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Candidates see clout of mobile home vote

A grass roots effort for a sympathetic City Council brings in newcomers and jeopardizes the careers of two incumbents.

Published March 19, 2006

SEMINOLE - Richard Gordon spent Tuesday at the election polls handing out fliers. Voters could choose three of six candidates to fill empty City Council seats, and Gordon was urging them to elect the two newcomers but to withhold their third vote from incumbents Bob Matthews and John Counts.

Things turned nasty, Gordon said, when a man and his wife stopped to ask questions.

"They just started screaming at me that we don't know what we're talking about," said Gordon, a member of Floridians Against Injustice to Residents of Mobile/Manufactured Homes, or FAIR. "They were just screaming at me."

"You're yelling at the wrong person," Gordon said he told them. "I couldn't believe this man was yelling at me," he said. "Then I found out it was Bob Matthews."

FAIR had targeted Matthews and Counts in its efforts to get a City Council more sympathetic to the plight of mobile home owners facing the loss of their homes as parks are redeveloped.

Matthews denied there was any shouting and says the incident was blown out of proportion.

But the fact that it happened at all points to the high tensions that permeated the race and what it could mean to future area elections. FAIR's organizers have said in the past that, if successful in the local races, they would target candidates in higher offices.

In Seminole, the results indicate that their tactics may have worked.

FAIR supported first-time candidates Tom Barnhorn and Trina Watkins.

Leo Plenski, head of FAIR and a Bay Pines Mobile Home resident, could not be reached for comment one day last week. But leaders had said before the election that they encouraged people not to vote for a third council member.

Barnhorn and Watkins were elected to two of the open seats. Left scrambling for the third seat were Matthews and Counts, who late last week were facing a recount and the opening of provisional ballots to settle the race. The two were only eight votes apart.

They were about 200 votes behind Barnhorn and more than 350 behind Watkins. A look at the results by polling place gives a clue of what may have happened.

At the Seminole United Methodist Church, FAIR's stronghold where residents of Bay Pines and Harbor Lights mobile home parks voted, there were 202 "undervotes." That means 202 people declined to vote for all three available seats, voting for only one or two of the candidates. That's significantly more undervotes than at the other two polling places.

At Starkey Road Baptist Church, there were only 14 undervotes; there were 81 at the Seminole Community Library.

The number of ballots cast may be telling, as well. Seminole United Methodist saw 379 voters come out. Starkey Road saw 84 voters, and the library, 356.

"That's more than they usually get there," Counts said of the Methodist church polling place. "That's not normal for that area." The reasons, Counts said, are in part because of the trailer parks in the area. Many of the people are part-time residents and vote elsewhere. Counts suggested some may have changed their registration just to vote in the race. If that happened, he said, that's tragic because part-time residents may have controlled the election.

Both Counts and Matthews said a small faction may have been allowed to hijack the Seminole election because so few people voted. About 10 percent of the city's registered voters went to the polls.

"I think voter turnout has finally bitten us," Counts said.

Counts also said the city will lose experience on the council because one incumbent will leave.

With FAIR's plans to target candidates in higher offices, should other officials be more wary of the views of mobile home owners?

Pinellas County Commissioner John Morroni, who has served in the state House in the past, is up for re-election this year. Mobile home owners, he said, have always been a big influence in Pinellas elections, particularly in the 1990s when politicians courted the endorsement of the Federation of Manufactured Home Owners of Florida because the group controlled thousands of votes.

Morroni said he believes FAIR influenced the outcome of the Seminole election, but the extent is unclear without a comparison of undervotes and turnout from past years. That information was unavailable last week.

It is clear, he said, that citizens who unite behind a cause can influence the outcome of an election because of the clout of the vote. That is more important than donations or anything else at election time, he said.

"Votes are more important than money as far as I'm concerned," Morroni said.

[Last modified March 19, 2006, 01:07:22]

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