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Manatee County Elections: A Talk with Mitch Maley, Part Two

Written by on Thursday, June 27, 2024

The Bradenton Times editor lays out all Manatee County Commission races.

By Johannes Werner

Original Air Date: June 26, 2024

Host: On Friday, we began our two-part series about Manatee County elections with an overview of State House races and the shutouts that bar many voters to have a say on who will represent them. Today, we are focusing on the Manatee County Commission races. Here’s Part 2 of our interview with Dennis ‘Mitch’ Maley, editor of the Bradenton Times and a long-time observer of Manatee County politics.

Johannes Werner: To say it right away – Maley believes Manatee voters do have a chance in these elections of wresting some control from developers over the county commission.

Mitch Maley: So, there’s a chance here that this board can … maybe not flip — if they won all four races, it would. And there’s a number of combinations of ways that can happen: if the developer candidate lost in all four races, we could significantly change things; if even three of them could win, then I think it would put a pressure on some of the less crazy ones, less beholden ones that that are incumbents now, and we’d have an opportunity, because the debate would have to get more honest. It’s very easy to shut down debate when somebody could just call the question when George Kruse’s — the name of his blog is “For lack of a second,” you can never get a second, and I think he brings that up. If that dynamic shifts and you have three members on the board, I think that will be helpful, provide enough debate where by the next cycle, we could maybe completely get rid of this cabal that has taken over our government. So, you know, it’s certainly an uphill battle. They are going to spend a lot of money. 

JW: The editor of the Bradenton Times describes the current situation of the Manatee County Commission as one of near-total control by developers. Most sitting commissioners try to stay popular with low-information voters by waging culture wars. Even so, many voters are riled up about overdevelopment, traffic, and environmental degradation, Maley says.

MM: The true Republican base that’s paying attention is outraged because they’re seeing that, yes, you’re just giving things away to developers; yes, you’re not making growth pay for itself; and yes, you’re putting the cost of all of these problems on the backs of existing residents, and there’s nothing conservative about any of that. So it’s going to be a matter again of, are enough voters engaged and paying attention, or will they be sort of washed out by the low information voters that are comprised mostly of newer residents of the county?

But the issues are clearly … people are fed up with traffic. We were talking about this in the podcast yesterday, that traffic in Manatee County, as bad as it may be in other places, it is significantly better in Pinellas County or Sarasota County. On top of it, you had a lot of Republican pushback for the wetland policy where they basically eviscerated our wetland protections. And you have a lot of people, conservative or Democrat, that live in Manatee County because they want to use the waterways. They like to boat. They like to fish. They like to go to the beach. They live on canals. And when they’re filled with lingvia and other algal blooms, and we have persistent red tides breaking out at times a year, they want answers.

JW: A fluffy, blue puppet called “The Real KVO” is bringing parody, cartoons, and a reality check to the county commission election. The puppet’s name alludes to Kevin Van Ostenbridge, the sitting commissioner who just switched from District 3, where he does not seem to be popular anymore, to the countrywide at-large District 1.

MM: I think that has been wonderful. I’m very … I’m a huge fan, and I think that they, whoever’s doing that, I have no idea who it is, everybody always asks me, but whoever is putting those cartoons on YouTube, they’re calling attention to these things in a way that you can only do through comedy, because the truth is, we’ve gotten to the point where parody like that is actually more reflective of most people’s reality who are paying attention than honest, straightforward news analysis like we do.

JW: In District 1, an elephants’ race is playing out in the Republican primaries, where Van Ostenbridge is now facing off with incumbent George Kruse. Here’s how Maley describes it.

MM: The point man for the development cabal is Kevin Van Ostenbridge. And this is a guy who really runs the county, in sort of a shadow government. So, he’s the most important piece to the developer’s game. He’s got $200,000 in his campaign account. He’s probably gonna get another $100,000 or $200,000 in dark money ads. And they’re gonna throw it at George Kruse. And Kruse has been someone that’s been interesting to watch evolve because he ran with a tremendous amount of developer support and he’s worked in development. He’s not anti-growth at all, but he’s very pragmatic in having planned growth. And as soon as he just diverged from that script at all, and voted against the developers, he was dead to them, to their narrative, in every meeting.
So that’s a cut and dry race in my opinion. If you’re happy with this board, and this government, and what’s done the last two years, keep van Ostenbridge in there. If you think we need a serious change of direction, then you’re going to vote for Kruse, but we’ve limited that to just the Republican voters to decide. 

JW: In District 3, a Republican outsider is battling it out with the establishment candidate in the primaries, and the winner will then have to go against a well-connected Democrat.

MM: I just interviewed Tal Siddique, who is one of the candidates in the Republican primary. And boy, I was extremely impressed. One of those stories where he just tried to get involved, I tried to contact my commissioners and say, “Hey, what’s up with this?” And I just got stonewalled and there was clearly no thoughtfulness into the concerns of the constituent. And then he applied for an advisory board position and we actually reported that Anthony Pettichini, the infamous Pinellas County or Ybor City political consultant that runs all of the developer campaigns, had sent them a note during the meeting saying we can’t let him on any boards. So that was kind of what kicked him into, “Okay, I’m going to run for the big one then.” And he’s been able to raise almost $40,000 in a grassroots campaign, which, that’s impressive as well. And district three is the geographically smallest and, and population densest. So it’s probably the easiest race in which the shoe leather campaign can work. And you can get out into the community and talk to people face-to-face. Of all the districts, it is definitely the one that I would say is the most politically engaged. 

He’ll be running against a developer-funded candidate, April Culbreath, who is the former REC, or I think, I believe she might still be the REC president, and she’s a former Manatee County Sheriff’s Office. We will have a feature on her candidacy this Sunday that is gonna really surprise a lot of people, because her, uh … let’s just say her jacket as a deputy is checkered to say the least. She’s probably the person that those Republicans who are angry, that you mentioned earlier in our conversation, are most angry with. So that’s a race where I think you have a real chance to get a strong candidate through that Republican primary. 

And then when you get into the race, you have Diana Shoemaker running as a Democrat, and she’s raised almost dollar-for-dollar the same amount as Tal Siddique has. I think you’d have a very honest general election, one like we haven’t seen in a long time. Two grassroots candidates, no special elections involved, each of them having raised similar amounts of money where you know, we could have a race that I don’t think I’ve seen ever in Manatee County, to be honest with you, and I’ve been here since  2010.

JW: Finally, there’s District 5, where a relatively unknown developer candidate is facing off against an anti-developer conservative in the primaries. The winner will be up against a well-positioned independent.

MM: That one’s gonna be really interesting, because you have Ray Turner. He was the appointed person when Vanessa Baugh, the vaccine-gate commissioner, resigned. And so he was the developer’s pick to go in there running a grassroots campaign against him. But he’s raised about half as much, about $25,000 compared to $60,000, and McCann is a genuine conservative. I would say he’s on the right end of, you know, a little further right than most Republicans, but very honest and upfront about that. And he’s running because he thinks developers have far too much influence and there’s nothing conservative about what these puppets are doing. And then whoever comes outta that one will have an NPA candidate in Joseph di Bartolomeo. 

JW: For a summary of all the Manatee County races, go to wslr.org, click on “news” and scroll down to “Manatee County Elections”.

This is Johannes Werner, reporting for WSLR News.



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