GOP hopes area's shift to right persists
Published: Wednesday, January 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, December 31, 2002 at 10:28 p.m.
4 of 7 City Commission seats are up for grabs in 2003.
ELECTED IN 2002
Across the street from City Hall, an environmentally focused Alachua County Commission was gearing up for another round of battles over its comprehensive plan, meant to preserve the area's green spaces. Waiting in the wings were a handful of environmental and neighborhood activists, hoping to out-green sitting members of both commissions come election time.
Oh, the difference a year makes. Whatever else is said of it, 2002 is likely to go down in the history books as the year Gainesville took a swing to the right. April elections brought two Republicans - both of them virtual unknowns just 12 months ago - to Gainesville's five-member City Commission. Democrats defeated Republicans in races for two County Commission seats, but only after snubbing two incumbent Democrats strongly identified with environmental issues and giving their nomination to Democrats who promised a more business-friendly climate.
Ideas like a new homeless shelter or a police review board have gone on the back burner or been scrapped.
The shift comes at the same time that Florida's voters re-elected Gov. Jeb Bush and voters nationwide gave control of Congress to the Republicans. That GOP victory has widely been attributed to the public's support of the president in the wake of Sept. 11, and some local Republicans say the political climate in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks has emboldened Alachua County conservatives to come out of the closet.
"This is the South, after all," said Travis Horn, newly elected chairman of the Alachua County Republican Executive Committee. "There are a lot of people who are registered as Democrats just because their parents were, even though they're not really liberals."
Horn says local Republicans "out-organized" Democrats in 2002, striking an as-yet untapped vein of conservatism in the local public.
And some local Democrats agree that President Bush's wartime coattails hurt them locally.
"The fact is that after September 11, the president is popular," said Chuck Floyd, chairman of the Alachua County Democratic Executive Committee. "That has hurt us quite a bit."
University of South Florida professor Susan McManus says another nationwide trend - the bad economy - may be the cause of the shift.
"Before, the talk in Alachua County was about controlling growth," said McManus, who studies city and county politics in Florida. "Now, it's about creating jobs."
The soft economy, McManus says, seems to have made Alachua County residents nervous about the "smart growth" policies of previous city and county commissions, creating criticism from people who say local environmental restrictions are driving away businesses.
Even so, she says, most local governments in Florida are moving the other direction, electing officials who promise stricter controls on growth and tougher environmental regulations.
"Most of these places are where Alachua County was two years ago," she said. "In places where there's a high rate of growth, people are looking for a way to bring it under control or stop it."
McManus says Alachua County was ahead of the pack in implementing "smart growth" policies and now may be among the first in Florida to see a backlash from those policies.
Republican City Commissioner Tony Domenech is convinced that it's just such a backlash that propelled him into office in April. He says many "smart growth" planning ideas, such as the narrowing of major collector roads, defy common sense.
"Most people want their lives to be as simple as they can be, with a minimum of interference from the government," Domenech said. "Most people understand that if you need to carry more traffic, you need a wider road. It's simple."
But Democratic City Commissioner Warren Nielsen, long a proponent of "smart growth" policies, says what really happened in Gainesville in 2002 was a lack of communication.
"We need to be honest and get off the rhetoric," he said. "If people think they have to choose between planning and economic growth, then we're in big trouble."
Nielsen said many of the problems people brought up in the 2002 election, such as traffic congestion, are actually the result of decades of poor planning.
Gainesville's body politic is notorious for radical changes from one election cycle to the next - and 2003 may provide a test of just how lasting the local area's rightward shift could be. Four of seven seats on the newly expanded City Commission are up for grabs next year, and both Democrats and Republicans are gearing up for a battle to win a commission majority.
"If the Democrats think this year was bad, they're going to hate next year," Horn said.
Horn plans to invite nationally known Republicans to Alachua County to speak in 2003, raising the party's profile locally. And he says he expects the City Commission to have a majority of Republicans next year.
Democrats, meanwhile, expect a rebound - if various factions of Gainesville's environmental community rally around Democratic candidates.
"The fact is that we have a lot of activists out there who don't feel loyalty to any party, even though they agree with Democratic positions most of the time," Floyd said. "If we can just get them to come together, we shouldn't have a problem."
Tim Lockette can be reached at 374-5088 or email@example.com.
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