City races lack GOP presence


Published: Tuesday, April 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, April 1, 2003 at 12:17 a.m.

Facts

Voters in Gainesville

  • Total registered
    voters in Gainesville:
    59,401
  • Democrats: 31,460
  • Republicans: 14,455
  • Green Party: 248

  • A wave of success among pro-business, moderate-to-conservative candidates in city and county elections last year hasn't yielded the bumper crop of candidates local Republicans hoped to field in next week's Gainesville City Commission races.
    Only one of 11 candidates running for four open seats is a Republican.
    That comes as a surprise to some political watchdogs, who expected the GOP to capitalize on its victories in last spring's City Commission elections.
    Two Republicans beat a total of six candidates, all Democrats, in two races - no easy task in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans two to one.
    So what happened this year? "It's a darn good question," said Ed Braddy, one of the two Republican commissioners elected in 2002. He said it can be difficult for the party to find candidates in Gainesville.
    "We are a minority party in this community, so out of habit we tend to not have a pool of candidates ready to run," he said.
    Adam Guillette, a 22-year-old University of Florida student, is the lone Republican candidate in the four races. A former Libertarian, he changed his party affiliation before running for mayor in 2001.
    Betsy Whitaker, a candidate in the At-Large Seat 1 race, dropped her Republican affiliation in January, saying City Commission races should be politically neutral.
    "City government is about what's best for our city. It has nothing to do with national politics," she said.
    A group called Republicans for Betsy had supported her, but Whitaker said Alachua County's Republican Party has not endorsed her. Democrats also support her, she said.
    Democrats are guaranteed wins in two races. District 1 incumbent Chuck Chestnut is running unopposed in his bid for another term representing east Gainesville, and two Democrats - Brad Guy and Craig Lowe - are the only candidates in the race to represent District 4, which covers many of the city's oldest neighborhoods in south Gainesville.
    Travis Horn, chairman of the Alachua County Republican Executive Committee, said Republicans could have done a better job of looking for potential candidates this year.
    "From a candidate-recruitment standpoint, I think we were a little behind the eight ball. I know there are good Republican candidates out there, it's just a matter of whether they're willing to offer themselves up," he said.
    "A student is carrying the load for us in the City Commission race, and it's going to be a relatively important race," Horn said, noting this will be the city's first seven-member commission. "It's going to set the tone for the next several years."
    The commission is expanding from five to seven seats after a 2002 annexation pushed the city's population above 110,000. Two of the four races are for at-large seats, which represent all of Gainesville instead of individual districts.
    Horn said his committee wants to run a Republican candidate in every City Commission race next spring. The mayoral seat, now held by Tom Bussing, and the District 4 seat will be open.
    "If we can field candidates for every race, and folks feel like they have an option, it will no longer be the case where we have this homogenous political system," he said.
    Braddy, the Republican city commissioner, said a party has to have a track record of getting its candidates elected if it wants to attract citizens to run for office. And because Gainesville is a Democratic stronghold, that can be difficult.
    He said the public's unhappiness with current commissioners can be more important in a race than a candidate's political party.
    "Party may not be as much a factor as some may suspect," Braddy said.
    He noted that Cynthia Chestnut and Lee Pinkoson - two Democrats viewed as more moderate and business-friendly than their predecessors - were elected to the Alachua County Commission last fall, just months after the Republican commissioners were elected in Gainesville.
    Pinkoson, a former Republican, dropped his party affiliation in 2000 and registered as a no-party contender to run against Democrat Dave Newport. He became a Democrat in May 2002 after Republican Susan Carter entered the race.
    Chuck Floyd, chair of the Alachua County Democratic Executive Committee, blamed last year's Republican victories on a lack of unity within the local party, especially over environmental issues.
    The two races were also in districts with low numbers of blacks, who tend to vote for Democrats, he said.
    "Everyone seems to agree that last year was a fluke," Floyd said.
    Even though the City Commission races are officially nonpartisan, Floyd said voters look to a candidate's party affiliation to see how they might vote on other issues. And some elected officials use their local offices as stepping stones to higher - partisan - positions.
    "There is no such thing as a nonpartisan race. The only truly nonpartisan races we have in Florida are the judicial races," Floyd said.
    Tony Domenech, the other Republican elected to the City Commission last year, disagreed. He said constant references in the news media and the public to candidates' party affiliations keeps the issue on voters' minds.
    "It's clear that even though it is designed to be nonpartisan, no one will allow it to be nonpartisan," he said.
    Ashley Rowland can be reached at 374-5095 or rowlana@gvillesun.com.

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