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Race for District 3 Heats Up

Written by on Saturday, May 11, 2024

Thanks to Republican mudslinging over abortion and immigrants, it’s shaping up to become the most expensive commission race in Sarasota County’s history.


By Florence Fahringer

Original Air Date: May 10, 2024

Host: The race for District Three of the Sarasota County Commission is shaping up to be not only the most expensive of any county-level race this campaign season, but the most expensive in the county’s history. Ever. Two Republicans are trying to outdo each other over who is harsher on abortion and immigrants. And then there’s a Democrat who is now running as an independent. The biggest “real” issues: Overdevelopment and state encroachment on Home Rule, unaffordable housing and other cost-of-living challenges, and defunding of social services. Florence Fahringer has the story.

Florence Fahringer: The race for District 3 — which covers most of Venice and Nokomis, as well as stretching about 15 miles inland — began earlier than usual. Nancy Detert was the last person elected to the seat, and she died during her term last year. Her passing left Governor Ron DeSantis with the responsibility of appointing an interim commissioner; applicants included businessman Don Patterson, Old Miakka activist Becky Ayech, and former Sheriff Tom Knight. In the end, the then-secretary of the Sarasota Republican Party, member of the Sarasota Planning Commission, and executive at Mullet Aluminum Neil Rainford was picked by DeSantis for the job.

That was only half the battle for Rainford. Only a year later, he’s having to defend his seat from two contenders: Republican Tom Knight, who announced his candidacy early; and independent Shari Thornton, who announced more recently.

Incumbent Neil Rainford

Though it may seem only natural for Rainford to run for reelection for District Three, there’s a detail that complicates this decision: Rainford didn’t live there prior to his appointment. In fact, Rainford’s residency at the time of his appointment was in the northern part of the county, an area covered by District One. District One is also up for grabs this campaign season, but rather than running for the district where he already lived, Rainford is deciding to move to District Three. In an email answering our questions, Rainford explained his choice of district by saying, “I was appointed by our Governor, Ron DeSantis, to represent my friends and neighbors in District 3.  It is my home and will continue to be so.”

Neil Rainford is a member of the Suncoast Builders Association, and while his campaign website does not provide a means of contacting him, accounting firm Robinson Gruters is listed as the campaign address and means of contact on the Saraosta Supervisor of Elections website. The “Gruters” of Robinson Gruters refers to Joe Gruters, former chair of the Florida Republican Party, and chair of the Sarasota Republican Party during Rainford’s tenure as secretary.

Former Sheriff Tom Knight

Tom Knight, in an email answering our questions, anticipates this race will be “the biggest, ugliest and most expensive commission race in Sarasota County history.” It’s already true that the money raised for this race far exceeds that of any other county-level race, with the three candidates already having raised nearly half a million dollars between them. Neil Rainford has raised the most money of any current county-level candidate, at $250,000. Knight isn’t too far behind, with just under $180,000. Shari Thornton is at $5,000.

Both Republican candidates are friendly to developers; Rainford describes himself as “heavily invested in construction and county planning,” while Knight describes himself as “pro-business” and “not against building.” Their stances come with caveats though: Rainford suggests a government-driven solution is necessary for the preservation of Warm Mineral Springs, elaborating by saying he “think[s] we can find a balance and have slowly, planned growth without hurting our quality of life.”; while Knight’s pro-business stance comes with some qualifications, saying the county has “a problem with planning for growth and following the laws and regulations that are on our books.” Elaborating on his stance, Knight had this to say:

Shari Thornton

“This problem evolved because of a power structure that has been created over the past several years, and that power structure is now controlling our elections and elected officials. They are well funded and skilled at fooling voters. As a result our comprehensive plan is routinely amended to suit the needs of developers and we are not keeping up with infrastructure. At the same time, the needs and wishes of residents are routinely ignored; it’s become the money versus the many. My goal if elected is to get us back to a truly strategic plan like the 2050 plan and stick to it without constant amendments and exceptions. I will advocate for in-person neighborhood workshops again (which have been discontinued and pushed to Zoom). I will also work to find ways to upgrade our infrastructure without the full burden of the cost on our taxpayers.”

Shari Thornton has taken the most aggressive stance against developers. One of her key issues is “over-development”, in which she attacks the county’s “subsidization of private development.” In a response to our questions, she elaborated: “I, along with the vast majority of people in the county, share the frustration and outrage of over-development, traffic congestion, and destruction of natural habitat and resources. Sarasota County has a great 2050 Comprehensive Plan; we need to return to the foundation of this plan and stop granting special exemptions that increase density and decrease the greenspace.”

Another key issue of hers is health and human services; she has a background as a healthcare executive. When asked about whether her website’s promise to “preserve” these services included reinstating defunded ones, she responded by saying: “I am in favor of working with the advisory committee to refund programs. When programs benefiting children at risk, early childhood care and education, and other marginalized populations are unfunded, we risk jeopardizing our community’s future success. Several of these organizations received Federal or matching funds, so the negative impact on the community was multiplied when the Commissioners cut funding.”

Knight has a background in mental health advocacy, and when asked about his stance on county-funded services, he had this to say: “With mental health, substance abuse, and homelessness, I believe partnering with nonprofits that have a history of cost-effective success with these issues will save taxpayers in actual dollars … I’m not saying we should write them a blank check or the nonprofits should not be held accountable. As a commissioner I would look at the cost-benefit of partnering with every nonprofit in every budget cycle, but yes, I believe in many cases it’s a net win for taxpayers, not to mention the people being helped.”

In this realm, Rainford recently made his stance clear. In recent commission meetings, Rainford supported slashing two-one-one’s funding because it listed Planned Parenthood among possible organizations it could refer callers to. It was revealed shortly after by United Way that Planned Parenthood had not been referred to by two-one-one in the past fiscal year. Answering our question as to whether or not this revelation had influenced his viewpoint at all, Rainford said: “In the county commission meeting, the representative from United Way stated that they do refer calls to planned parenthood.”

One more stance from Knight that makes him stand out among his peers: Illegal immigration. Here it is, in his own words: “I want to create a task force to gather data on the number of illegal immigrants using resources in our community and the financial impact of that (not a record of names and private information) … I am not so naïve as to think we can use county resources to take direct action on deportations, but what we can do is better advocate for our county in Tallahassee and even at the federal level.  When you’re lobbying legislators you have a lot more influence if you have real data to state your case.”

Rainford and Knight are squaring off in the Republican primaries, whereas Thornton is running as an independent; that means Republican voters will choose between Rainford and Knight on August twentieth, and between the Republican victor and Thornton on November fifth.

This is Florence Fahringer, reporting for WSLR News.

 

 

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