It was November 2020, and the Manatee County Commission was set after the general election.
New commissioners George Kruse, Kevin Van Ostenbridge and James Satcher all swept to easy victories along with incumbent Vanessa Baugh, who earlier this year resigned her post.
The Republicans often campaigned together and shared similar philosophies. The thought was that if they, indeed, had a conservative bond, they could control the votes on the seven-member Commission with their four votes. It would be smooth sailing.
It hasn't turned out that way for Kruse, who often has been stranded on an island alone in 2023 when it came to key votes, such as the commission's 6-1 vote to cut wetland protections in October; or the 6-1 vote to keep county funds from being used toward Planned Parenthood earlier in November; or the 6-1 vote to declare Manatee County a Second Amendment Sanctuary in March; or the 5-1 vote to rezone property for 5,378 residential homes for a Carlos Beruff development in May.
Now headed into the 2024 election year, Kruse has split with his political advisor (Anthony Pedicini of Strategic Image Management of Tampa) who helped to get him elected in 2020, and who represented the other three commissioners who were elected in 2020.
He has been vocal about his distaste for the election process in Manatee County, even though he used it himself to get elected. He has gone so far as to say some of his fellow commissioners are pawns of developers.
Along the way, Kruse landed in serious trouble after he crashed his pickup truck into a tree near his GreyHawk Landing home in April 2022. State prosecutors charged him with DUI but eventually dropped the charges in June.
Last week, Kruse agreed to talk with the East County Observer about his decision to run for reelection.
Did you feel you owed anyone after you won in 2020?
It's not that I felt I owed anyone anything. There is a fundamental human instinct that you want to be part of a team. You want to work with your friends. We all campaigned together (Kruse, Baugh, Satcher, Van Ostenbridge). We did fundraisers together. There was a euphoria that we were four people coming to save the world. You get swept up into it. We were going to change things. We were going to do big things. And I believe we did a lot of changes that were beneficial to Manatee County.
But you did use the "money machine" to get elected.
One hundred percent I did. I didn't come from politics. But I had told people that sometime in the future I would like to run because I enjoyed politics. I got asked to run because of my background. I ran a public equity fund. I ran a hedge fund. Stephen Jonsson was retiring (as commissioner) and he was the president of a bank. They (his backers) thought it would be nice to have somebody with a financial background run considering we had a $2 billion budget. And I just didn't know any better.
Can anyone get elected in Manatee County without using political consultants and money from developers?
It's a good question. I don't think Manatee County has had a case study in this in a long time. Historically, even people who have started going against — for a lack of a better term — the money machine, still used the money machine to get elected. They used the same playbook to run a campaign. They used political consultants and sent out negative ads. Can somebody run a real campaign, using the community, using support from people, using town hall meetings, and getting out and knocking on doors? Nobody has done that.
But you plan to do that in 2024?
One hundred percent I will. In my campaign announcement, I said I am not going to bundle LLC (limited liability company) checks and I am not going to use PAC (political action commitee) money. I am going to try to convince people that you can't keep doing the same thing over and over, because this is what you get. I am not saying what we get is wrong or right. I vote the same way as the rest of the board 98% of the time. We all have similar views. I am very Libertarian in nature. I am very conservative in nature. I made the motion to lower millage the last two years. I made the motion to get rid of the red light cameras. I have voted yes on the majority of development. I am not anti-growth at all. I just feel if you are going to build, build where it should be and pay what it costs. That is all I ask. I supported the golf course out in Myakka. I ultimately voted in favor of Taylor Ranch because (Schroeder-Manatee Ranch President and CEO Rex Jensen) made a sensible plan with 2-point-something units per acre and no commercial. I am not against (developers). I am just against crazy. I think there are people who look at this board and who want to take advantage of this board. We have a complicit board where people can get away with stuff. We didn't have any of that my first two years.
Have you changed in your first three years as commissioner?
I feel like I am doing the same things. I just feel the rest of the voices on the board have pushed to a side where it makes my voice look different. Back in the day, not that I was on their side, but we had the Carols (Whitmore) and Mistys (Servia) and Reggies (Bellamy) on one side and the Vanessas (Baugh), Kevins (Van Ostenbridge) and James (Satcher) on the other. I was the one in the middle. I don't know my voice has changed so much as the other voices have changed and left me standing there.
Do you feel you are banging your head against the wall when you are the only dissenting vote?
That's funny you should say that. I don't necessary feel I am beating my head against the wall per se. The frustrating part isn't that I am on the losing side of votes 6-1. The frustrating part is I walk into it knowing I am on the losing side. When you think of politics, for lack of a better term, or any setting where you have a board making decisions, you think people who do their homework, listen to their constituents in the case of politics, and make those compelling arguments in a debate setting are going to win. The fact I know no matter how much work I do, how many people I listen to, how many petitions I read, it most likely will be 6-1 before I open my mouth. That is the frustrating part. That said, I know that. I knew what the vote would be on the wetlands. However, somebody has to at least argue the other side for the good of the community."
So that is important for you to do?
I wouldn't call it a dissenting view. I am going to call it a community view. The realty is that where my votes have been, and this is my opinion, my votes have been on the side of the vast majority of Manatee County. I would argue probably correctly that my votes are on the vast majority of the Republican Party as well. Somebody has to do that. It's not good for Manatee County, not good for the board to have 7-0 votes with nobody talking about it, nobody explaining it, nobody giving any voice to the rest of the community. I don't feel I am beating my head against the wall, I feel I am serving a community purpose. Honestly I am enjoying it. My arguments on the other side, win or lose, are opening the eyes of people in the community. I want to make people feel they have a voice. I feel that voice is getting stronger and louder. Manatee County has, historically, been under single party rule and people have gotten away from politics. There are too many uninformed voters here. They vote party line when the time comes according to a mailer that shows up in their mailbox.It's not good for anybody. You end up with people who don't represent you on the board, and who don't represent your views. Do I feel enough people are paying attention? No."
Some commissioners called those who showed up to protest cutting back on wetland protections the "silent minority." Do you agree with that?
That's an angle, how politics work. Unless 208,000 people show up at chambers, you always are going to be in the minority. It's a terrible argument. When you run polls for politics, you don't call 400,000 people. You call 1,000. You assume they are a sample size that is scientifically relevant. But if 3,000 people sign a petition against something or you have 50 people show up at a meeting and take time off from work to do it, when you get hundreds upon hundreds of emails all on one side, and zero on other side, I would argue that is a scientifically significant sample size. I wouldn't even say (for the wetlands issue) that it was a majority. I would say it was a vast super majority (not to reduce wetland protections). The wetlands decision was the crack that broke the dam."
If you don’t have extensive campaign funds, won’t it be tough to be reelected?
I heard someone say where I was crazy from the standpoint of that I was in a position where I could have had the money machine behind me if I wanted. I could have just walked into another term. But I don't want to be in politics if that is what politics are, or if that is what I have to do to stay in politics. I have better things to do with my life. I have two kids playing travel sports. And if 51% of the people want me to walk away, I will happily do so. But I feel there are enough people who want change. I am the only one on the board who consistently explains his position. They can yell at me all day long. Knock yourself out. I have principles and I am not looking for what is politically tolerable. I am not voting a certain way because it is easier. I am more rational than everyone else on the board."
Jay Heater is the managing editor of the East County Observer. Overall, he has been in the business more than 41 years, 26 spent at the Contra Costa Times in the San Francisco Bay area as a sportswriter covering college football and basketball, boxing and horse racing.