Well, the election is over and while the commissioners’ race was a great example of fair play and openness — a thank you to both candidates — we now know that over a quarter million dollars was spent on the mayoral race (probably closer to $300,000, or $45 a vote), and that is only what has been declared to date. According to the Orange County Republican Executive Committee (OCREC) minutes of January 22, we now know that $30,000 was directed by a Republican political action committee toward our new Mayor’s campaign. That money will not be declared in his campaign filings but certainly had an impact with the multiple flyers, hired canvassers, phone banks and ads.
While Mr. Leary was quoted as saying that he didn’t consult with OCREC, the minutes make it clear he was a guest at the January 22 meeting where the $30K was committed to his campaign because, it was said, winning the WP mayoral race was so important. To quote from their minutes: “We can’t afford to lose the Winter Park Mayor office.” Do we need to follow the money to find out why this was such a priority for the PAC? After this kind of outside interference, Mr. Leary needs to do his best to bring our city back together. His 53% win was a win after all, even if not a mandate, and we are all expecting him to be a fair leader.
I have experienced partisan municipal government first hand. Jack and I lived in a small Connecticut town years ago and in one election Jack, running as a Republican, was elected to the Board of Finance but not seated because too many Rs had won. So a Democrat with fewer votes was seated instead. Try explaining that logic to your seven-year-old daughter… I served on a Board of Education and, while we worked effectively in non-election time, we certainly felt the partisan politics during campaigns and it dampened our ability to work well together. Winter Park voters wisely chose to make our elections nonpartisan for very good reasons and it pretty much has worked up to now. Look at the many 3-2 split votes in recent years. Two Republicans and a Democrat joined together to make up that majority. How many citizens attending commission meetings knew the party affiliation of those seated on the dais?
In our recent election, for the first time that I know of, our city experienced an invasion of funds from an outside source supporting one candidate because of his or her party affiliation and blasting the opponent because of theirs. Look through news sources and you will see a growing trend of outsiders throwing huge amounts of money into nonpartisan races all over the country. Were we naïve to think it would not happen here, or was it just that no previous Winter Park candidates had approached partisan PACs up to now? Watching the effect of this outside partisan PAC money on our city race felt like coming home from a trip to Publix to find that strangers had rearranged the furniture in our absence. These outside groups have changed the ground game in our city, perhaps forever. Their interference in our nonpartisan race convinced me – a lifelong Republican who has held signs and made phone calls in many national and state elections — to switch my registration to Independent. My decision, and that of several other Winter Park Republican women, was described in an Orlando Sentinel interview on March 19th, which can be found here.
Is this what happens when it becomes more important to win than to serve? The sad reality is that not only have we set a new financial high water mark in our elections, but from now on all candidates might need to be from the same party to avoid this kind of high stakes meddling by party PACs. This is why a candidate’s affiliation is supposed to be a non-issue. We have a city charter that tells us to compete fairly, but for that to work everyone needs to play by the rules. I am expecting our commissioners led by our Mayor-elect to address the events of the past few months and make it a priority to get us back to nonpartisan races; they need to be held accountable for the established rules and words in our City charter. Residents and taxpayers should find anything less unacceptable; Winter Park is better than that, or at least it should be.
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