maintaining her “centrist” stance in the political middle, and Mr. Dorfman (a Republican) representing Sarasota’s political right, with support from noise ordinance advocates The HuB, the development community and the local GOP.

As we look ahead, keep in mind that Holland, Lumpkin and Theisen supporters made up a combined 30 percent of the vote. One of the big questions, and a focal point of the next two months, will be which candidates appeal to the Holland, Lumpkin and Theisen supporters and the 3,405 potential votes they represent.

I’ve been told that Mr. Lumpkin plans to endorse Mr. Dorfman in hopes that his own supporters will also get behind the Dorfman campaign. Tuesday night, Ms. Holland told me she hadn’t made a decision yet in regard to endorsing another candidate, but she made these remarks after arriving at Mr. Dorfman’s election night campaign gathering at Patrick’s restaurant after her own event ended.

The May 14 run-off election may very well come down to whether Holland’s 1,500-plus supporters swing in favor of the Democratic, neighborhood-oriented Ms. Chapman, the Republican, downtown-oriented Mr. Dorfman or the self-proclaimed “centrist” Mayor Atwell.

It’s important to note that each voter in the May 14 election gets to vote for two candidates, as was the case with Tuesday’s ballot. But (and this is a big but), there’s a political tactic known as “bullet-voting” that encourages a particular candidate’s supporters to cast only a single vote for their preferred candidate, while not casting a second vote that would add to an opponent’s vote total. So, bullet-voting will likely play a pivotal role in determining the May 14 winners.

Another factor will be the two-vote voters whose primary support leans toward Mr. Dorfman or Ms. Chapman. In casting their second vote, the Dorfman and Chapman supporters are likely to view Ms. Atwell as the more moderate second-choice candidate, considering her to be more philosophically in tune with their respective first-choice candidates. Based on what I’ve heard from supporters on both sides, it seems highly unlikely that a supporter of Ms. Chapman will also vote for Mr. Dorfman, or vice versa.

So, buckle up your political seat belts and hang on for what's sure to be an interesting ride ...

  ... Stay tuned for more TWIS election coverage in the days, weeks and months to come.

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