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Absentees erase slim deficit

Frankie Burnett trailed Brent Gaustad by one vote for Brooksville City Council. But he didn't sweat. Absentee ballots were still out.

By DUANE BOURNE
Published November 4, 2004


BROOKSVILLE - One vote.

That was all that separated community activist Frankie Burnett and educator Brent Gaustad as votes from Brooksville's five precincts were tallied Tuesday night.

To Burnett's supporters gathered at the Frederick Kelly Elks Lodge and Bethlehem Baptist Church, the one-vote deficit signaled the end of a five-month grass roots campaign.

Unwilling to concede defeat, Burnett remained optimistic. He was confident that dozens of uncounted absentee ballots held the key to his victory.

"I have been doing this stuff since I was 12 years of age," said Burnett, explaining his involvement in grass roots politics with the NAACP.

"(My supporters) did not understand the process," added Burnett, 49, president of the Hernando County NAACP chapter. "They did not know that the absentee ballots were not counted."

Before Tuesday night was over, Burnett picked up more than 200 votes from the absentee ballots to defeat Gaustad 1,158 to 1,070 and become the second African-American elected to the Brooksville City Council. Funeral director Luther Cason was elected to the City Council in 1990.

Burnett will occupy the Group 3 seat being vacated by Vice Mayor Joe Bernardini, who chose not to seek re-election.

In the other City Council race, David Pugh Jr. handily defeated former council member Pat Brayton 1,779 to 1,144 in the contest to succeed Richard Lewis, who was prevented from running for a third consecutive term.

With Pugh's comfortable margin, the contest between Burnett and Gaustad provided the most drama among the local races. Early returns showed that Robert Osmond, 34, owner of a printing business, trailed far behind the two.

Burnett thinks he benefited from an unsuccessful race two years ago, when he lost to E.E. "Ernie" Wever 53 percent to 46 percent.

Burnett's campaign organization was also a key factor. The Brooksville native got strong backing from family members and the Democratic Black Caucus of Hernando County. Burnett and his supporters canvassed the city for unregistered voters and arranged transportation to take many voters to and from the polls.

While Burnett knew why he won Tuesday night, Gaustad was left Wednesday wondering what went wrong.

"It was a heartache," said the Hernando High teacher and coach. "I thought I had a platform people would identify with. I guess it didn't work."

He attributed his defeat to the three-man race. Had Osmond, who obtained 609 votes, not run, Gaustad said, the results would have been different.

"That's how democracy works," he said, "you get to run if you want."

Asked whether he would consider running next year when term limits prevent council members Wever and Joe Johnston III and Mayor Mary Staib from seeking re-election, Gaustad said he has already been approached. He was still reeling from the disappointment of Tuesday's loss.

"As of now, no," he said. "The people spoke, and it was not me. I think I am done with the political arena."

For Burnett, Wednesday was just the beginning.

His first order of business is to learn the inner workings of the City Council.

"I don't want to go in there and make changes right way," Burnett said. "I want to be a student, then graduate. I made a commitment, and I will stand by my commitment even if I have to fight alone."

Staff writer Logan Neill contributed to this report.