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Background Briefing

Sprawl prompts new Sarasota County Commission hopeful into District 1 race

Written by on Friday, February 9, 2024

The Republican candidate denounces ‘cultural genocide’.

By Florence Fahringer

Original Air Date: Feb. 9, 2024

Host: Breakneck-speed suburban sprawl and its flipside – increasingly unaffordable housing for most of us already here – is producing restlessness among voters, not just in Sarasota County. WSLR News reporter Florence Fahringer has a close look at how this is influencing the upcoming county commission elections. One just-announced Republican candidate, for that matter, is positioning herself by denouncing “cultural genocide”.

Florence Fahringer: The general election is coming up in November, and the White House won’t be the only thing up for grabs. For Sarasota County voters, three of the five county commission seats are all being put to a vote.

In District Five, which covers North Port and just about everything else south of Venice, incumbent Ron Cutsinger is running for reelection unopposed (as of this recording). District Three, which covers Venice proper and its eastern hinterlands, has its incumbent Neil Rainford running for reelection. Rainford was appointed to the commission after the late Nancy Detert’s passing, so this will be his first election for the position. He won’t be unopposed — former Sarasota Sheriff Tom Knight aims to make Rainford fight for his seat. Realtor Gregory Woods first filed to run for this district as well, before changing his mind, running instead against Tom Edwards for his seat on the school board.

Even this early in the race, District One has a colorful roster of commissioner hopefuls. Unlike the other two districts, the incumbent for District One isn’t eligible for reelection — current Commission Chair Mike Moran hits his term limit this year, and is instead running for County Tax Collector. With no incumbency advantage, District One candidates will have to make a name for themselves among the developers and residents of the district — two groups which recently haven’t been getting along. 

District One is the site of the ongoing battle between Lakewood Ranch developers and Old Miakka residents. It covers the northeastern-most corner of the county; essentially, everything east of the City of Sarasota. 

Teresa Mast

Teresa Mast announced her candidacy early on, and it seems she’s already taken a side. Her husband is the CEO of the Manatee-Sarasota Building Industry Association, which, in the association’s own words, is “a membership driven networking and advocacy group focused on the needs of the building & development industry and related business in Manatee and Sarasota Counties.” Mast has not endeared herself to Old Miakka residents either, with activist Becky Ayesh having said that she does not have her vote. The number associated with her campaign is the number for Robinson, Gruters & Roberts, a Venice accounting firm. One of those names should ring a bell, as one of the eponymous accountants is Joe Gruters, former state senator and longtime chair of the Florida Republican Party, before Christian Ziegler. Our news team reached out to Mast for comment on where she falls in the ongoing fight between Lakewood Ranch developers and Old Miakka.

In an emailed response, she wrote this: “Growth in any shape and size should be weighed against citizen concerns. I’ll always side on protecting the quality of life of our residents.”

Sarasota political veteran Ray Pilon seemed to be the opponent to beat for Mast, before he suddenly dropped out of the race in December. His reason? Finances. Though he garnered around $10,000 for his campaign, it paled in comparison to the hundreds of thousands Mast has already managed to raise. At the time of his exit, Old Miakka residents looked to the one other candidate at the time, Les Nichols. Nichols has since dropped out. 

After Pilon and Nichols came and went, another candidate threw her hat in the ring this week: Alex Coe, a current member of the Sarasota Charter Review Board, where she took some positions that did not please builders and developers. She also is a former chair of the Republican Liberty Caucus of Florida, a part-time farmer, and a New College graduate in anthropology. Here she is, explaining her campaign in her own words:

Alex Coe: I have decided to get into the county commission race because I have lived in Sarasota County for almost 30 years. I have been very involved with the East County community, involved with many people who live in Old Miakka. I’m an anthropologist by training, and my master’s degree is in cultural sustainability. I believe that the people in East County have the right to their way of life. I want to help this county and the people there preserve their way of life. As far as I’m concerned, What is happening in East County is cultural genocide. And it is irresponsible for any of us in this community to allow our government to destroy the way of life that families have enjoyed for generations and generations in this community. The basic premise of the entire campaign is that we cannot continue to elect people involved in the development industry to office, and think that we are not going to get development.

Alex Coe

FF: There’s something noticeably absent from each of these races: Democrats. Every candidate listed so far is a Republican, each one facing off in their district’s Republican primary. By the time of the recording, the Sarasota County Democratic Party has not fielded a candidate for any of these races, though according to County Party Chair Dan Kuether, that may change in the coming months:

Dan Kuether: We have not formally announced candidates for that race yet. The qualifying date closes in mid-June. So there’s still plenty of time for that announcement to occur. But we are closely watching the races here, and it is very obvious that the local developer community has already investing hundreds of thousands of dollars into ensuring that certain Republican candidates have all the money that they need in order to win those races. So we are paying attention. We will be keeping an eye on those races, and we will likely be announcing candidates closer to that qualifying date.

FF: Okay, so do you do expect some Democratic candidates present in mid-June?

DK: Yes.

FF: Finally, a sentiment to echo the others: Current Commissioner Mark Smith, whose seat is one of the two not up for grabs this coming election, has become known for being the “one” in many four-to-one votes on the commission. At a forum held yesterday evening at the Fogartyville Community Center, Smith lamented the role money has come to play in commission elections. 

Mark Smith: We have to stop looking at elections like a sporting event, and that whoever has the most money must be the best candidate. And that’s not the way it works. You have to find folks that have character and are grounded enough to not be tempted.

This is Florence Fahringer, reporting for WSLR News. 

 

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