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Race Analysis: Manatee County Commission District 2


MANATEE COUNTY – In District 2, incumbent Manatee County Commissioner Michael Gallen will compete in a three-way Democratic Party primary against former MCSO Deputy Corie Holmes and Palmetto City Commissioner Charles Smith. While no Republican has filed to run in the November general election, a write-in candidate has closed off the primary, restricting it to registered Democrats in the district.

Michael Gallen

Commissioner Gallen was elected to the seat in 2012 when he defeated 16-year incumbent Gwen Brown, who had held the seat since the district was first drawn. Despite an overwhelming fundraising disadvantage and a vicious attack campaign funded by developers who'd long supported Brown, Gallen was able to win the race, which was an open primary between two Democrats.

A former attorney with the state legislature and DEP, Gallen had been teaching high school in Manatee County for seven years when he left to run for the board. A Bradenton native, Gallen has deep ties to the community and has done a good job of working across the aisle to find common interests and build support for projects and initiatives in his district. Despite being the lone Democrat on a seven-member board, he has built an impressive resume in his first term.

Gallen helped get funds from Children Services redirected from incarceration to their intended use, and he was successful in an effort to create a countywide joint use agreement to open public school playgrounds and other facilities to provide safe recreation areas for area youth.

Gallen's background as an attorney has also been a valuable asset in representing his district and efforts by his opponents to somehow portray that as almost a negative have fallen flat. Gallen has come up with creative strategies to eradicate slum and blight in District 2, one of the poorest and most crime-ridden areas of the county. On several issues, he's helped to take witness statements, research code restrictions and help develop legal strategies to close establishments through code enforcement rather than wring his hands and claim there's nothing a commissioner can do.

While the county does employ a legal staff, it is not their role to take such initiatives. Having someone steeped in the legal process serving on a board that essentially writes the county laws, has provided a unique and invaluable perspective.

Commissioner Gallen also worked hard to come up with creative methods to lure business activity to the district. He worked diligently to expand the work of the 14th Street West CRA and though he was ultimately unsuccessful, he fought hard against a plan to roll it into a larger TIF district, where District 2 would have to compete with other, potentially more lucrative and arguably less-needy areas for much-needed redevelopment resources.

Gallen also worked to have an Urban Inflow Redevelopment Area lined up with the DDA Enterprise Zone in the urban core. The UIRA was created by Florida statute, but the county had never really done much of anything with it. With the districts aligned by the same boundaries, it has helped to simplify and further incentivize development in the North 41 urban core.

Corie Holmes

Corie Holmes is making his second run at the Manatee County Commission, having unsuccessfully challenged BOCC chair Larry Bustle for his district 1 seat in 2012. Holmes is a regular presence at county commission and school board meetings and is one of the most noteworthy young political activists in Manatee County.

Holmes brings significant passion and energy to the debate, and it is refreshing to see a young citizen with so much dedication and awareness for his community. That being said, his platform is not nearly as developed as Gallen's or Smith's, and while his fiery brand of activism might be a breath of fresh air from someone giving citizen comment at a board meeting, his somewhat confrontational approach to the board doesn't make it easy to envision him building the coalitions that will be necessary to get the four-vote majorities needed in order to accomplish more than angry rhetoric.

Holmes is a good activist whose value to the community is considerable, but it's hard to imagine him having the impact that someone like Gallen has had on the BOCC. Holmes is good at listening to voters and would likely be a good conduit between the community and the administration, and his experience in law enforcement would serve him well in that part of the BOCC's responsibilities. Nonetheless, he lacks the public policy experience and nuanced understanding of the legislative process that Commissioner Gallen brings to the table. A few years gaining experience on a smaller board – such as the Palmetto City Commission, Manatee Planning Commission or a CRA Advisory Board – would seem like a good route for Holmes to get to that point.

Palmetto City Commissioner Charles Smith has done an impressive job in his first term as Palmetto City Commissioner as well as in his previous stint on the Palmetto CRA Advisory Board. Smith's ties to the urban core of Palmetto are deep, and he has been able to effectively work with a broad coalition of interests to improve the most significantly challenged area of the city.

While on the city commission, Smith has continued to work with the CRA to creatively encourage development in blighted areas of the city and encourage much needed investment. He has also shown an ability to work well with law enforcement. Smith is a polished and articulate candidate who has broad experience in the political spectrum, serving on multiple state, regional and national boards for groups like the Black Caucus and Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Charles Smith

Smith has definitely proven himself an effective representative for his city district. As a commissioner, he would likely prove a quick study, capable of navigating the myriad of bureaucratic bottlenecks to find funding for desired projects, something he's proven adept at as a city commissioner though that has already been a skill Commissioner Gallen has excelled at as well. 

During his campaign for the county commission, Smith has attacked Commissioner Gallen rather aggressively, claiming that the commissioner has all but ignored his city and painting a very grim picture of county district 2 on the whole. However, Commissioner Smith's rhetoric has tended to be myopic, focusing almost exclusively on urban Palmetto and its challenges. In reality, district 2 is a diverse district that also includes urban Bradenton and Oneco and Commissioner Gallen seems quite in touch with the various communities.

Both Holmes and Smith, who are African American, have also made several statements that seem to insinuate that Gallen lacks the ability to adequately address the concerns of the many blacks in the district. However, district 2 enjoyed African-American representation for 16 years under Commissioner Brown, and it is hard to imagine an argument that residents of all races have not seen their lots improve greatly since Gallen replaced his inept and often embarrassing predecessor.

Demographic shifts have also seen the district become for the most part, equally Hispanic and Gallen, who is fluent in Spanish and has spent years doing pro bono legal work with Hispanics in the county, can more easily assert such an edge in relating to that demographic, though I think all such arguments are rather hollow, as in my experience quality representation trumps the ability to relate racially at all levels of public service.

At the end of the day, it is always going to be easy to point out the shortcomings in a district like 2 and promise to do better than whoever is in charge. It is a challenged district faced with generational poverty and old infrastructure that has been ignored for decades. These challenges help perpetuate deep cycles of poverty, crime, drug abuse and continued blight. For those with options and resources, there are simply better places to invest, live and build a future.

It will take both passion and patience to see sustainable change come to fruition in the district, and Commissioner Gallen has demonstrated both of those skills in spades. While District 2 still faces considerable challenges, crime and unemployment are down over the last four years, while jobs from companies like It Works Global, Feld Entertainment and Air Products have helped to revitalize its economy. It is far from perfect, but getting much better and doing so faster than ever before – the same of which can be said for Commissioner Smith's City of Palmetto district.

The hard work that Commissioner Gallen has done to build bridges and solve problems that would be too easy to either ignore or simply stand on a soap box and bloviate over have paid handsome dividends for his constituents. While both of his challengers bring impressive skill sets and experiences to the table and would be welcome additions to a board that lacks their passion and energy, and is also rather short on diversity, both will nonetheless have a hard time convincing voters they are even more capable than their incumbent has already proven himself.

Click here to view an METV debate between the two candidates

Click here to visit the TBT Primary Election Guide for much more on this and other races


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