In the nonpartisan race for two at-large City Commission seats, two political parties have pledged to support candidates based on their party affiliation — and one party is dealing with internal divisions on whether that support is merited.
With two registered Democrats and one registered Republican in the field, local political operatives are letting voters know who’s affiliated with what party in hopes of winning votes.
For the Sarasota County Democratic Party, which didn’t get involved in the March 14 election, the foray into the city race has come with controversy.
Kevin Griffith, vice chairman of the local Democratic Party, said that the party isn’t making a formal endorsement. Primarily, it will inform its members of the registered Democrats in the race.
Even that level of support has rankled some local Democrats. Hagen Brody and Jen Ahearn-Koch, the registered Democrats in the race, have offered opposing viewpoints on how the city should approve new developments.
Ahearn-Koch wants to eliminate the administrative review process, which allows city staff to approve projects without public hearings. Brody said the public’s role in shaping new development should involve rewriting the regulations in the zoning code.
Party members, including Gabriel Hament, who worked on City Commissioner Liz Alpert’s 2015 campaign, have suggested Ahearn-Koch’s stance should disqualify her from receiving Democratic support.
“My objective is to protect the Democratic Party from Trojan-horse candidates like Jen Ahearn-Koch, who are Democrats in name only with regard to municipal issues but are attempting to advance policy initiatives that are in direct contradiction to the progressive policies of the Democratic Party,” Hament said.
“People of the same party can differ on different issues.” — Kevin Griffith
Ahearn-Koch has bristled at the assertion that her views run counter to working-class values that would stymie economic development and the production of affordable housing. She believes her views can be reconciled with the city. She said the current system has failed to produce satisfactory results.
“I’d love to hear how many affordable housing units are available in the Vue,” Ahearn-Koch said, referring to the 144-unit downtown condominium.
Hament isn’t the only one questioning Ahearn-Koch’s bona fides. Former City Commission candidate Patrick Gannon sent a strongly worded email to Democratic Party leadership that also criticized Ahearn-Koch’s development stances. Despite receiving concerns from party members, Griffith said the Democrats are welcoming to — and supportive of — people with opposing perspectives.
“People of the same party can differ on different issues,” Griffith said. “That’s for the candidates themselves to explain where they stand on different issues.”
STOP! and go
The conflict within the Democratic Party reflects the shifting dynamics as the field of candidates shrinks from eight to three. Leading up to the May 9 election — where residents will be able to vote for two people — there has already been a greater effort to package candidates together as prospective commissioners.
The partisan divide is one way to define the candidates in the race. Another is growth.
Martin Hyde, the lone registered Republican in the race, is leaning on that for support, casting Ahearn-Koch as an outsider and tying himself to Brody.
“I’d much rather sit with Hagen Brody than Jen Koch,” said Hyde, who finished third in the first election. “Not on a personal level, but on the basis that empirically, I’m opposed to the narrative she’s used throughout.”
Both Hyde and Brody have criticized STOP!, the resident activist group Ahearn-Koch helped found that opposes the use of administrative review. But there are distinctions to be drawn between Hyde and Brody’s perspectives on growth, as well. Brody has advocated for a clearly defined, Main Street-centric downtown with strong regulations in the zoning code. Hyde has pushed for a more laissez-faire approach in the core.
“I think it’s as simple as: Who should decide how I live?” Hyde said. “I think I should decide how I live, not the government.”
If Democratic officials are concerned about Ahearn-Koch’s party loyalties, Hyde doesn’t necessarily fulfill their wishes. Hament is recommending voters cast a single vote for Brody, but no matter what, two of the three candidates will join the commission in May.
“I don’t want it to be flattened out.” — Jen-Ahearn-Koch
Ahearn-Koch, the top vote-getter in the March election, believes defining the race with a binary does a disservice to voters.
“I hope they look at me as a candidate from a comprehensive level, and that they don’t take one issue and say, ‘This one issue is important, and it’s the only important issue,’” she said.
She said her perspective on development is nuanced — she’s not trying to block growth, but she does want to produce high-quality projects. She wants to give residents more chances to engage in the development process, and she thinks requiring more public hearings is the best way to do that.
As the campaign continues, Ahearn-Koch is hopeful voters will filter out attempts to reduce her positions to a talking point.
“I don’t want it to be flattened out,” she said. “I don’t want people to say things like, ‘She’s against development.’ Of course I’m not against development.”
Brody did not respond to requests for comment.
Despite some criticism from individuals, there hasn’t been a united effort to oppose STOP! and the policies for which it’s advocating. Opponents say Ahearn-Koch’s candidacy may serve as a flashpoint for people to band together and defend the administrative review process.
If Ahearn-Koch is optimistic voters will consider the nuances of the race, her critics are determined to paint a starker picture about her stance on development.
“The concerns are widespread,” Hament said. “They just haven’t been formalized and vocalized. That’s coming.”
This article has been updated to clarify Hament’s endorsement of Hagen Brody.