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The Observer's 2022 primary election recommendations

CEO Matt Walsh shares his recommendations for races in Sarasota and Manatee counties.

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This is not an easy election for voters.

In the November general elections, the choices are pretty much Republican or Democrat. The differences between candidates are easy to discern.

But in a primary, when candidates from the same parties are running against each other, often times there is not much difference in their philosophies or on the issues.

Making this primary election more complex and more intense than others is the highly charged political atmosphere — particularly in the wakes of the pandemic and the tidal wave of parental discontent with local school boards.

In Sarasota County, that heightened fervor has elevated the importance of the contests for three seats on the Sarasota County School Board and five seats on the Sarasota Hospital Board. Even though these contests are called non-partisan, you can feel an undercurrent of national politics.

How Sarasota Memorial handled patients during the pandemic in part has compelled four candidates to seek seats on the hospital board. And to be sure, the way the three Democrat school board members responded to parents over masks and critical race theory is high in the memories of voters, especially parents of public school students.

The races for hospital board and school board have even more importance now because they are not warm-ups for the general election. They are the final elections.

And let’s emphasize that these elections affect two of the most critical aspects of everyone’s lives in Sarasota County — health and the future of children. Each of these public institutions is a billion-dollar enterprise, and together they  directly employ 10,500 people. The school system has 42,000 students.


The process

Long-time readers know our newspapers’ philosophy has always been unabashedly rooted in laissez-faire capitalism; the freedom philosophy of individual rights above the collective; strictly limited government; and the originalist view of the Constitution.

(After no longer able to tolerate the spinelessness of Washington Republicans or the fact there is so little difference between Democrats and Republicans there, yours truly renounced the Republican Party and joined the Constitution Party.)

To be sure, this philosophy presents few pleasant choices in elections. Which means Republican candidates are typically the default choice, always closer to the freedom philosophy than Democrats. That is even more so today. What’s more, Democrats’ increasing leftward shift prompted our declaration a few years ago that we would not recommend Democratic Party candidates in any partisan race.

Sorry. They’re not bad people. But when anyone signs up with the Democratic Party, that person is declaring an allegiance to a party that has always advocated for expanding government controls and coercion. The Democratic Party always stands for policies in which the State or government is supreme and individuals are inferior underlings, slaves to obey to the commands of the Democrat elites.

The previous paragraph is why you won’t find any recommendations in Democratic Party races this week and next. It would be dishonest and hypocritical to do so.

Our apologies to our Democratic Party readers and friends. It’s not personal. It’s philosophical.

With that, our recommendations:


Sarasota County School Board

This is one of the most important elections on the ballot — in large part because of the strife that engulfed the board over the past two years.

That strife cost the board dearly. It lost much of the public’s trust, especially that of many of its most important constituents — parents of school children.

With the retirements of Jane Goodwin and Shirley Brown, two long-time board members who were at the center of the strife, this election presents voters with the difficult decision of figuring out which of the six candidates on the ballot can best:

  • Rebuild the public’s trust;
  • Work together collaboratively instead of antagonistically;
  • Focus on building positive momentum inside the district among teachers, parents, the teachers union and administration;
  • Keep Sarasota County schools’ A rating;
  • And propel all students to higher achievement.

This election is not supposed to be about party politics. But most of us know that isn’t so.

The Republican Party of Sarasota is supporting incumbent Bridget Ziegler (District 1) and two first-time candidates, Robyn Marinelli (District 4) and Timothy Enos (District 5). The Democratic Party of Sarasota is supporting first-time candidates Dawnyelle Singleton (District 1), Lauren Kurnov (District 4) and Nora Cietek (District 5).

Sarasota County voters will vote in all three races.

When you evaluate these races, two of the three present decidedly logical choices — Districts 1 and 5.

In District 1, incumbent Bridget Ziegler, a two-term Republican board member, has a noteworthy conservative track record. During her terms, Ziegler has been a consistent, outspoken advocate for students and parents.

She is one of the leaders and co-founders of the region’s Moms for Liberty, an organization dedicated to liberty and limited government. And during her past two terms, Ziegler has served as a countervailing voice to a majority board that showed its disdain for parents and taxpayers, and that backed a former superintendent who alienated the district’s teachers.

Taxpayers need Ziegler. What’s more, with the departures of Goodwin and Brown, Ziegler will serve the important role of having the most institutional knowledge on the board.

In District 5, the race is between Nora Cietek, a 30-year teacher in Schenectady, N.Y., who moved to Sarasota County three years ago, and Timothy Enos, school district police chief who has lived in and served the Sarasota community for 40-plus years.

While it is important to have one or more board members with classroom experience, which Cietek would bring, current board member Karen Rose fills that role. Rose served 28 years in the district as a special education teacher, principal and director of middle schools.

Enos hasn’t been a classroom teacher, but he has spent most of his career as a law enforcement officer, including the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office and recently as chief of the school district’s police department. He is recognized nationally as a consultant and trainer for school safety models and youth mentoring. He has a bachelor’s degree in finance.

Given how school safety has become such a high priority in every school district, Enos is a logical choice.

The most difficult choice for voters is the District 4 race between two first-time candidates, Lauren Kurnov and Robyn Marinelli.

Kurnov is a former University of South Florida assistant vice president and director of student success; mother of two public school students (the only candidate with children in the public schools); and holder of a 2021 doctorate in education from the University of South Florida.

Marinelli has been a teacher and administrator in public education for 40 years. She has a master’s in education. Before retiring in 2015, she served 15 years overseeing student services for the school district. She also served as a counselor at Southside Elementary and for the Cyesis program.

The two have deep personal roots in Sarasota — Kurnov was born here and a product of the school system. Marinelli and her husband have lived in Sarasota 40 years.

These two candidates also have strikingly similar goals: To return the board to putting students first; getting politics out of the board; restoring respect, collaboration and trust among board members and parents.

Fact is, each would make competent school board members.

What’s the difference?

Experience (Marinelli, age 69, 40 years in public education; ) versus youth (Kornov, 43, no professional experience at this level of public education).

Kurnov has children in the public schools — “skin in the game.”  Marinelli does not.

The Republican Party supports Marinelli. The Democratic Party supports  Kurnov.

Kurnov has raised more than $208,000 in contributions; Marinelli, $72,000. (It’s worth perusing their contributor lists; go to:

Over the years, we have favored new, younger candidates, with the belief they can bring fresh, innovative perspectives and ideas. Kurnov would fill that role. She reminds us of when Ziegler first appeared on the scene eight years ago — young, enthusiastic, determined to do the right thing for students.

But the one hang-up for Sarasota County Republicans is this: Even though school board elections are non-partisan, can they accept and vote for Kurnov, a Democrat?

In nearly five decades of following elective politics, we have yet to see an elected Democrat who did not act like one — for more government.

But in this instance, we will break our rule. Give Kurnov the benefit of the doubt. She is earnest, full of energy, thoughtful and passionate — especially passionate about focusing on education, not politics. And she would join Ziegler as another in the next generation of Sarasota leaders coming to the fore. We need that.

We recommend: Bridget Ziegler, Lauren Kurnov and Timothy Enos


Sarasota County Hospital Board

For the past decade, Sarasota voters haven’t had to think much or be concerned about its publicly owned hospital and its affiliates, altogether known as the Sarasota Memorial Healthcare System.

CEO David Verinder and his team, under the eye of the Sarasota Hospital Board, have continued a transformation that began under his predecessor, Gwen MacKenzie.

Since his appointment as CEO in 2014, Verinder has taken the healthcare system to new levels and geographic reach. Annual revenues more than doubled, from $500 million to more than $1.2 billion. Sarasota Memorial opened a hospital in Venice. And it is regarded as a top-performing hospital system among its peers — financially and in the caliber, breadth and depth of services it offers its patients and the community.

With this record, why disrupt the board that watches over SMH’s CEO and leadership team?

After all, an elected official’s performance in office is always a good gauge of whether re-election is deserved.

In that vein, it might be easy to conclude the five hospital board members on the Aug. 23 ballot deserve re-election.

But it’s not that simple. Nothing is perfect. No one is perfect.

That became apparent when earlier this year the board in an 8-1 vote awarded Verinder an extension on his contract to 10 years — unheard of in most industries. It boosted his pay three times since February 2021 with a base and performance incentives that can put his total cash compensation near $2 million a year.

These almost unanimous moves became newsworthy to the public and subsequently raised the question whether board members were becoming too complacent with management and less stringent with taxpayer money.

The votes also brought to the fore whether it’s time for new perspectives on the board. Three of the five incumbents — Joseph DeVirgilio, 70, Gregory Carter, 74, and Jim Meister, 80 — are seeking their third four-year terms. Age can become a  factor in those third terms.

The pandemic has also come into play. Four of the candidates on the ballot have formed a slate that wants the board to be more aggressive questioning management and the SMH medical staff about patient care.

The four candidates who formed the “Health Freedom Slate” are running, in large part, because of the way COVID-19 patients and their families were treated — or not treated or mistreated — during the pandemic. They want answers and change.

The slate includes:

  • Two 30-year registered nurses/patient advocates who are dogged and passionate about patient care, Bridgette Fiorucci, who works at SMH, and Patricia Maraia, who runs her own patient advocacy firm;
  • Victor Rohe, a former Boston police lieutenant and president of the East County Republican Club;
  • Dr. Joseph Chirillo, who recently retired after 34 years of practicing family medicine in Englewood and served twice as the chief of the Englewood Community Hospital Medical staff.

Altogether, the forces are such that the hospital board appears in need of an infusion of new energy and perspectives, more board members who will challenge management in a good way and help SMH reach even higher levels.

Fortunately, voters have solid choices. In addition to those cited above, four other accomplished Sarasotans are seeking a seat — two well-known and accomplished Sarasota business figures, lawyer Thomas Dart and entrepreneur Brad Baker; 17-year EMT and flight paramedic Andre Hoefer; and healthcare consultant and marketing entrepreneur Nick Altier.

It’s time for fresh minds and talents with different and well-honed skills to sit at the SMH board table.

We recommend: Thomas Dart, Brad Baker, Nick Altier, Patricia Maraia and Dr. Joseph Chirillo


U.S. Congress, District 16, GOP

Here are the Republicans’ choices in this race:

Vern Buchanan: businessman/entrepreneur, now career politician. In 16 years, he has earned the distinction of having the lowest and second to lowest ranking among Florida’s congressional Republicans from the Club for Growth and Freedom Works, two of the nation’s leading freedom and free-enterprise advocacy organizations.

If Republicans win back the House in November, Buchanan’s seniority puts him in line for the chairmanship of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. That’s a prized position that can mean having heavy influence  in how and where billions of federal dollars are allocated. It’s also a position Friends of Vern want to keep — more pork for them.   

But one more thing to consider: What signature, nation-changing legislation has Buchanan sponsored and passed in 16 years? None.

Martin Hyde: Sarasota businessman/entrepreneur who has run unsuccessfully twice for a seat on the Sarasota City Commission.

Depending on your point of view, Hyde is seen as a gadfly or an astute financial watchdog for taxpayers (the latter is our view) at City Commission and Sarasota School Board meetings. He constantly challenges how commissioners and board members spend taxpayers’ money.

To his detriment, Hyde also has a reputation for saying and doing things in public that you don’t want an elected official to do — e.g. for one, hassling a Sarasota police officer who observed him driving 57 mph in 40 mph zone and texting while driving. He said to the officer, among other things: “You know who I am, right?”

What was he thinking? (He wasn’t.)

With the nation in the state it is in, there’s a strong inclination to recommend voters throw out everyone in Congress. None of them deserves re-election.

If, by chance, voters do reject Buchanan, Republicans would default to a candidate who is a philosophically principled constitutional conservative. Yay.

Hyde’s voting, presumably, would align far more than Buchanan’s with strict limits on government and expanding individual rights and free enterprise, but, unfortunately, his behavior, alas, can be unpredictable, erratic and embarrassing.

We recommend: Flip a coin.


Agriculture commissioner

The best candidate on the ballot is a Floridian most Floridians don’t know.

Meet James Shaw, Republican for commissioner of agriculture. He is not a politician.

When Antifa threatened to destroy the Gettysburg Battlefield Monument and gravestones in 2020, Shaw and two of his sons drove through the night from their home in Okeechobee to stand guard at the monument.

Shaw bleeds red, white and blue Americanism.

“I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I don’t do drugs. I don’t do anti-depressants,” he told us. “I’ve been married 40 years. I have eight children and 22 grandchildren. That is my soul.”

He is also a successful entrepreneur in a business that takes a bull’s strength — owner of a trucking company with 200 employees, and once managed a 600-person trucking facility with 525 hard-core Teamsters Union members. He is also a farmer — a 30-acre composting farm.

And this: He was an honorable mention All-American in football at Colgate and graduated with a bachelor’s in anthropology.

Shaw knows his opponent — establishment Republican and Senate President Wilton Simpson — has him outgunned. Simpson has raised $782,000 to Shaw’s $50,000, $47,000 of which is his own money.

Why is he doing this? “The Nov. 20 election,” he said. “It put a spark in me.”

Why ag commissioner? “I don’t want to be a congressman or a senator. I want to be in a position of influence. So I said, ‘Let me at it.’”

Go to Shaw’s website. It’s worth reading:

We recommend: James Shaw


Manatee County Commission

One of the clear messages of the 2020 elections in this Republican stronghold is voters wanted to shift county government, particularly its fiscal direction, more to the right.

And voters did so decisively with the election of three conservatives, albeit political novices, to the commission — James Satcher, Kevin Van Ostenbridge and George Kruse.

With incumbent Vanessa Baugh, this foursome steamrolled over the other three commissioners — Democrat Reggie Bellamy and more moderate Republican Misty Servia and liberal Republican Carol Whitmore.

The question now is whether Manatee’s Republicans are still in a testy mood and want the commission stacked with six staunch conservatives and one Democrat.

Judging from the TV attack ads and petty campaign fights about signage and other irrelevancies, you can say the testiness is still there.

And if money is an indicator, the who’s who of political contributors in Manatee are betting on the incumbents.

One way to interpret the contributions is the establishment donors want checks and balances to keep the conservative majority wing from becoming wingnuts.

District 4: Incumbent Misty Servia has taken plenty of buckshot in the back during this election cycle for her stance on masks and lockdowns during the pandemic. To be fair, she certainly wasn’t the only conservative politician sucked into the lockdown vortex. As the saying goes, “If we only knew then what we know now.”

And, as we have seen over the past year and a half, Servia has taken her share of bullets from the Manatee commission’s majority for not thinking exactly as it does.

Everyone has winced at this bickering, likely recalling that great Los Angeles riot philosopher, Rodney King: “Can’t we all just get along?”

In that vein, Commissioner Kevin van Ostenbridge, one of the leaders of the commission majority, would like to see that dissension subside  by replacing Servia with her opponent, Michael Rahn.

Rahn looks like he has the right stuff. Conservative; a 13-year Marine, including Operation Desert Storm; past president of the Manatee-Sarasota Building Industry Association; vice chair of the Safe Children Coalition and the SCC Foundation, which serves children in foster care; inducted in 2017 into the Florida Housing Hall of Fame.

Servia’s campaign, of course, has blasted Rahn for a string of real estate loan defaults during the big recession, questioning whether Rahn should be a steward of the county’s billion-dollar budget.

But here’s what appears to be a key point for voters: Do Manatee County residents want a super stack of all like-minded commissioners? Or are they willing to have some checks and balances by re-electing Servia?

There is merit to having different points of view on a board. Servia can continue to provide that.

We recommend: Misty Servia


District 6: “I’ve been doing this a long time. You can’t do your job if you dwell on something that you’re not going to win. You’ve got to work with everybody, whether you agree with them or not.”

Those are the wise words of incumbent at-large Commissioner Carol Whitmore.

Yes, she has been “doing this a long time.” Too long.

God bless her passion and love for Manatee County. (No doubt she likes the power and limelight as well.)

But like Commissioner Servia,  Whitmore is not in alignment on many issues with the current commission majority. In fact, she is justifiably called a RINO, Republican in name only. And it’s fair to say she is often a burr rubbing the rumps of the commission majority, voicing sarcastic comments that serve as irritants, not constructive dialogue.

If re-elected one more time, Whitmore would remain what she is — another check and balance. Perhaps, however, she can heed her own words — “You’ve got to work with everybody.”

The alternative is first-time candidate Jason Bearden.

Bearden has many attractive qualities: combat Marine sargeant and Scout sniper in Iraq; son of a career Marine; steeped in the Constitution and history of the U.S.; father; husband; national vice president and local president of the Full Gospel Business Gatekeepers Organization; understands that leaders must prepare for what is to come.

But here’s the deal: Earnest as he is, Bearden needs seasoning. He needs more time and experience in Manatee County community affairs.

For District 6, we’re expecting this to be the last time we write …

We recommend: Carol Whitmore


Manatee County School Board

In this three-person, non-partisan race, each of the candidates has positives. None has glaring negatives. But at the same time, none of them stands so superior to the others to make this an easy choice for voters.

James Golden is the incumbent. He is Old Guard Manatee — a long-time civic leader; preacher; former two-term Bradenton City Council member; board member with Centerstone (formerly Manatee Glens), Meals on Wheels and Just for Girls.

Richard Tatem, 56, spent 30 years in the Air Force, retiring as a colonel. He also served as an assistant professor of foreign language at the Air Force Academy; a commercial pilot for five years; and as deputy division chief of an Air Force reserve unit. He has lived in Manatee with his wife for four years.

Chantal Wilford knows a lot about language. She earned a bachelor’s degree in French, Russian and Linguistics from the University of Durham in England. She works and has worked as a translator — translating textbooks from Dutch and French into English. And, she and her husband have four children — all of whom he she homeschooled until they reached fifth grade and entered Manatee’s public school system.

Now overlay those three candidates on the Manatee School District. For the past three and a half years, under the leadership of Superintendent Cynthia Saunders, the district has made noteworthy, steady progress — after years of upheaval and dissension on the board.

There are no more “D” and “F” schools in the district (A decade ago, there were 13). The district’s academic ranking has reached its highest in history — 25th out of 67. The district’s surplus has grown from $14.4 million in 2014 to $39.4 million, highest ever. Upward momentum is palpable and steady.

With Golden and Wilford, voters will get status quo and little disruption — a positive for a district that was long in need of stability and consistency.

With Tatem, voters are likely to get more of a man of action, new ideas and leadership. You don’t become a colonel by being a do-nothing wallflower.

Tatem has made many statements about constitutional principles and being against critical race theory and diversity, equity and inclusion  indoctrination. To be sure, parents don’t want that either. What taxpayers do want is a school board member who will be a smart steward of taxpayers dollars and a sensible, forward-thinking leader-adviser to the superintendent.

We recommend: Richard Tatem


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