Recount gives Fowler GOP spot in commission race
By CARRIE JOHNSON and BRIDGET HALL GRUMET
INVERNESS -- It came down to the most slender of margins.
After the polls closed Tuesday night, only 24 votes separated incumbent Jim Fowler and challenger Joyce Valentino in the County Commission District 4 Republican primary. The difference was so slight it triggered not only a recount, but a manual recount.
Yet when the final vote was tallied Wednesday afternoon, it erased any lingering doubts: Fowler had won the party nomination and moved on to face Scott Adams, a candidate with no party affiliation, in the November general election.
Fowler, who is seeking a third term on the commission, picked up three votes. Valentino added one. The vote total for the third candidate in the primary, John T. Thrumston, didn't change.
Fowler could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon.
Valentino, a community activist best known for leading the Heatherwood community's opposition to Florida Rock's mining plans in the Withlacoochee State Forest, said she was disappointed but felt she had run a successful campaign.
"I don't consider myself as losing this race," she said Wednesday afternoon. "I won this race. I won the citizens."
The final count Tuesday night showed Fowler with 4,732 votes (39.41 percent of the total), Valentino with 4,708 (39.20 percent) and Thrumston with 2,569 (21.39 percent.)
Under state law, any election decided by less than one-half of 1 percent triggers an automatic recount, Supervisor of Elections Susan Gill said. Fowler and Valentino were separated by less than one-fourth of 1 percent, which meant a manual recount was legally required.
Poll workers, weary from working an extra two hours Tuesday when Gov. Jeb Bush extended voting hours because of problems in South Florida, gathered at 1 p.m. at the elections office in downtown Inverness to begin the laborious process of re-examining the ballots.
"This is going to be slow, careful and systematic so that we get it right," Gill told workers shortly before they opened the first ballot box.
Because the race at issue was a Republican primary, poll workers first separated the Republican ballots from the others. Then the ballots were fed through optical scanning machines.
Ballots were examined by the Citrus County Canvassing Board, which includes Gill, County Judge Mark Yerman and County Commissioner Josh Wooten.
Very few ballots were actually disputed and the total showed little change from the night before.
Adams said he found the results of the primary encouraging.
"I think it was a lot closer than I thought it was going to be," he said. "I thought (Fowler) had it with the type of money that was spent. I thought he had it quite a bit more. I was surprised it was that close."
Valentino had a 2.8 percent lead early Tuesday night, when the results from the absentee ballots and a precinct in Old Homosassa were posted. But the lead switched three times as more precincts reported their results.
Fowler took a beating in Homosassa, where many voters still are upset over his approval of the controversial Halls River Retreat condominium project. Valentino edged Fowler 3-to-2 in those precincts.
This was the closest Citrus County Commission race in at least 40 years.
The second-closest commission race was in the Democratic runoffs of 1970, when Owen Stephenson slipped past A.R. "Baldy" Strickland with a 39-vote margin of victory, election records showed. Stephenson later won the District 2 commission seat in the general election.
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