By Sally Swartz
Palm Beach Post© Columnist
Sunday, September 28, 2008
I thought that the office would be hard to find.
But Martin County Democrats have put themselves on the map with a big banner on their second-story storefront. Located in a tiny shopping center behind Atlanta Bread Company on Stuart's Central Parkway, the office was busy when I stopped by one afternoon last week. Volunteers were making calls, urging Democrats to vote for Barack Obama, U.S. Rep. Tim Mahoney, D-Palm Beach Gardens, and, for the first time in years, a full slate of county commission candidates. Early voting starts Oct. 20.
Republicans have so dominated Martin County politics for the almost 30 years I've lived here, it's surprising to consider that the county now has enough Democrats and Independents - 28,489 and 20,899 - to almost equal the 50,081 registered Republicans.
All the Democratic candidates favor slow growth, county chairman David Dew said, which ought to give them an advantage in green-leaning Martin. But never underestimate the considerable talent Martin enviros have for screwing up elections.
For starters, candidates registered as Republicans are running as no-party candidates in two commission races. In District 1 (Jensen Beach), Republican Joan Wilcox is running as a nonpartisan candidate against Republican Doug Smith and Democrat Tom Fullman. In District 5 (Palm City), Republican John Patteson is a no-party candidate running against fellow Republican Ed Ciampi, who has taken big money from the sugar industry, and Democrat Linda Green. All the GOP candidates support few growth restrictions on Witham Field, which could move anti-airport voters to the Democrats.
The rumor mill insists that Republican Commissioner Sarah Heard encouraged the no-party candidates - backed by former unsuccessful commission candidate Odias Smith - to enter these races, but she denies it. "Gosh, no," Commissioner Heard said, "...I'm staying out of it."
In the primary, Republican environmental candidates lost to incumbent Smith and newcomer Ciampi, both heavily financed by the development industry. In past elections, split votes for environmental candidates have propelled developer-backed candidates into office.
Martha Bennett, the Democrat in the District 3 (Hobe Sound) race, seems to be drawing the most bipartisan support. The Sierra Club has endorsed her, as has Martin's environmental guru Maggy Hurchalla. But the politics of America's richest ZIP code, Jupiter Island, could make problems for Ms. Bennett.
After many Jupiter Islanders contributed to Ms. Bennett, the island's influential Nathaniel Reed switched his support to Patrick Hayes, who beat incumbent Lee Weberman in the August Republican primary. Mr. Hayes was an unsuccessful environmental candidate in 2004, but under the tutelage of Jupiter Island Town Commissioner and businessman Finn Caspersen, Mr. Hayes pulled a switcheroo reminiscent of Commissioner Susan Valliere. He now has a pro-business agenda and favors opening western land to more development. In a recent e-mail to Mr. Hayes, Mr. Reed urged him, too late, to "resist taking funds from the Sugar Barons, who always know what they are paying for," and urged him to "be your own man."
Mr. Fullman, who entered the public arena as a member of the Jensen Beach Group opposing the unpopular Pitchford's Landing development and later helped organize the Martin County Consensus, has the backing of Stuart Toyota's John Pierson and Peter Busch. Mr. Busch, of Busch beer fortune and fame, is the major backer of Jupiter's Busch Wildlife Sanctuary.
Mr. Fullman was among residents who contributed to an environmental victory last week for the Jensen Beach Group, banning seawalls on a significant stretch of the Indian River Lagoon shoreline. The 4th District Court of Appeal upheld a decision by Florida Department of Environmental Protection officials denying the seawall to Pitchford's developer Bill Reily.
Maybe candidate forums over the next few weeks will jolt Martin voters out of the lethargy that led them to choose familiar names on the primary ballot and give Democratic commission candidates a boost. Or, if Barack Obama wins over Independent voters and inspires a large turnout, Martin Democrats could benefit. That's what the workers at the little office in Stuart hope.
Sally Swartz is a former member of The Palm Beach Post Editorial Board. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. Martin County Democratic Executive Committee has no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of this article nor is Martin County Democratic Executive Committee endorsed or sponsored by the originator.)