Are Democrats losing their grip on Alachua County politics?

Though Democrat Jack Donovan's recent victory was a bright spot, some worry about inroads by Republicans.

Published: Sunday, May 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, April 30, 2005 at 7:50 p.m.
Jack Donovan's recent come-from-behind runoff victory in the Gainesville City Commission election was a frisky donkey kick for local Democrats.
It was a contest Democrats really wanted to win, having been unable to oust Republican Ed Braddy from the commission weeks earlier. So Democrats are thrilled Democrat Donovan beat incumbent Republican Tony Domenech.
Still, the fact that the party had to work hard to win a City Commission race is evidence to some that the Democratic grip on Alachua County politics may be loosening.
No one is predicting the county will soon be swamped by the GOP wave that has swept Florida and much of the country. But some longtime Democratic activists are not optimistic, and even party Chairman Jon Reiskind said the organization has some shoring up to do.
"The Republicans have taught us a lot - that winning campaigns is a round-the-clock business. We learned this with the Donovan campaign," Reiskind said. "The (Democratic) party is healthy. There has been some slipping. We have to be able to communicate our positions better, and I think we can."
Democrats still dominate Alachua County politics. The county has 69 non-judicial elected officials from city commissioners to state lawmakers. About 10 are Republican. Among them are Sheriff Steve Oelrich, State Attorney Bill Cervone, Braddy and commissioners in several other cities.
But some patterns are changing.
In the 1994 general election, Alachua County Democratic voter registration was 60.3 percent of the total. It eroded to 50.5 percent in the November 2004 general election.
Voters are not defecting to the GOP, however. The percentage of registered Republicans has fallen slightly. In 1994, 29.7 percent were Republican. By 2004, the GOP dropped to 27.8 percent.
More voters here are not affiliated with any party - a nationwide trend, said Susan McManus, a University of South Florida political science professor.
"People don't know what the parties stand for. They don't learn what's a Democrat and what's a Republican, and being independent sounds like you're a free-thinker," McManus said. "That is especially true with younger voters, and you have more of them in Alachua County."
Meanwhile, the percentage of county voters casting ballots for Republican presidential candidates has been climbing from 33.86 percent for Bob Dole in 1996 to 42.9 percent in last year's re-election of President Bush.
Alachua County Republican Executive Committee Chairman Stafford Jones said he believes GOP influence is expanding in Alachua County.
"I think Republicans are making gains here. There are a lot of conservatives in this county who are registered Democrat and will tell you it is so they can vote in primaries," Jones said. "I'm willing to bet that if all of the registered Democrats who are that way out of habit, or so they can vote in primaries, registered the way they vote, that gap would be a lot narrower."
Alachua County, like much of the South, has historically been Democratic in voter registration. Affiliation has not always been reflected in presidential voting.
Through the 1900s, the county voted for the Democratic Party until Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. Voters here favored Republican Richard Nixon against Democrat John Kennedy in 1960.
In 1964, Alachua County went with Democrat Lyndon Johnson. But in 1968, the county voted for Nixon while most of the region voted for George Wallace, running as an independent.
It's been all Democratic since then except for in 1984 and 1988 when Republican presidential candidates Ronald Reagan and George Bush respectively carried Alachua County.
Officials with both parties believe voting for conservative candidates is growing in Alachua County. The reasons vary.
Some believe that the county's population growth includes people who are more conservative. Others say Republicans are fielding more candidates locally, offering voters a wider choice.
Voters may favor a Republican simply to provide balance on a Democratic-dominated commission.
Another theory - Democrats are letting Republicans commandeer the language of politics in a way that turns voters toward conservative candidates.
Longtime Democratic activist Doris Bardon suggested her party may be too democratic when it comes to putting up local candidates.
Last year, Bardon hosted a gathering at her house for "dreamers" who wanted to get into politics.
Lots of people showed up, including eventual city candidates Diyonne McGraw, Rob Brinkman, Grant Thrall and Donovan.
Only Donovan was successful. McGraw and Brinkman lost to incumbent Rick Bryant, described as a conservative Democrat and generally supported by Republicans. Thrall lost to Braddy.
"Years ago, we would have a meeting and look at who really has a chance. This time they all came - maybe 30 people - and everyone made their pitch. It was out of our hands to try to identify the one that might have had the best chance," Bardon said. "There was a brief uplift of the energy when Donovan beat Domenech. It was a small victory, but in some ways a big victory.
"But we simply are not identifying candidates. I'm not very optimistic about resurrecting the Democratic Party at this stage. It is in such chaos nationally and at the state level."
Democratic Gainesville Mayor Pegeen Hanrahan, considered by some as a potential candidate for higher office, cautioned against reading too much into the election of Republicans to the City Commission. Redistricting that placed two liberal neighborhoods - College Park and the Duck Pond - into one district when the commission expanded to seven members accounts for Republican gains more than shifting political trends, Hanrahan said.
That created a more conservative-leaning district in northwest Gainesville, Hanrahan said.
"(Braddy and Domenech) could not get elected citywide, I can tell you that. Not a chance," Hanrahan said. "It's real tough for a Republican to be elected countywide in Alachua County. It doesn't happen that often."
Braddy contends he never could have gotten elected without crossover Democrat voters, noting that a majority of voters in his district are Democrats.
Some of those crossover voters, Braddy said, told him they were doing so to provide a counterweight to liberal commissioners.
"In terms of elected officials, Republicans are doing much better here than in years past," Braddy said. "We have a lot more crossover appeal than, evidently, the Democrats do. We tend to get a much higher percent of the vote than the number of Republicans registered."
The suburbs of northwest Gainesville are exactly the type of place that is representative of growing conservatism, McManus said.
But McManus said Florida politics at any level can be difficult to predict based on previous voting.
"When you look at the growth in Alachua County, it's all in the suburban areas. That tends to draw married people with kids. They tend be more interested in family values kinds of issues, which makes the Republican platform a little more interesting to them," she said. "The interesting thing is, you can't take last year's demographics and feel like they are a good read on this year's elections.
"In a fast-growing state like ours, the population is constantly changing."
Cindy Swirko can be reached at 374-5024 or swirkoc@
*Corrected on May 16, 2005. A.W.

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