On Tuesday, Republican County Commissioner Robin DiSabatino won a landslide victory over Republican challenger Tim Norwood in a two-way open primary. However, the night before she delivered the victory, members of her own party – her own commission no less – were trying to have her kicked out of the local club. The incident, along with the race results, seem to demonstrate how terribly out of touch many Republican politicians seem to be with the voters they supposedly represent.
The incident flared up in response to a flier that was developed and disseminated by an animal rescue group called Forget-Me-Not. It featured a picture of DiSabatino and Democratic candidate Terri Wonder, who faces incumbent Republican Carol Whitmore in the District 6 at-large Manatee County Commission race in November (neither drew opposition in their respective party's primary). The photo showed the two candidates posing with a rescue dog at an adoption event in the parking lot of Pet Supermarket on Cortez and 26th Street West and encouraged supporters to vote for both of them in their upcoming races.
There's some backstory to the animal issue. Whitmore had long been the face of the county's “No-Kill” efforts, happily receiving laurels and support for what she promoted as a great triumph. It turned out, however, that behind the public accolades and giant downtown mural (thankfully giving away a county building for a “no-kill museum” was reconsidered), the program was something of a disaster, with serious issues both within the county's animal services division and at a local overflow shelter it had been working with.
It also turns out that many people involved – including Whitmore – had been made aware of public concerns over how the program and department were being run long before a Manatee County Sheriff's Office investigation led to the confiscation of more than 300 animals, followed by arrests and then a reorganization of the county’s animal service division. DiSabatino has been the board's strongest voice in terms of demanding accountability for what happened and real change in the way the the division operates. For her part, Whitmore has downplayed the scope of the problems and continued to try and frame No-Kill as one of her victories, rather than the major liability that her opponent – Wonder, who has been one of the strongest public voices on the issue – has projected it to be.
Not surprisingly, some animal rights enthusiasts – like the folks at Forget-Me-Not – have championed Wonder and DiSabatino, who they see as strong voices for animal rights, irrespective of party affiliation; hence inviting them separately to such events, hence the photo op, hence the endorsements and the flier that accompanied them. At the recent Parachutes for Paws pet adoption event at the Bishop Shelter, the brochure was passed out, where once again both Wonder and DiSabatino were both present at a candidates table, campaigning for their upcoming races.
Clearly, candidates do not decide who endorses them. That works the other way around – sort of like voting. Clearly, endorsements are a welcome tool in any campaign, especially when they are from a group that works within an issue that is relevant to the race. To Commissioner Whitmore's mind, however, the very fact that DiSabatino had appeared in a picture with a Democrat running against her and then under the same tent at an event, was a betrayal of the highest order and constituted her campaigning for a Democrat who was in a race against a Republican – a violation of Republican Executive Committee rules.
At the meeting, fellow Republican County Commissioner Betsy Benac followed up Whitmore's disdain with a plea for the REC board to vote on kicking DiSabatino out of the club. After some hemming and hawing, they voted unanimously, not to vote (yes, you read that correctly).
Let's set aside the admittedly absurd issue as to whether Commissioner DiSabatino did anything wrong. She was in an open primary, which means that both Democrats and Republicans could vote in the race. She didn't endorse Wonder or campaign for her. She posed for a picture with her when someone asked and then accepted being seated under the same candidates tent where a non-partisan group was recommending her (along with a Democratic candidate in a different race).
Let’s not forget that because it was a race in which only Republicans were running, the Republican Party's rules prevented it from supporting or otherwise helping either candidate (DiSabatino or Norwood). Because Democrats could vote in the race, it becomes essential to court all votes, even more so than in a regular election where candidates still have to try and pull in independent votes, as well as those from voters who are feeling disenfranchised by their party. Not everyone votes straight ticket. Again, none of this should matter, but the point is that DiSabatino wasn’t in a position to turn away support from people or groups based on who they liked in other races, nor should she have been put in one.
What I find most laughable about local Republicans’ efforts to marginalize and even ostracize Commissioner DiSabatino is that when you consider her voting record, she’s the most Republican member of the board. It’s she who most often stands up for small businesses and wasteful spending, like in the CRA vs. TIF debate, the county administrator’s absurdly expensive contract, or fiscal accountability in a proposed indigent health care sales tax to make sure it didn’t wind up as little more than a boondoggle for special interests.
On more than one of those issues, I recall Manatee County Republican Party Chair Kathy King delivering well-articulated arguments as to why the other five commissioners were behaving like anything but fiscal conservatives, while Commissioner DiSabatino was the only one to whom she could have possibly found herself like-minded.
What local Republican politicians don’t seem to like about Commissioner Disabatino is that she does not stick to the approved script, regardless of how much it seems to contradict conservative principles. What Republican voters – along with Democrats and Independent as well, it would seem – do like about her is that she thinks for herself, listens to all sides and casts common sense votes that she believes to be in the best interest of her constituency, along with the county at large. While that shouldn’t be a rarity, it’s damn close to priceless in Manatee County, especially when someone has an R next to their name.
Around here, it seems that being a Republican legislator at any level too often means little more than that you will toe the party line and cast the sort of votes that keep happy the big land developers, phosphate miners, health care corporations and other special interests who keep the money train rolling. Your biggest worry isn’t the Democrats, who at a nearly 2-1 disadvantage are almost never a threat. It’s being attacked by your own party, outed as something so awful as a collaborator, someone who has forgotten their sacred vow to never work with the other party, even in the best interest of their constituents, because the real constituents aren’t the taxpayers but the Sugar Daddies.
Politicians like Commissioner DiSabatino call attention to their hypocrisy. You can see it in the way her fellow board members rub the bridge of their noses when she buzzes in on the dais, the deep breaths and telling looks that seem to say, Here we go again, what’s she gonna say now, why can’t she just stick to the script like the rest of us. Hats off to the REC for showing some common sense. Casting out one of their few local office holders who can claim a genuinely Republican voting record and is known and respected by the people who actually cast votes and not just sign checks, would be a poor message to local Republicans who have already been migrating to the ranks of the Independents.
Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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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