Valentino, Damato part of new face for board

An observer says the commission's makeup is changing from one where the majority sided with development interests.

Published November 3, 2004

Joyce Valentino's screams of victory resounded through the Citrus County Supervisor of Elections Office.

"I did work hard," said Valentino, a Republican, who defeated incumbent Democrat Josh Wooten in the District 5 County Commission race.

Running for the District 4 seat, Valentino narrowly lost in the 2002 GOP primary to Commissioner Jim Fowler. But this time, she won a seat on the commission.

"I fought hard," she said.

In the other County Commission race, Republican Dennis Damato handily defeated Democrat Jimmy Carr for the District 1 seat. The incumbent, Roger Batchelor, lost in the GOP primary.

"The people were not happy with the board," said sitting Commissioner Vicki Phillips, who will now be part of an all-Republican commission. "They don't want us to grow into Pinellas County."

Wooten's departure, along with Damato's defeat of Batchelor in the primary, changes the commission's makeup from one where the majority sided with development interests on major issues, Phillips said, to one that sides with the environment.

The results seem to represent a shift in the county's populace from one of mostly natives who would like Citrus to continue booming to one of newcomers and retirees who want preservation.

Valentino said it was voters' lack of "trust" on the commission that elected her - something she looked forward to restoring.

For more than a decade, Valentino has been an activist for resident and environmental groups, which translated into grass-roots support. Wooten, a car dealer, was tight with the business community and sheriff.

"I'm going to be an independent person," Valentino said, "and make my own decisions."

Wooten could not be reached for comment Tuesday night.

The race between Wooten and Valentino was the most contentious in Citrus County in several years.

Wooten, a 42-year-old Democrat in his first term, was backed by developers and Realtors. Valentino, 56, was supported by environmentalists.

The mudslinging, however, didn't come from either candidate's campaign. It came from two independent political committees.

Citizens for a Better Citrus, a group of builders, subcontractors and real estate agents that raised nearly $121,000, sent fliers trumpeting Wooten as a commissioner who "took steps to end fraud and abuse" - claims that were challenged by other commissioners and later rescinded.

The committee followed up by sending another mail piece that called Valentino a dangerous tax hiker.

In response, Homosassa environmentalist and Valentino supporter Jim Bitter created his own political committee. Called Truth in Political Advertising, the group launched several anti-Wooten advertisements. A mailer the group sent out asked whether the Sheriff's Office should have arrested Wooten for domestic abuse and his wife in a drug case.

In the District 1 race, 59 percent of voters chose Damato, 52, who ran a campaign touting his 33 years of building experience as a general contractor.

Justin George can be reached at 352 860-7309 or jgeorge@sptimes.com