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Election 2012 Race Analysis: Mayor of Bradenton

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Mayor Wayne Poston

BRADENTON – Next Tuesday's mayoral election for the City of Bradenton will be the first under a new calendar and new election rules, rendering an air of unpredictability in a race that was already quite interesting. While previous races have been held in off-year elections with an additional runoff if needed, Tuesday's three-way non-partisan race will not only take place on a presidential ballot where there will be significantly higher turnout than has historically been the case; it is also winner take all.

While the race is non-partisan, it's no secret that there are two Republicans and a Democrat on the ballot. In fact, incumbent Mayor Wayne Poston lists his Republican affiliation on his city website page. Richard O'Brien resigned from his position as chair of the Manatee Democratic Party to enter the race, and City Councilwoman Marianne Barnebey had to defend charges when she first ran for her current seat in 1998, that she only switched from Democrat to Republican in order to enhance her electoral chances. Since that time, she's become one of the most prominent female Republicans in the Sarasota/Manatee area.

Barnebey is running largely on giving the city its first female mayor. She notes that the city has had the same two men running the ship for the last 32 years, and that it is important for young women to have role models in the way of prominent female civic leaders. Barnebey's time on the Bradenton City Council has been most memorable for her passion to help shape a more family-friendly downtown, railing against a culture of just more bars, saying she wants to make it “more like Bedford falls than Potterville.” Councilwoman Barnebey has put action behind her words in spearheading projects like Winterwonderland. She also demonstrated strong leadership skills as the trailblazer for the area in terms of using local ordinances to combat the growth of pill mills as the state drug its feet on related legislation.

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Councilwoman Marianne Barnebey

Incumbent Mayor Wayne Poston will be in his first election that is not against Bill Evers, Bradenton's Mayor from 1980-2000, who Poston narrowly beat and then fended off strong challenges from in every election since. Poston has come under fire for a string of big-money projects and initiatives that have met with mixed results, and O'Brien has attacked him for loading the calendar with several big-money projects (Riverwalk, the new transit station, McKechnie upgrades) right before the election. Poston has had strong support from developers and other businesses, having raised just under $50,000 – more than twice as much as O'Brien and five times that of Barnebey. With strong support from the City Police and Fire Departments, conventional wisdom says a well-financed incumbent is always tough to beat.

In a recent debate on METV, Poston found himself perpetually on the defensive trying to explain tax rates that are higher than his predecessor, an underfunded city pension plan that was ranked 405 of 405 by the Lee Roy Collins Institute and bond debt that O'Brien says are proof his spending has not generated worthwhile return. Poston defends all of those attacks as inaccurate or skewed and says that while the recent economy has been difficult on all municipalities, he has the experience to guide the city in uncertain times.

Barnebey offered less in terms of grand visions, but spoke more of listening to residents and serving the community as a conduit to the agencies who impact their lives. If it is fair to say that Poston's vision is a continuation of current policies which he argues have served city residents well, then Barnebey's might be summed up as slow down, talk to the community, and proceed with caution. For those who think that the city has moved forward hastily in spending tens of millions of dollars that may or may not prove worthwhile, Barnebey's steady and deliberate approach would seem attractive, though her relatively small record of dissent from the status quo as a councilwoman over the last 14 years puts the onus on her to explain what makes her so different from an incumbent whom she did not disagree with, at least publicly, very often over that time, a factor which may account for her very-limited attacks on Poston.

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Richard O'Brien

O'Brien brought the most to the debate in terms of a comprehensive platform. He's articulated his idea for a buy-local program, in which local manufacturers stamp locally-produced goods that are prominently displayed in local stores, branding a conscious effort to keep more money in the local economy. O'Brien has also detailed efforts he'd like to undertake to help connect adult-education centers and job-skill programs with local employers so that more jobs created in the area are given to those who remain unemployed locally, while discussing interesting ways he would have spent the bed-tax revenues that helped financed renovations at McKechnie and the $6 million plus that went into Riverwalk. O'Brien has also been quick to point out that there is much more to the city than Old Main Street and the Riverfront, promising to pay more attention to the needs and concerns of outlying areas he feels have been neglected, noting that 95 percent of city residents don't live downtown, but need to have their communities equally considered.

In past mayoral elections, low turnout meant that simply getting people to come out to the polls was a big part of the victory. It also put Democrats at a more significant disadvantage, as they were rarely able to compete with a party that not only had much larger numbers, but were also much better organized to get out the vote. O'Brien will still face daunting odds. However, if Poston and Barnebey split enough of the Republican vote and he can turn out enough Democrats, it would be possible for the USF Sarasota-Manatee professor to win with numbers in the mid to high 30s. Whereas previously, a Democrat who took the race in such fashion would all but surely lose in a runoff as the Republican vote reunited, that's not a factor since voters approved the charter amendment on August's ballot to eliminate runoffs in city races.

Barnebey faces the daunting task of taking on an incumbent within her party – one that is well-financed and has strong support from the city's Police and Fire Departments. She needs to convince enough Republicans that supporting her will not enhance O'Brien's chances and to do that she has to convince them she can win – a very real possibility if she can corral the female vote from both parties, and the fact that she's never been terribly partisan should help there. The accidental confluence of so many variables means anything can happen in this race. Click here to watch the candidates' METV debate.


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