Carole Whitmore fails to purge her party

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The Commissioner’s complaint was a typical move for a flailing politician. Here’s why no amount of intraparty maneuvering can save her in November.

It was the night of August 26, 2014, and Commissioner Robin DiSabatino was riding high. She had just crushed her primary challenger in the race to serve on Florida’s Manatee County Board of Commissioners by a nearly two to one margin. It was a landslide, the sort of win that usually signifies a rising star in the party.

But you never would have guessed it from the tense meeting that had taken place the night before.

Carol Whitmore
Carol Whitmore

Commissioner DiSabatino’s behavior at a recent county event had been a betrayal, her fellow commissioner Carole Whitmore insisted on Monday night to the local Republican Executive Committee. It had been a clear violation of the local GOP’s bylaws, she said, for Robin DiSabatino and a Democratic candidate to be seen together at an animal rights event and agree to pose together for a picture.

Whitmore’s complaints found a key ally. After hearing the charge, Republican County Commissioner Betsy Benac urged the REC to take up a vote to expel Commissioner DiSabatino from the group.

After some deliberation, however, the board amazingly voted in favor of not taking a vote, punting the issue and stopping any potential purge of the party in its tracks … for now.

It was an anticlimactic outcome for Commissioner Whitmore’s crusade, but not unexpected either. In the end, the REC officials probably decided that sanctioning the most popular Republican in the local government was just a bridge too far.

The bylaws of the REC were designed to promote basic party unity by discouraging locally elected GOP officials from openly campaigning with members of the rival party, or offering endorsements across the aisle. What DiSabatino had done – show up independently at the event “Parachutes for Paws” to support the outreach efforts of a group in Manatee County that combats animal cruelty, and agree to pose for a picture for the group with a Democratic candidate for another commissioner’s election – would seem to fall a mile short of the sort of intraparty bickering that the bylaws were meant to stave off.

Roots of an attempted Party Purge

Of course, the image of Robin DiSabatino and the Democratic candidate receiving heroes’ welcomes by the group may have been emotionally jarring for Commissioner Whitmore on more than one level.

First of all, the Democratic candidate who was basking in the mantle of the Forget-Me-Not animal rights movement was none other than her opponent, Terri Wonder.

Terri Wonder serving in the Gulf.
Terri Wonder serving in the Gulf.

Wonder has already forged an unlikely but strong coalition of environmental activists, staunchly Democratic voters, and groups of Tea Party activists in her bid to transform Manatee County’s Board of Commissioners into a local government that protects and preserves the county’s environment and the quality of life enjoyed by its citizens, while saying no to several powerful interests along the way.

So the mere sight of Terri Wonder receiving accolades on the field might have been enough to elevate Commissioner Whitmore’s heart rate. But what must have made the scene far worse for the beleaguered commissioner was the identity of the group itself.

The Forget-Me-Not movement is flexing its political muscle through the bipartisan outrage over the treatment of animals at the shelters in Manatee County, which included indiscriminate killings of homeless dogs despite the “No Kill” resolution that had been passed by the BOC. Signed in 2011, the resolution had no teeth and left gaping holes in its enforcement which would be exploited by county officials in a scandal that left thousands of citizens aghast.

And when Whitmore later referred to her handling of the situation as one of her proudest moments on the Board, what looked like a case of simple negligence turned into one of denial.

Robin DiSabatino
Robin DiSabatino

The irony is that Whitmore’s campaign to purify the REC was targeted at the commissioner who has stayed truer to Republican principles than any other commissioner in the county’s government. Robin DiSabatino opposed the controversial half-cent sales tax; Whitmore voted to impose it. Whitmore has voted to unleash a flood of spending destined to fatten the wallets of special interests, while DiSabatino has fought against lavish proposals like the county administrator’s exorbitant budget. The contrast was not lost on local observers, who have noted that Whitmore’s wrath was focused on a better Republican than Whitmore herself has measured up to be.

Animal rights activist Nathan Levinson was present at the Parachutes For Paws spectacle.

“She’s been responsible,” he said of DiSabatino. They don’t like her because she’s voting her mind and conscience, and that leads her to oppose what they do.”

When asked whether he believed that the photo flap was a ruse to vent some deeper frustration on DiSabatino, he responded, “Absolutely.”

But if DiSabatino’s refusal to toe the party line has damaged her standing with the establishment, Whitmore has the opposite problem. Her adherence to her political patrons has damaged her standing with voters.

The animal rights groups are upset with Commissioner Whitmore. Tea Party groups are alienated by her support of the half-cent sales tax designed to reimburse local hospitals for Medicare expenses, even at a time when these hospitals are recording record profits. And most of all, people in Manatee County are upset by the proposition of the Long Bar Pointe Project – a proposal to transform Manatee County’s shoreline into a sprawling development project, dreamed up by the powerful businessman Carlos Beruff as he vacationed in Barcelona, Spain.

After he proposed his project, dozens and then hundreds of people turned out to protest on the day the Board met to vote on its approval. Cowed, the Board unanimously voted to defeat an amendment that would have opened the door to development all across Manatee’s waterway. But it was a temporary victory; the developers promptly filed a lawsuit alleging that the denial of access violated their constitutional property rights, seeking $18 million in damages.

And come November, they hope to have a friendlier Board of Commissioners to work with.

A Quiet Coup in Tuesday’s Primary

Last Tuesday’s primary results may have been a resounding victory for DiSabatino and a validation of her strong environmental record. But another environmental champion on the board, Michael Gallen, lost his primary election battle in a four-vote squeaker to challenger Charles Smith. The election was fraught with allegations of irregularities and misplaced ballots. On Thursday, officials declared Smith the winner, making him all but certain to prevail over a write-in candidate to win District 2’s Commission seat in November.

The upset changes the math in Manatee County’s Board of Commissioners, but perhaps not dramatically. It’s an open question whether a Commissioner Smith would oppose the Long Bar Pointe and other pro-development projects.

Terri Wonder, PhD, offering expert testimony at the August 6th Long Bar Pointe Land Use hearing.
Terri Wonder, PhD, offering expert testimony at the August 6th Long Bar Pointe Land Use hearing. (Campaign photo)

But Terri Wonder isn’t about to write off anyone’s support in her campaign to preserve Manatee County’s shoreline.

And why should she? Her campaign is based on unlikely alliances, a coalition that would be unthinkable on our national, polarized political stage. It’s a movement where Tea Partiers and environmentalists see eye-to-eye, with moderate Republicans joining Democrats of all stripes to press issues that aren’t talked about nationally, but resonate deeply with the people in Manatee.

“If I’m fortunate enough to be elected to the Board, and Charles Smith is there, I’m going to reach out to him,” Wonder said. There’s no reason, she says, why she wouldn’t be able to win over a solid majority of commissioners to her agenda to protect and preserve the county.

And her efforts won’t stop in the local government. Regardless of whether she wins or loses in November, she plans to set up a Democratic Environmental Caucus for the county, with the express purpose of highlighting environmental issues and combating outsiders’ attempts to lay Manatee’s natural treasures to waste.

But there will only be so much that this caucus could do for the county’s environment if Carole Whitmore returns to the Board next year – and that’s what makes Terri Wonder’s campaign so crucial to the preservation of Manatee’s shoreline.

“If Carole Whitmore is reelected, the property will fall,” she said bluntly. The approval of development projects will be a domino effect; as one property falls, so will another as developers move into the county for a full-blown profit frenzy. “If Long Bar Pointe goes, anything goes. And Carole Whitmore is pay to play all the way.”

Coalition to Retake Manatee

Fortunately, Terri Wonder has some allies in her fight. With the local Tea Party support she’s gathered, in addition to environmentally friendly Republicans in the mold of Robin DiSabatino, she’s also harnessing a movement through a grassroots campaign, and reaching out to constituencies that have historically been ignored in midterm elections.

“Turnout in general, but especially African-American turnout, was abysmal last Tuesday,” she said. “That’s something we’re going to fix for November.”

She’s gone on Sister Dolly’s soul radio program to make her case to the community. Soul radio is a powerful tool for reaching the African-American electorate in Florida, and a guest appearance by a candidate serves as powerful free advertising.

A turnout spike of just a percentage point or two among black voters could make all of the difference in a close election with typical midterm levels of turnout. But incredibly, Wonder’s opponent behaves as if she were ceding the black vote in the district, and Wonder has the soul radio airwaves all to herself.

“They should be using soul radio everywhere,” she says of this year’s political hopefuls, both Democrats and Republicans. “I suspect they don’t realize how powerful it is.”

Whitmore may find out the hard way – after being swept out of office by a movement no one saw coming.