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Business as usual: Moran beats Atkins for commission seat

The Republican Party is maintaining its control of the Sarasota County Commission. How will the partisan makeup of the board influence the group’s decision making?

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  • | 6:00 a.m. November 10, 2016
Mike Moran addresses supporters at the Republican Party of Sarasota County’s election night event at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Sarasota.
Mike Moran addresses supporters at the Republican Party of Sarasota County’s election night event at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Sarasota.
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So often, politicians will campaign on a platform of change. On Tuesday, Mike Moran celebrated election results that he believes affirm voters’ satisfaction with the status quo.

In the only contested County Commission race of election night, the Republican Party maintained its dominance of the board, as Moran defeated Democrat Fredd Atkins in District 1.

Moran earned 58% of the vote, with Atkins drawing 42% of the ballots cast in Tuesday’s election. Carolyn Mason is vacating the District 1 seat after reaching her term limit.

Moran ran on a platform emphasizing career creation and economic diversity and believes those issues resonated with Sarasota voters. In both the primary and general elections, Moran’s opponent painted him as a candidate beholden to the interests of developers. He believes the result of both races speaks for itself.

“I think it’s been proven over time: I’m beholden to nobody,” Moran said.

Even as Atkins attempted to appeal to those discontent with the county, Moran said his win speaks to positive feelings regarding the board’s performance.

“I think people overall are very happy, and there is a very small, vocal negative group,” Moran said. “I will never, ever see this community in a negative light, no matter how hard they beat that drum.”

Atkins, who had run in and lost County Commission races twice before Tuesday night, believed his message resonated with a large portion of the electorate.

This year, the County Commission has taken some actions that suggest the board may not be as beholden to developers as its harshest critics might say. In October, the commission declined to relax its affordable housing regulations as builder Pat Neal sought to develop a 522-acre site east of Interstate 75.

This week, the board opted to institute higher impact fees on new developments in the county — even charging a higher rate than staff recommended for 2017 and 2018. Atkins said those actions are a response to the same citizens to which he was trying to appeal, but he remains skeptical about the prospect of significant changes to the commission’s behavior.

“They checked themselves a little bit, but now that they have a majority again, there’s no telling what direction they may go in,” he said.

The Sarasota native vowed to stay involved with local affairs in some form, but he was pessimistic about the future decision-making in Sarasota County.

“It’s going to look like the last 20 years,” Atkins said.

Moran has rejected the idea that he is beholden to developers. He frames his ideology as traditionally Republican — he champions small, unintrusive government that is responsive to taxpayers — but he doesn’t think partisan ideology is a defining metric when it comes to local government.

Moran isn’t the only new face joining the board. State Sen. Nancy Detert will fill the District 3 seat, going unopposed in her bid to replace Commissioner Christine Robinson. Detert highlighted water quality and beach renourishment as two of her top issues. She said she can use the contacts she has fostered in Tallahassee to ensure Sarasota’s needs remain a priority at the state level.

Detert was elected to the state Senate in 2008 and was re-elected in 2012. She held a seat in the state House of Representatives from 1998 to 2006.

She framed herself as an advocate for “smart growth,” acknowledging that may make her more moderate than her colleagues. Still, she doesn’t anticipate any issues collaborating with her fellow commissioners.

“They might want more development than I want, but I don’t call that butting heads,” Detert said.

Looking Ahead

Atkins is not alone in his cynicism regarding the direction of the commission. Dan Lobeck, a land-use attorney and growth critic, said he expected business as usual from the board.

Still, he isn’t giving up the fight. He said Moran’s primary challenger, Frank DiCicco, would likely take another crack at a commission seat, and suggested insurgent campaigns would become increasingly resonant.

“I would hope that Republicans as well as Democrats here take a message from the national elections yesterday, that there is a popular uprising against corrupt establishment politics in both parties,” Lobeck said Wednesday. “That’s a message I, for one, am going to continue to sound.”

That’s what the Sarasota County Democratic Party is relying on, too. Kevin Griffith, the party’s vice chairman, said the county’s demographics require the party to attract crossover voters to have a chance at victory. Local Democratic candidates will have to emphasize issues over partisan division — and appeal to that insurgent argument, he said.

“If you feel like the system doesn’t work for you, in Sarasota County, the system is Republican,” Griffith said. “The Democrats offer an alternative voice. For those people in the county who feel like their voice isn’t being heard, the Democratic Party is willing to listen.”

Joe Gruters, the chairman of the Republican Party of Sarasota County, isn’t too worried about the idea of a challenge to the current makeup of the board.

“Once you get in and once you prove you’re going to be a good steward of the community’s dollars, the people are going to reward you,” Gruters said.

For his part, Moran pledged to be a dutiful representative of his new constituents, echoing some of the same themes as Griffith.

“Long ago, I heard that the most tortured state a person could be in is to be unheard and unrecognized,” Moran said. “I’ve done my best throughout this campaign process — and I will continue to do so as an elected official — to make sure everyone is heard.”


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