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The Observer's 2020 primary election recommendations

With absentee ballots sent out and early voting starting Aug. 8, here are some insights and opinions to consider on the region’s candidates.

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  • | 6:00 a.m. July 29, 2020
  • Sarasota
  • Opinion
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Over the past three weeks on this page, the Observer has presented its recommendations for the upcoming primary elections. The official election day is Tuesday, Aug. 18.

Many newspapers have discontinued the practice of recommending candidates. We are not following the crowd. We continue to believe that one of the many and important roles of our newspapers is to advocate on the editorial/opinion page — Note: only on the opinion page — for candidates who stand for, first and foremost, individual liberty, the U.S. Constitution, limited government, low taxation and regulation, entrepreneurial capitalism and causes that advance those ideas for individuals and the betterment of the community.

Likewise, to a great extent, we view elections as referenda on the performance of incumbent office holders.

Were they good stewards of taxpayer dollars?

Do their voting records and core values reflect the liberty philosophy of defending and expanding people’s freedom or of expanding government and constricting freedom?

Are they advocates for taxpayers or the government?

Are they individuals of good moral character and values? Are they trustworthy?

These are among the criteria that go into our recommendations.

At the same time that elections are referenda on incumbents, we also believe in candidates who challenge or disrupt the status quo for the right reasons.

We know experience is invaluable. A county commissioner or legislator who has spent four or six years in office is likely to be far more knowledgeable about and effective than a newcomer at navigating government and the world of special-favors politics. But at the same time, incumbents often drift into becoming defenders of the government establishment. We embrace the disrupters who embrace the freedom philosophy and challenge the status quo.


Florida Senate, District 21

Candidates: Jim Boyd; John Manners Houman

This is not a serious race.

Almost two years ago, Boyd completed eight years in the Florida House, representing District 71 (western Manatee County). In his final term, his legislative peers elected him speaker pro-tempore, the second-in-command of the House leadership. You don’t reach that position unless you have demonstrated effective leadership among your fellow lawmakers.

More importantly, Boyd spent his eight years in the House as an advocate for taxpayers — a dependable lawmaker for fiscal restraint and low taxes.

As the owner/CEO of Boyd Insurance and Investment Services in Bradenton, Boyd also worked as an ardent proponent of reforming Florida’s auto insurance laws for consumers. This meant going against Florida’s trial bar and frivolous lawsuits.

Boyd is the third generation of Manatee County Boyds to have served in the Legislature. His grandfather served in the House in 1940s, and his uncle, the late Wilbur Boyd, served in the House and Senate in the 1960s and 1970s. Prior to serving in the Legislature, Boyd was elected to the Palmetto City Council, serving terms as mayor and vice mayor.

Boyd’s opponent, John Manners Houman of Thonotossa in Hillsborough County, is a frequent candidate for state offices, albeit so far unsuccessful. In 2016, he lost to then-Democratic Rep. Daryl Rouson for Senate District 19; in 2018, he lost in the Republican primary to Sen. Tom Lee for Senate District 20.

Just to give you an idea of how lopsided the race, the amount of campaign contributions a candidate raises is a telling indicator: Boyd has raised $272,625; Houman’s contributions total a $2,500 loan from himself.

Suffice it to say, ultimately electing Boyd would be good for all voters — the citizens of District 21 and Florida in general. Given his experience in the House, if elected to the Senate, you can expect Boyd to rise to important leadership positions in the Senate, much like his predecessor, outgoing Senate President Bill Galvano.

We recommend: Jim Boyd


Florida House, District 72

Candidates: Donna Barcomb; Fiona McFarland; Jason Miller

Of all the Republican races on the region’s ballots, this one is probably the most watched.  

Although there are three candidates vying for the nomination, the race essentially pits Donna Barcomb, a longtime Sarasota civic and community leader and small business owner, against Fiona McFarland, a 34-year-old newcomer to the community who has the credentials of Naval Academy graduate, Navy officer veteran, McKinsey & Co. consultant and daughter of a prominent national Republican and former high-level Trump administration official, K.T. McFarland.

The third candidate is Jason Miller, a deep-rooted Sarasotan (St. Martha School and Cardinal Mooney High graduate) who became a lawyer, served eight years as an assistant state attorney in the 12th Judicial Circuit, is a major in the Army JAG Corps Reserves and now heads litigation with the Najmy Thompson law firm.

For a telling insight into this race, just look at the money. Here’s what the candidates have raised as of early July:

  • McFarland: $205,457
  • Barcomb: $89,045
  • Miller: $9,370

Of McFarland’s 467 contributors, 52% list an out-of-state address. Of Barcomb’s 270 contributors, 94% list a Florida address. 

The job of a state representative pays $30,000 a year. 

Let’s cut to the quick: This race is about one candidate seeking to begin her political ascendancy and another who has a three-decade record of service to Sarasota.

And yet, when you hear these two candidates speak on the issues and how they would address them philosophically and practically, there is little that separates them. They are strong free-market, low-regulation, low-taxation conservatives, believers in constitutional liberty, who also embrace Gov. Ron DeSantis’ efforts to clean up Florida’s environment.

Both are qualified candidates, knowledgeable on the wide variety of issues they likely would confront. Indeed, this region and all of Florida would be better off having both of them serving in the Legislature. Unfortunately, only one can win the Republican nomination for the District 72 seat.

Here is what makes the difference for us: Sarasota Memorial Hospital and the Sarasota Memorial Healthcare System would not be in existence as an independent hospital and would not be the highly rated hospital that it is today were it not for Donna Barcomb. What’s more, her record of service to the community over the past 30 years has been extraordinary.

McFarland has made an issue of Barcomb’s voting in favor of raising the hospital’s millage rate while serving as an elected member of the hospital board. What McFarland doesn’t share is the context. 

Barcomb ran for the hospital board — somewhat naively — and won in 1996. Little did she know as a rookie board member how much distress the hospital was in — financially and morale-wise. SMH was consistently losing millions of dollars a year in operations in the late 1990s, with bond-rating agencies lowering the hospital’s grade, a move that raised interest rates on the hospital’s borrowing and more stress on the hospital’s operations.

What’s more, there was public strife between the hospital’s then-CEO Michael Covert and the staff, and the hospital’s reputation suffered for spotty customer service.

The situation was becoming so grim hospital that board members seriously discussed whether it should sell the institution to a private company. Either that or replace the CEO, increase the hospital’s millage rate and attempt a turnaround to remain independent.

Barcomb sided with remaining independent and raising the millage rate. And she was chair of the board when it brought in Dr. Duncan Finlay, a respected Sarasota physician, to replace Covert. Finlay is credited with leading a successful, yearslong effort to improve the hospital’s reputation and customer-service ratings.

Then, in 2004, Barcomb was chair of the hospital board committee that recruited Finlay’s successor, Gwen MacKenzie. MacKenzie in turn recruited David Verinder to be CFO. MacKenzie and Verinder, the current CEO, are largely credited with turning the hospital into the highly rated institution it is today. 

At one point in her term as board chair, Barcomb, MacKenzie and Verinder traveled to New York City to meet with Moody’s Corp. to discuss the hospital’s bond rating. The Moody’s representative bluntly told them: Either raise the hospital’s millage rate, or Moody’s will lower the hospital’s bond rating — a move that would cost millions in higher interest rates.

McFarland says Barcomb has a “saying-and-doing gap” in Barcomb’s position against raising taxes. But when you know the historical context, you can say Barcomb made tough choices 20 years ago that saved and laid the foundation for Sarasota Memorial becoming one of the top hospitals in Florida and the nation — and one of the institutional gems of the city.

And she did that after serving years as president of the Southside Elementary School PTA, president of Sarasota’s Junior League, head of a statewide Junior League education committee, mother of four sons and owner-operator of a physical therapy business. Barcomb also is completing her eighth year as an elected member of the Sarasota County Charter Review Board.

All of that demonstrates the kind of passion and commitment to the community that voters want in a legislator.  

As for McFarland, there is no question she has the intellect, competence and belief in the liberty philosophy to be an effective legislator. But she made a miscalculation in her quest for the nomination. 

McFarland and her husband have been homesteaded residents in Bradenton, which is outside of District 72. They have rented quarters in the district to demonstrate their commitment to Sarasota. But as one longtime Sarasota Republican told us, McFarland underestimates the parochial loyalty Sarasotans have for those who have served the community.

District 72 has been hobbled with two short-term legislators not committed to the seat — Republican Alex Miller and Democrat Margaret Good.

The voters in this district deserve a representative who is not looking to advance to the next level. Sarasotans have seen that before. They deserve someone who will stay committed to the district. McFarland’s time will come. Barcomb’s time is now.

We recommend: Donna Barcomb


State Attorney

Candidates: Ed Brodsky (incumbent); Lisa Chittaro

When you examine the 300 contributors (and the $165,900) to the campaign of 12th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Ed Brodsky, you can quickly see it is a long list of respected, accomplished people from all across Sarasota, Manatee and Desoto counties — business owners, sheriffs, retired sheriffs, mayors and Democrats.

They would not support Brodsky if they did not believe he deserved or earned their trust.

Brodsky has spent virtually all of his 28-year legal career as a prosecutor in the 12th Judicial Circuit State Attorney’s office. With this election, he is seeking his third four-year term as the state attorney and chief prosecutor for the three-county circuit, overseeing 160 employees and $17 million budget.

What matters most to voters, though, is Brodsky and his office’s success in helping law enforcement keep the region safe. In the past five years, the total crime rate in Sarasota County has dropped each year; in Manatee, four of the past five years.

What’s more, Brodsky and his office, the region’s law enforcement departments, 12th Circuit judges and numerous regional not-for-profit organizations have been among Florida’s leaders creating programs that help addicts, homeless, mentally ill and veterans rather than overcrowd county jails.

Brodsky has a respected and qualified opponent in the primary, Lisa Chittaro. She served 15 years with Brodsky as an assistant state attorney. But if elections are indeed referenda on incumbents’ performance and results, Brodsky has delivered what voters want: a state attorney who enforces the rule of law forcefully and fairly and who pursues innovative programs and strategies with other branches of the legal system to help, rather than merely house, those in need.

We recommend: Ed Brodsky


Manatee County Judge, Group 4

Candidates: Melissa Gould; Connie Mederos Jacobs; Chris Pratt; Kristy Guy Zinna

Voting for judges is often a puzzle for voters. Such is the case for the Manatee County Judge, Group 4 position.

Judicial candidates cannot take a stand on contentious issues; they are careful to show bias. So the candidates all say the same thing: They will be fair and impartial and follow the law. You take them at their word. But how do your really know?

Then you look at experience. As lawyers, have they spent enough time in the courtroom and handled a wide enough variety of lawsuits to give them the breadth of experience and judgment they will encounter and need as a judge?

In this case, Manatee voters are fortunate to have four well-rounded lawyers — in and out of the courtroom — vying for the seat. At the same time, you can say voters are somewhat unfortunate: It’s a tough choice.

All four candidates have strong, long-time local family roots and admirable records of volunteerism in the community — examples: Habitat for Humanity (Connie Mederos Jacobs); delivering groceries to elderly during the pandemic (Melissa Gould); Manatee Tiger Bay board (Kristy Guy Zinna); former little league umpire (Chris Pratt).

Likewise, together they have logged 90 years of courtroom experience in misdemeanor and felony crime cases, family law, criminal defense, civil litigation, animal cruelty, elder law and personal injury law to have the knowledge and wisdom required of a judge. Mederos Jacobs and Pratt have been practicing 30 and 34 years, respectively, while Gould and Zinna each has been practicing 12 years.

To be sure, there’s a difference between 30 and 12 years in the courtroom. But when we called on lawyers, judges and law enforcement officials who have seen these candidates in action, the consensus tilted the scales toward Gould and Zinna.

Zinna, who has been in private practice for the past seven years, has served on both sides of the aisle in the courtroom — as a prosecutor and as an assistant public defender in the 12th circuit. In both, she earned a reputation as a committed hard worker.

Gould has spent the past eight years as an assistant state attorney, prosecuting a broad spectrum of misdemeanor and felony cases. Prior to the state attorney’s office, Gould also gained experience in Michigan in civil litigation, with business and contract law, consumer protection, employee discrimination and professional malpractice.

The difference between Gould and Zinna? This is what we repeatedly heard: Gould has the edge — “the legal intellect, always prepared, committed.” But it’s not just her courtroom experience, we were told. Gould earned a Master of Law from the University of Cambridge in England, and prior to moving to Bradenton, she taught family and constitutional law at Oakland University in Michigan.

We recommend: Melissa Gould


Manatee County Commission

District 1 candidates: James Satcher III; Priscilla Lee Whisenant Trace (incumbent)

Priscilla Lee Whisenant Trace had all the “Right Stuff” when she ran for the District 1 County Commission seat four years ago. You couldn’t typecast a better Republican candidate for the District 1 seat:

Born and raised in the district; longtime small business owner with her husband of their family horticulture business, Ellenton Nursery; 2015 Agriculturalist of the Year; president of the School Advisory Councils at Palmetto Elementary and Palmetto High; Sunday school teacher; past president of the Manatee County Agricultural Museum; past president of the Baptist Campus Ministry.

And after beating a well-known local politician in 2016, Trace continued to build on her many achievements in her first term as county commissioner. Her peers elected her chair of the County Commission in 2017, and last year she served as chair of the Manatee Port Authority.

Her list of campaign contributors is a who’s who of Manatee’s leading agricultural families and companies and many Manatee establishment Republicans. 

But there’s just one concern. There is ample behind-the-scenes talk among Manatee Republicans over whether Trace is living up to conservative Republican expectations, or if they should vote for her primary opponent James Satcher, who declines to say Trace’s name directly, but says “we’re a huge conservative district, but the support has been tepid at best.”

Satcher adds: “I do support the president.” That is a not-so-veiled reference to Trace declining to endorse Donald Trump publicly. When an official from the Trump campaign asked the six Republican members of the Manatdee County Commission to express their support officially for President Trump, only two did: Commissioners Steve Jonsson and Vanessa Baugh. 

But more than that, staunch Republicans cite Trace’s support of the half-cent infrastructure sales tax in 2016 and a proposed new stormwater fee as two issues that make them question her commitment to low taxes.

If this race is indeed a referendum on Trace’s performance in office, Republicans have reason to be ambivalent. 

To her strengths: Trace knows that district, its constituents and the issues facing it to a greater degree than her challenger. Plus, she has four years of experience on the commission.

But she has shown tendencies to keep Manatee government growing. And her unwillingness to endorse Trump is bigger than she may realize in the primary.

In contrast, Satcher doesn’t waver in his conservative convictions. He told us his three main reasons for running are:

  1. To back the sheriff’s department and its needs. “I want to do the best by them I can,” he says. “Don’t defund the police.”
  2. He says District 1 deserves better from county government: “We have the bulk of the growth, but not the bulk of the capital projects. We’re always one step behind.”
  3. “I’m a lifetime conservative. I’m against higher taxes. I’m against the games politicians play to raise taxes,” he says. Asked his philosophy on the role of government, Satcher says: “Small as possible. I don’t believe in a nanny state. I believe in the power of capitalism.”

Satcher says county government should not be spending any taxpayer money on affordable housing. He believes the private sector can take care of that, although he is in favor of offering developers incentives to encourage that type of development.

Like George Kruse in the at-large commission race, Satcher represents a new generation of potential leaders in Manatee. But unlike Trace and her longtime civic leadership, Satcher, 41, is still in the early stages of establishing and proving himself  to voters. 

He and his wife and their five children have lived in Manatee six years. They have been involved in ministry work in Haiti and, locally, helping victims of sex trafficking. Satcher also works at Gulf Coast Mercantile, an online supplier of remodeling products for contractors and consumers. He also is in his second year of night-time law school at Stetson University. He says he studies from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., after putting his children to bed.

To be sure, Satcher doesn’t have the campaign funds, the establishment backing, the name recognition, business experience or the roots in the district that Trace does — all worthy attributes. But if voters want a commissioner who makes the pledge to abide by his convictions of limiting taxes, regulation and the growth of government, Satcher stands for a new generation of leaders.

We recommend: James Satcher 


District 7 (at-large) candidates: Edwin Hunzeker; George Kruse

No one can question whether former Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker is qualified to be a county commissioner.

After serving 12 years as the CEO of Manatee County government, he should know everything there is to know about the county and its government operations. What a resource.

In fact, you can probably say Hunzeker, 73, is so steeped in government administration and management that it is part of his DNA. He has been a government administrator for about as long as his opponent has been alive.

On the face of it, it seems as though it would be worthwhile to have that depth of experience and wisdom sitting in one of the county commissioners’ chairs.

Or would it?

So many things come to mind about Hunzeker’s candidacy for the District 7 At-Large County Commission seat. You can think of the pro athletes past their prime who just can’t give it up, only to stay too long.

Or you can think of the CEOs who stay too long. Their frame of reference is how they did things, often leaving them unable or slow to embrace innovation and change. You know the line every Floridian hates: “Up North, this is the way we ...” You can imagine a similar remark coming from Hunzeker if elected: “When I was administrator, we ...”

Indeed, in this race between Hunzeker and first-time candidate, businessman George Kruse, you have a contest that gives voters a clear opportunity to break from the past, to break from the directions Hunzeker steered county government and embrace a fresh perspective, fresh thinking and the start of a younger generation of leaders in Manatee County.

Yes, there is much to be said for a county commissioner who has built up a dozen years of relationships inside and outside the community, who knows how to navigate the government bureaucracy and knows its strengths and weaknesses.

But as Kruse aptly told us: “We already have a county administrator. We don’t need another one on the County Commission.”

Or imagine Hunzeker’s successor, current Administrator Cheri Coryea, who previously served as Hunzeker’s deputy administrator. How will the presence of her former boss influence her? 

Hunzeker would be only one vote on the commission, but we all know how it works. Commissioners with an agenda spend a lot of time lobbying behind the scenes. Just saying. 

There definitely are pluses and minuses to Hunzeker’s candidacy. 

Hunzeker is qualified and served honorably, to be sure. But on the whole, if you’re a Manatee County Republican taxpayer who truly does embrace the idea of low taxes, low regulation and limited government, there is much to like about George Kruse.

He fits the mold that we often embrace: A smart challenger of the status quo.

In Kruse, Manatee Republicans have a candidate with valuable private-sector experience in finance — an attribute always needed — and someone who will view the county’s issues from the perspective of a taxpayer, not from that of a government administrator.

“I have no government experience,” Kruse told us. “I don’t come to this with the thinking government knows best. I come from the opposite view.”

Kruse, 44, is a member of the Kruse family in Manatee County that founded and built Hoveround Corp. into one of the largest power wheelchair manufacturers in the U.S. over the past 30 years. Kruse’s father was chief financial officer and was one of three brothers that built a business that employed 350 locally at its peak.

Kruse himself worked there as an intern in finance three summers. And as he was growing up he saw and heard from his father and uncles what it takes to run a business — and deal with the government.

Kruse graduated from the Columbia University School of Business in New York and spent six years in New York as an associate and investment officer at Capital Source Finance, a firm specializing in commercial real estate. He had first-hand experience with the intricacies of financing complex projects, including affordable housing, which he, like most, recognizes as an ongoing challenge for Manatee.

“It’s crucial to have a middle market for teachers,” he says. “It raises the overall value of the community.” If you spend time with Kruse, he shares a variety of sensible strategies that can bring more workforce housing to Manatee without taxpayers funding it with subsidies.

On roads: “We need to get ahead of that” — a view all candidates share.

Another issue on which he has harped: The county’s rainy-day reserves, which is close to $550 million, depending on how you look at it. Kruse makes the case the amount is excessive; Hunzeker argues otherwise. 

Either way, it’s still money taxpayers’ money for the government to spend. Kruse’s view: Don’t raise fees and taxes, put those reserves to work, or give that money back to taxpayers. 

Asked his view of Manatee’s level of taxation, Kruse responded: “It’s insanely high.” 

Indeed, Manatee County taxpayers can benefit from a new voice and perspective — one not colored with government experience — to hold the government accountable. Kruse has the intellect, the perspective first and foremost of a taxpayer and the family background in Manatee to know what it takes to create the right climate to grow jobs and the economy.

We recommend: George Kruse


Manatee County School Board

District 1: Bridget Mendel; Gina Messenger (incumbent)

To be blunt, the race for this school board seat is a contest between a thoughtful, even-tempered former teacher, albeit it young (33) and still learning, who tries to do the right thing for the right reasons versus a smart, experienced, outspoken former teacher who dislikes virtually everything the Manatee School District, board and administration are doing and is itching to attack.

Gina Messenger versus Bridget Mendel.

Say this about Mendel: She doesn’t hold back on her criticisms and suggestions on what she thinks should be changed in the district. She is appalled at what she describes as unacceptable transparency with taxpayer dollars and mismanagement. She believes the district is failing the students who cannot speak English and have dyslexia and, if she had her way, she would dump Superintendent Cynthia Saunders.

Charter schools? Vouchers? No way. “Enough is enough,” Mendel wrote in response to an Observer questionnaire. “The dismantling and defunding of public education in Florida is real, and it must come to an end.” 

To an extent, Mendel certainly would bring a voice that challenges the status quo. That is always needed. She is highly disturbed over the district and board’s handling of taxpayer funds and calls for “truth, trust and transparency.” What voters don’t know is whether she would be a voice of angry strife that agitates or a leader who can be a positive influence.

To be sure, Manatee taxpayers and voters are tired of board strife. It has hobbled the board for more than a decade. Only recently, over the past two years, has it been making noticeable progress. 

Messenger notes that during her first term the district’s bond rating rose to an A, a sign of improving financial management, and student performance has improved, raising the district’s ranking from 39th to 29th in the state.

But as Manatee taxpayers, parents and teachers know, much still can be improved. The question is how to get there — with a thoughtful, level-headed approach or by way of an outspoken disrupter? We’ve seen the latter movie before at the Manatee School Board. 

We recommend: Gina Messenger


District 3: Scott Boyes; Christine Dawson; Mary Foreman; Dave “Watchdog” Miner; Richard “Rick” Murphy

When businesses create a board of directors, they typically try to bring on people with different talents and skills for different perspectives and wisdom in certain fields.

It’s akin to building an NBA basketball team. Every team needs a big man who can dominate around the basket on offense and defense, a playmaker to run the plays, an outside shooter, a dogged defender and someone who can do it all.

When you look at the Manatee County School Board, the one area of expertise that is sorely missing is someone with acute financial skills. The board already has two former teachers.

In the District 3 race, Mary Foreman, CPA, is the standout — especially in light of the board’s needs.

Those involved in the school board see Foreman attending almost every meeting; she has been a member of the district’s Audit Committee since its formation in 2013, including serving as chair. And she is a regular attendee at all of the district’s Citizens Financial Oversight Committee.

The Manatee School Board doesn’t need another educator. It needs a finance expert. No one knows more about the district’s finances than Mary Foreman. Taxpayers need her on the board.

We recommend: Mary Foreman


Sarasota County School Board

District 2: David Graham; Karen Rose

It’s finally in voters’ grasps: the opportunity to raise the competence level of the Sarasota County School Board.

The District 2 seat can go from being occupied by a retiring cheerleader for the district and its superintendents (Caroline Zucker) to that of a board member who is serious about and committed to the district’s accountability to taxpayers, parents and students.

For the past dozen years, we always viewed three-term board member Caroline Zucker as if she were a full-time public relations employee of the district than as an elected board member who represented the interests of taxpayers and parents and maintained her distance.

But with this election and Zucker’s decision to retire, Sarasota County voters have a clear choice in the District 2 race. 

First, let’s be even clearer: Even though this is a non-partisan race, this is indeed a race between a Republican and a Democrat — and the philosophical beliefs for which the two parties stand.

The Republican is Karen Rose. She has served 28 years in Sarasota County Schools as a special education teacher, successful principal and executive director of middle schools. When she headed the district’s middle schools, they achieved A+ ratings from the state. She was an innovator with science, technology and math instruction in the middle schools.

If elected, Rose would become the only educator on the board, a useful perspective. What’s more, the fact she has the support of the Republican Party and the Sarasota Classified Teachers Association union illustrates those groups’ confidence in Rose — that she will hold the district administration accountable to taxpayers and also advocate for providing teachers with the tools they need to help students succeed.

In contrast, first-time candidate David Graham, the Democrat, falls short of having the credentials and experience that would make him an obvious choice.  

Graham is an analyst for the district. He describes his career as having spent 30 years as a business intelligence consultant for the federal government and such corporations as Fidelity, Goldman Sachs, Walmart, Caterpillar and Procter and Gamble.

We recommend: Karen Rose


District 3: Tom Edwards; Eric Robinson (incumbent)

Many opponents of reelecting incumbent school board member Eric Robinson like to say he has been divisive and ineffective.

They likely don’t know the following:

Robinson donates his $40,000-a-year school board salary back to the district for what he believes are worthy causes. One example:

In 2016, he donated his salary to help Booker Elementary. At the time, Booker Elementary was rated a “D” school. To raise the students’ performance, Booker teachers went to the teachers union and asked for new textbooks. The union went to Robinson. His salary paid for the new texts. Subsequently, Booker’s rating rose to a “B.”

Robinson understands what is going on inside the school district because he sees it first-hand. Over the course of his term, he devotes work days to the district. “I’ve worked every job there is,” he says  — science, history and math teacher; guidance counselor; food service; custodian; and landscaper, to name a few.

As to being divisive, Robinson counters the criticism this way: “Our job is oversight and accountability,” he says. “The others (those board members with whom he has clashed) think it should be that of cheerleader. I see us as a representative of taxpayers, to be their eyes and ears and a check and balance on the administration. And the people, the taxpayers are a check on us.”

Robinson’s opponent, Tom Edwards, is a newcomer on Sarasota’s political scene. A resident of Venice for two years, Edwards, 62, founded an employment placement firm, The Forrest Edwards Group, in New York in 1993 and sold his stake 10 years later. After he sold his stake, it was renamed Forrest Solutions.

Edwards says he is running because he opposes private-sector charter schools and vouchers and thinks Robinson has been divisive and ineffective and needs to be replaced. He wants to be the board’s consensus builder. He has the backing of the Democratic Party of Sarasota.

If you consider this race a referendum on Robinson’s performance versus taking a chance on a newcomer unknown to Sarasota County residents, Robinson — in spite of charges of being a divider — clearly understands the role of a school board member and has acted accordingly. He does what taxpayers want their elected officials to do: serve as a representative watching out for their interests and taking steps to make the institution better than it is.

We recommend: Eric Robinson


Sarasota County Commission District 1

Candidates: Mike Hutchinson; Mike Moran (incumbent)

Here’s the thing: 

When you are elected to public office, you know voters elected you to do what you said you were going to do. (Or, they disliked the other candidate more than they disliked you.)

Either way, you have a sense of obligation and duty — to live up to your promises and to represent everyone in your district, not just those who voted for you.

It’s the second part that hangs over many politicians. They represent everyone, and they feel the urge to want to please everyone. They want to be liked, and they want to be re-elected. So they play it safe. 

Thus is the nature of politics and government — government in the margins. Don’t go too far. Don’t vote for a resolution declaring Sarasota County a Second Amendment Sanctuary.

All of the above comes to mind when evaluating incumbent Sarasota County commissioner Mike Moran versus his Republican opponent, Mike Hutchinson.

Moran has performed as he said he would and as he says he will if re-elected. As he put in an Observer candidate questionnaire: He “recognizes the importance of creating a balance between protecting Sarasota’s gorgeous environmental landscape and developing our business community. A healthy balance is critical for the long-term success of our community.”

Likewise, as the former owner of a payroll and insurance company in Michigan, Moran knows well the type of economic and governmental framework county government needs to create to allow the economy to flourish — low regulation, low taxation.

Altogether, you can say Moran has lived up to seeking that balance and not going too far. (He voted against the Second Amendment resolution.) And, we’re told by those who have worked alongside him, Moran is demonstrably diligent at knowing the issues that come before the commission. Like a Boy Scout, he’s always prepared — and prepared to evaluate issues from the perspective of taxpayers.

On balance, Moran’s performance on behalf of Sarasota County taxpayers fits well within the norms and margins.

Moran’s opponent, however, doesn’t see it that way. First-time candidate and long-time Republican Party of Sarasota loyalist Mike Hutchinson argues that Moran and his commission colleagues have bent too much to housing developers. A 20-year resident of East Sarasota County, Hutchinson says Sarasota has seen “uncontrolled growth” as a result of commissioners “dismantling” the 2050 plan. 

In fact, Hutchinson’s campaign slogan is “Keep the country country. Rural heritage, not urban sprawl.”

This is where we take issue with Hutchinson. For more than a decade, we have advocated removing the county’s urban service boundary, which is like a wall intended to block development east of Interstate 75.

To “Keep the country country” is unrealistic. Florida and Sarasota County will continue to grow. And more likely, given all of the adverse issues in the urban Northeast, Florida’s population growth over the next few years is likely to accelerate. 

If anything, the Sarasota County Commission needs visionaries to prepare for the county’s future growth. 

We recommend: Mike Moran 


Sarasota County Sheriff

Candidates: Paul Fern; Kurt Hoffman

Of all the offices up for election this cycle, that of Sarasota County Sheriff is one of the most important. A competent sheriff is crucial to a community’s quality of life.

Over the past 12 years, Sarasota County residents have been fortunate to have had Sheriff Tom Knight leading the Sheriff’s Office, an agency with nearly 1,000 employees and an annual budget of $120 million.

Since Knight was elected to his first of three terms in 2008, the county’s year-over-year crime index declined in eight of 11 years, stayed the same from 2017 to 2018 and increased twice. 

If you average the annual percentage change in the county’s crime index from 2009 to 2019, it declined an average of 5.4% a year. That’s a 5.4% annual drop in murders, rapes, robberies, assaults, arson, burglaries, larcenies and motor vehicle thefts.

What’s more, throughout this time, Knight and his department have been at the forefront in Florida of creating innovative treatment programs with the court system and state attorney’s office for repeat substance abuse offenders, offenders with mental illness, troubled veterans and other nonviolent offenders. 

Not only have these programs helped many of the offenders obtain the treatments they need to break or control their illnesses, but the programs have also helped the county avoid housing these offenders in the county jail at taxpayer expense.

And to that point, the sheriff has proposed to the County Commission building a corrections facility for job training and addiction and other services on the back of the existing jail, avoiding the need  to build a jail.

We’re sharing these successes that have occurred during Knight’s tenure because he has not done all of this himself. When you have an effective CEO, it pretty much goes without saying you’ll also find the CEO has hired equally effective leaders and subordinates.

That’s where Kurt Hoffman, candidate for sheriff and currently chief deputy and general counsel in the Sheriff’s Office, comes in.

Knight appointed Hoffman to that position five years ago. For 10 years before that, Hoffman served as the department’s chief in-house lawyer.

In fact, if there is a candidate whose career has been on a track that leads to becoming sheriff, Hoffman’s is a model. 

He started in law enforcement in the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Department, where he was an on-the-street deputy for six and a half years. He went on to earn a master’s degree in criminal justice and then a law degree from Nova Southeastern University.

After law school, he served as an assistant state attorney for eight years. And along the way he earned a graduate certificate in organizational leadership from the University of Virginia and attended the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Va.

When you talk to people familiar with the Sheriff’s Office, they will tell you  Hoffman — Knight’s No. 2 leader — is the department’s chief operating officer, the leader who keeps the day-to-day operations on track. Knight himself acknowledges he is more of the big-picture strategist and catalyst with the many agencies with which the Sheriff’s Office interacts and that Hoffman is the keeper of the details.

We’ll credit former Sarasota County Sheriff’s deputy Paul Fern — a self-proclaimed “cop” — for seeking the county’s top law-enforcement job. A deputy in Manatee and Sarasota counties and former Homeland Security marshal for 23 years, Fern retired in 2018 and became a restaurant owner. He says the craving of being back in law enforcement compelled him to run for sheriff.

But this much is clear: When you see Hoffman and Fern side by side in public settings, the decision is clear on who’s ready for the job.

We recommend: Kurt Hoffman


Sarasota County Charter Review Board

District 1: Alexandra Coe; Samantha Medred

District 2: Ray Collins; Joseph “Jody” Hudgins (incumbent); Lourdes Ramirez; Vic Rohe

The Sarasota County Charter Review Board is one of those obscure government bodies with which few voters are familiar or know what it does.

If you’re not careful, it could do a lot of harm.

According to the county charter, the role of the Charter Review Board is to “review and recommend changes to the County Charter for improvement of county government.”

Typically, those proposed and recommended changes bubble up from the grassroots. What you don’t want is a group of Charter Review Board members who have an agenda to change the county’s government.

Indeed, when we’ve asked candidates for the Charter Review Board what their agenda would be if elected, the best answers we have heard have been “Do no harm,” “Protect the charter” and  “Listen to the voters.”

In the District 1 race, the primary election is between a fairly familiar name on local ballots (Alexandra Coe) and a young newcomer (Samantha Medred).

Coe has run unsuccessfully for Sarasota City Commission and Sarasota County Commission. She’s an avowed Constitutionalist and believer in limited government, a member of the Republican Party of Sarasota’s Executive Committee and vice chair of the Republican Liberty Caucus of Florida, which works to hold Republican candidates and officeholders true to conservative principles.

Medred, 33, grew up in Sarasota, is a civil engineer by education and is now owner of a real estate appraisal firm. Medred is also the daughter of Bo Medred, a well-known land planner, an owner of Genesis Planning and Development and a member of the Patterson Foundation board.

Both candidates would serve Sarasota residents well. But for many years, we have been advocates for the next generation to begin taking on leadership roles in local government.

In the District 2 race, Ray Collins, former TV news anchor, is another new face on the political scene. Collins says he’s motivated in part to give back to the community. He, too, embraces the belief that Sarasota County government is working well and that there isn’t a compelling need to change the charter.

Unfortunately, Collins is running against three other candidates who have more history in the county’s Republican circles.

Take Lourdes Ramirez. She is the former longtime Siesta Key Association president and board member (in the 2000s) and former president of the Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Association.

Or consider Vic Rohe: president of the East County Republican Club, membership chairman of the Republican Executive Committee from 2010-2016 and member since 2008, and former vice president of the Woodland Park Homeowners Association.

Or the incumbent, Jody Hudgins. Hudgins has been a respected bank president or senior banker in this region for more than 30 years, served 12 years on the Sarasota Planning Commission, was president of the Sarasota Salvation Army Advisory Board and currently is one of only two non-lawyer members appointed to the Board of Governors of the Florida Bar.

All of these candidates would serve voters well — though Ramirez would be more of an activist member than the others.

But in this case, as we often argue, elections are referenda on the incumbents’ performance. Jody Hudgins is a careful steward of Sarasota’s Charter and a voice of wisdom.

We recommend: Samantha Medred; Joseph “Jody” Hudgins


Sarasota Hospital Board, At-Large Seat 1

Candidates (Republicans): Audie Elizabeth Bock; Sharon Wetzler DePeters (incumbent)

With all due respect to Audie Elizabeth Bock, who showed the commitment and courage to run for public office, there is little to debate in this race between the two Republicans.

Incumbent Sharon Wetzler DePeters is perhaps the strongest candidate for any of the offices on the primary ballot.

We don’t have the space to provide you with her extraordinary credentials and experience in health care over the past 58 years, but we’ll direct you to links that will show why DePeters is an important voice on the Sarasota County Hospital Board (

As a career registered nurse, DePeters is the only hospital board member who understands health care from that most important perspective.

DePeters holds a master’s in nursing, with decades of on-the-floor experience as a nurse, including serving in intensive care units and operating rooms and a member of a FEMA disaster team after the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake. DePeters also has served 14 years as an associate professor of nursing at State College of Florida.

As a member of the hospital board, she has developed a reputation for being conscientious, well prepared and contributing valuable nursing perspectives.

We recommend: Sharon Wetzler DePeters


Sarasota Hospital Board, Central, Seat 1

Candidates (Democrats): Steven Kleinglass; Vicki Lynn Nighswander

Each of these two Democrat Party candidates has decades of experience in health care that give them the credentials to serve on the Sarasota Hospital Board.

Steven Kleinglass spent much of his career as director of the Minneapolis Veterans Administration Medical Center, an institution with 3,500 employees and a $700 million annual budget. Now retired and a health care consultant, Kleinglass has lived in the Sarasota area for eight years.

A Bronze Star recipient from the Vietnam War, Kleinglass also earned multiple awards during his hospital administration tenure from the Minnesota Hospital Association and the Minnesota Department of Health, in particular for his leadership in patient safety programs.

Nighswander, in contrast, devoted her career to coordinating the delivery of health services connected to infectious diseases and substance abuse to people in need in Ohio and Michigan. She has been a Sarasota resident since 2006 and served on the county’s Human Services Advisory Council.

If the role of a hospital board member is to help Sarasota Memorial operate effectively and profitably, Kleinglass would bring the most relevant experience and wisdom to the board.

We recommend: Steven Kleinglass


Sarasota City Commission, District 2

Candidates: Liz Alpert (incumbent); Joe Barbetta; Martin Hyde; Don Patterson; Terry Turner; Jerry Wells

This race is overflowing with talented, smart, accomplished individuals. It’s too bad they’re all competing for the same seat.

Given District 2 Commissioner Liz Alpert is running for reelection, that makes this race, to a large degree, a referendum on her performance. 

Overall, we would give Alpert a B/B-. She has been on the right side of some big decisions — supporting the Selby Gardens expansion, rejecting Bobby Jones spending, supporting redevelopment of Bath & Racquet, supporting the Sarasota Orchestra moving to Payne Park. But Alpert has been too timid on financial management.

If not Alpert, then who? 

  • We’ll give plenty of credit to Martin Hyde for uncovering fiscal mismanagement inside City Hall. None of the candidates has worked as hard as Hyde at being a City Hall watchdog. Taxpayers should be thankful.

Unfortunately, while we appreciate Hyde’s style at commission meetings and his care and doggedness, our guess is sometimes his behavior goes too far for Sarasotans.

  • Former Commissioner Terry Turner wants another term. A wise person told us many years ago that seldom is it a good idea to go back. Turner lost us when he said in our questionnaire he wants to “protect the environment from over-development.” For us, that is code for being part of the city’s old-line, anti-growth constituency.
  • Jerry Wells, a retired commodities trader, is an entrepreneur and common-sense businessman. He wants to bring business principles to the operation of the city. He would add a lot to the city’s financial policymaking and management. But here’s the thing: Wells has lived in Sarasota for 30 years, yet few voters know him. He needs to raise his profile.
  • Don Patterson is like Wells. He, too, is a successful entrepreneur — co-founder and CEO of Ascend Wireless Networks. When you read or hear what Patterson would like to have happen at City Hall, he strikes you as a CEO who would make a first-rate elected mayor. And yet, he opposes an elected mayor. Patterson is chairman of the 10-county organization that oversees Big Brothers/Big Sisters and has a deep-felt passion for improving Sarasota. But like Wells, Sarasota residents need to get to know him.
  • That leaves Joe Barbetta, former Sarasota County commissioner. Perhaps the one knock on Barbetta is that some might perceive him as being a part of the Sarasota establishment. But in this case, that’s a good thing. Barbetta knows how government works and knows what’s needed: leadership. 

When businesses go through a turnaround, it’s a process: Step 1: Clean house, make tough decisions, and get it on track. Step 2: Bring in a successor CEO to take it to the next level. Barbetta would be a crucial and effective leader for Step 1.

We recommend: Joe Barbetta


Sarasota City Commission, District 3

Candidates: Erik Arroyo; Daniel Clermont; Rob Grant

You have to like the enthusiasm of Erik Arroyo, 30. He has the drive to be a civic leader.

But now is the time for someone like Daniel Clermont. 

Clermont is a businessman and entrepreneur who moved here from Green Bay, Wis., where he owned, built and sold multiple small businesses. 

In Sarasota, he’s doing the same: owning and managing multiple properties. But in the process, Clermont has immersed himself in the need for city leadership. As he puts it: “I’m running to bring common sense to the decision making process at City Hall. … City government should be fiscally responsible, focus on infrastructure, preserve our parks and open spaces, support our critical arts and culture and maintain safe and character-rich neighborhoods. 

He also has become a leading advocate for his neighborhood (Arlington Park) and district. District 3, he says, “gets left behind.”

We recommend: Daniel Clermont


This page has been updated to correct the name of the company Tom Edwards founded. 


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