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A Commissioner Who's Earned her Stripes


When Robin DiSabatino decided to leave the world of real estate and run for the Manatee County Commission I was among the skeptics – as she reminded me when she filed for reelection this week. Having amassed one of the largest campaign war chests in Manatee County political history – the vast majority from development-related interests – it was easy to assume that if elected, she would be just another puppet for the big-dollar builders who own most of the votes. Three years into her first term, I'll happily admit that I was wrong.

Back then, DiSabatino told me that yes, she had received the bulk of her support from developers, agents, mortgage brokers, subs and other pro-growth interests, but argued that having been a local agent herself, these were simply the people she'd worked with – the ones who knew her well enough to support her candidacy with financial contributions.

"I am not a one trick pony," DiSabatino told me in 2010. "I've worked in real estate for 20 years, so these are the people that I know, but their support doesn't mean I'm going to be a rubber stamp for development. I'm in this race because of that rubber stamp. I've knocked on 4,000 doors and I've met with and spoken to the members of my district. I am going to represent them, not developers ... I'm a candidate that breaks the mold when it comes to the rubber stamp and solving problems."

Commissioner Robin DiSabatino

She told me that she had never promised her supporters to do anything more than approach each issue with common sense and a thoughtful consideration of what was best for all stakeholders, and if anyone had gotten the idea that because she'd been a realtor, she would vote in favor of every development plan or density increase, they had been mistaken.

If you cover local politics, you know that that's what every developer-sponsored candidate says. But you also know that a look at a candidate's financial disclosures and campaign finance reports is far more likely to tell you where they are going to come down on any particular issue than anything you hear in a stump speech or read in their campaign literature. The idea that developers had rained down money on DiSabatino, based solely on the assumption that came with reading her bio that she'd stick to the script, didn't seem plausible.

DiSabatino had also received support from phosphate mining interests and was running in the Republican primary against former planner Norm Luppino, who was an outspoken advocate for smart growth, and then faced a smart-growth, grass-roots populist in Democrat Roger Galle in the general election. As a strong frontrunner, she ran a shrewd campaign in which she didn't stray very far from her talking points and only risked alienating any contingency by diving into a controversial issue when it was absolutely necessary. Doing what any good campaign manager would advise, she simply allowed her dollar advantage to do most of the work.

DiSabatino survived the three-way primary – beating Luppino by only about 200 votes – and then won rather easily in a general election for a largely Republican district. By the time she was sworn in, there was still nothing but assumptions to go on, and all signs pointed in one direction.

However, it did not take long at all to realize that the new commissioner was indeed a breath of fresh air and, for better or worse, the exact opposite of what nearly everyone was expecting. DiSabatino made a habit of showing up to board meetings with a big stack of folders, asking pesky questions on what seemed like pre-decided issues, pulling items out of consent agendas and generally being a pain in the keyster for the business-as-usual crowd.

She quickly earned a reputation as a friend to small local businesses, working hard to rally support around the south county CRA, pleading for resources and making the argument that investing in the blighted urban core was a much sounder strategy than continuing to subsidize sprawl in the county's rural hamlets. That may sound rudimentary, but anyone who follows the board knows that such talk is all but blasphemy, especially when it comes from someone who has received most of their financial support from interests associated with the Neal development dynasty.

DiSabatino ended up on the losing end of a lot of 4-3 and 5-2 votes, but even when she was unable to get the victory, she drew attention to important issues and sent a message to everyday taxpayers that someone was willing to listen – and fight – even when their wishes contradicted the plans of Manatee's political elite. Whether it was the Robinson Farms fight, Mosaic's effort to expand its Ft. Meade extension, the Long Bar Pointe battle, getting the coastal evac zones out of the Urban Service Area, the fiasco that surrounded renegotiating the county administrator's contract or the effort to ram through a half-cent sales tax to maintain the status quo on indigent health care, DiSabatino was on the front lines, asking tough questions, stepping on well-polished shoes and ultimately casting the vote that most seemed to respect the interest of Manatee County citizens.

For her efforts, she received the scorn of many of her fellow board members who seemed to make it their mission to marginalize her influence, while also drawing the ire of at least some members of the administration who seemed eager to hang her out to dry whenever an opportunity presented itself. Suffice it to say, she got a quick and brutal orientation as to how difficult it can be to swim against the current in the murky waters of Manatee County politics. But rather than get the message, DiSabatino seemed to send one of her own – I'm not backing down and I'm not going home.

After more than a couple of smart-growth votes, it stands to reason that Commissioner DiSabatino is unlikely to receive the same sort of deep-pocketed financial support she enjoyed her first time around and will likely even draw a developer-sponsored opponent from interests who may feel as though they were dupedin 2010. However, her reputation for casting an honest and well-thought out vote that she backs up with thoughtful intelligence and diligent research should be enough for most Manatee County voters to see past the sure-to-come attack ads and shadow campaigns and view her as something all too uncommon in today's political landscape: an honest, hardworking politician.

This is one instance in which it pleases me very much to have been so wrong about someone committed to doing what's right. I for one hope that Robin DiSabatino sticks around and continues to prove me wrong for many years to come. Manatee County will surely be better for it.

Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at dennis.maley@thebradentontimes.com. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.


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