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Putting politics into action locally isn’t easy. Tara Poulton just makes it look that way.

With a cool-under-pressure personality mixed with a get-stuff-done work ethic, Tara Poulton is the right fit as the new district director for Lakewood Ranch’s only U.S. Congressman.

Tara Poulton has the perfect pairing of personality and work ethic for her job.
Tara Poulton has the perfect pairing of personality and work ethic for her job.
Photo by Lori Sax
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There was a time when Tara Poulton’s nearly hour-long, 41-mile commute home to Lakewood Ranch from work was an oasis of sorts. She would listen to the occasional audiobook, and then, with a Sirius-XM subscription, she happily drove along listening to the “Today Show.”

COVID-19, among all the other pieces of destruction it left in its wake, crushed that comfort zone for Poulton. A senior-level division director for DeSoto County when the pandemic hit, Poulton shifted from Savannah Guthrie to fielding and returning phone calls as she cruised west on State Road 70. She was on her way home to the Greenbrook neighborhood, coming from the county administrative offices in Arcadia. 

The strain of the day, in her role heading up community services and economic development for DeSoto County, would then give way to more stress during those calls, talking to people about the vaccine rollout.

“People were really mad, angry and scared,” Poulton says. “They really thought their loved ones were going to die if they didn’t get the vaccine.” 

Even for someone with both personal and work experience in community and civic service — the daughter of a police lieutenant, Poulton was on an HOA board in her 20s — those post-work, lump-in-the-throat calls turned into a teachable moment. Under difficult conditions, Poulton, 45, learned, or relearned, everything from navigating a bureaucracy to getting-to-yes customer service. “You have to really be a good listener and you also have to really want to help people,” she says. 

She didn’t know it in early 2021 but those calls also put Poulton in a position to capitalize on her next career milestone, which she began to ponder as this past spring turned to summer: being named district director for the office of U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key. Poulton was appointed to the position in mid-June and was expected to start in mid-July. She replaces Buchanan’s long-time district director, Sally Shely, who is retiring. Shely is one of the first congressional hires Buchanan made when the now nine-term Congressman won his first election to the House, in 2006.

“(Tara’s) communications skills, combined with her passion for public policy and heart for constituent services make her the ideal person for this position,” Buchanan says in a statement announcing the hire. “I look forward to working with her in the years ahead to seize the incredible opportunities we have to improve our quality of life and tackle the many challenges facing our district.”

Chasing down answers

Born in New York, Poulton moved with her family to Sarasota when she was 4. A graduate of Riverview High School in Sarasota and USF in Tampa, Poulton has lived in Greenbrook for 12 years. She lives with her husband, Bill Poulton, a PepsiCo executive who oversees global procurement for Tropicana in Bradenton and is a past chairman of the Manatee Chamber of Commerce. They have a daughter, who is in fourth grade, and Tara is a stepmom to Bill’s three children, two teenagers and a 20-year-old, from a previous marriage. 

One of the biggest questions Poulton gets a lot is simple: what does a U.S. Congressional district director do? 

The answer is both simple and complicated.

The simple answer is to get the people who live in the areas Buchanan represents, which stretches from all of Manatee County and Lakewood Ranch north to Brandon, Hillsborough County, answers. Getting those answers is where the complication lies. 

That’s because in a district of more than 500,000 people, the questions, not to mention complaints, vents and rants, come in a wide variety of forms. (There are some compliments, too.) Sometimes the problems are not something the federal government has jurisdiction over. Other times the government’s reach is more open-ended. 

Getting answers is a big part of Tara Poulton’s role as district director for U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan.
Photo by Lori Sax

Shely, in some specific examples, has helped put on more than 70 town hall events so constituents can speak directly to Buchanan, including established awards programs honoring district law enforcement officers, firefighters, teachers and veterans. She also helped lead the congressman’s response to important issues, including Piney Point and red tide. 

“You have to be there and be out in the community,” Shely says. “And if we’re not the place they need to be we will help get them to where they need to be.”

In addition to the constituent work, a large swath of the job is representing Buchanan at public and community events in the district. That’s where Shely, who, like Poulton, started her career in TV news, met two women whose teenage children died from a fentanyl overdose. After learning their stories, Shely briefed Buchanan, who then worked with his policy team to craft legislation designed to “help keep deadly synthetic drugs off the streets,” according to a statement. 

Buchanan introduced the Federal Initiative to Guarantee Health by Targeting (FIGHT) Fentanyl Act in May 2021. 

The bill, co-sponsored by Congressman Chris Pappas, D-Manchester, New Hampshire, turned a temporary classification of fentanyl-related substances as Schedule I drugs into a permanent classification. That classification, in turn, allowed federal law enforcement authorities to bring criminal actions against individuals who manufacture, distribute, or handle fentanyl-related substances.

That the FIGHT bill was born from a conversation Shely had with two grieving moms is something she takes great pride in. “It was some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever done,” she says. 

A question that comes up about what a district director does is how someone in that position handles the political side of the gig. The job is designed to be apolitical, not a campaign operative. But in the current hyper-partisan political times, it’s hard not to be aware that your boss could lose his or her job every other November. 

Shely says what she has done, and what she advises Poulton to do, is to maintain a focus on customer/constituent service while manifesting a thick skin. “We have to remember that he was elected to serve everybody,” Shely says. “It doesn’t matter who you voted for, whether they are Republicans, Democrats or Independents.” 

Poulton, speaking in late June, says she was relieved to be starting while Shely was still there, learning from her. Prior to Buchanan, Shely held similar director positions with U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris, R-Sarasota and U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Orlando. “I’m excited to learn so much from Sally,” Poulton says. “It’s really big shoes to fill. I’m just going to be a sponge.”

New focus and next steps

Poulton’s most recent job before this opportunity was with the Manatee Chamber, where she was vice president of public policy and workforce partnerships. She took that job after four years at DeSoto County. Poulton wasn’t in the market for something new, but she knew Shely for years, and when the longtime Buchanan aide reached out to meet for coffee, she agreed. 

Shely hadn’t mentioned that the coffee chat was going to be a soft recruitment and interest-gauging session. But Shely says she knew they had the one. “I texted the Congressman right after and said she is who we have to hire,” Shely says. 

That not only speaks to Poulton’s resume and penchant for service, but her ability to handle multiple tasks while maintaining her composure and thinking quickly and creatively during trying times. (Read: the pandemic.) 

Another skill? Work ethic. Poulton has been taking online classes to earn a master’s in public administration from Florida State while working at the chamber full time. Many nights, Poulton says, she would be tapping away at her computer from 9 p.m. to 11:59 p.m. doing work after bedtime for their daughter and right up until the midnight homework deadline. Poulton is scheduled to earn her master’s in August. 

Poulton, while not looking for a new job, says what Shely dangled in front of her represented many of the things she has sought to do at other career spots — and at a larger scale. “Every job I’ve ever had I’ve been recruited to — it’s an unbelievable compliment,” Poulton says. “When I think about this job, it’s everything I’ve loved in my career.”

That includes a start in TV news, going as far back as college, when she cleaned floors and changed light bulbs at USF’s public TV station. After that she got a job as a producer for ABC7 in Sarasota. “I grew up watching Heidi Godman and Scott Dennis, and that’s what I always wanted to do,” she says. “And then I got there.”

Next came an on-air reporter position for WB38 in Tampa. Poulton loved that job, too, and could have chased a career in the business. But the grind grew tiresome. “I loved being in the news business, but it was a 24/7 job.”

Seeking something more stable, Poulton next took positions with the United Way in Bradenton, the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Southwest Florida Water Management District. Then came DeSoto County, where she supervised a team for one of the first times and, she says, “was able to wear a lot of hats.” 

With the new role coming into focus, Poulton is ready for those hats, and whatever else comes with the job. 

What are her next steps?

“I’m really excited to get out and start talking with constituents,” she says.


Mark Gordon

Mark Gordon is the managing editor of the Business Observer. He has worked for the Business Observer since 2005. He previously worked for newspapers and magazines in upstate New York, suburban Philadelphia and Jacksonville.