Candidates diverge on how to turn voters on
By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 24, 2000
The phone in Annie Williams' office rings incessantly. A political candidate has questions; a voter wants an absentee ballot.
"It's never a dull moment around here," Williams says.
When the boss is away, Williams, the assistant supervisor of elections for Hernando County, is in charge.
And after Nov. 7, she hopes to stay in charge. Williams is the Democratic candidate for the supervisor's post, currently held by Ann Mau, who will retire at the end of the year.
While not promoting any drastic changes for the office if she wins, Williams is running on her 24 years of experience there and her familiarity with the voting laws as a foundation to build stronger voter turnout.
Across town on a recent morning, her Republican opponent started his day the same way he hopes to run the office -- in the community.
Just after sunrise, Gus Guadagnino attended a 7:30 meeting of the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce, one of a slew of community organizations to which he belongs.
He thinks his business experience at the two companies he owns in Hernando and his vast community involvement will help him connect with residents and lead them to the polls on Election Day.
"The promoting of (the vote) and getting people involved is not happening," Guadagnino said over a cinnamon-raisin bagel and coffee at New York Gourmet Bagels in Spring Hill after the chamber meeting.
Though both candidates agree on some points, such as making the supervisor's position non-partisan, improving voter turnout and office technology, they differ in their approach to tackling the latter two issues.
The campaign has come down to these main differences: Williams' experience in the office and her wish to keep much the same while exploring certain new ideas on mock elections and improvements to the Web site, and Guadagnino's promise of a proactive, more visible supervisor who will promote change, from rap sessions with young people in schools on important topics, to interactive Web site programs that allow residents to see how elected officials are voting on issues.
Guadagnino: Galvanize the young electorate
Even before he gets to the door of the bagel shop, Guadagnino is greeted by old friends.
"Watch that meat hook; he's a politician," one man says laughing as Guadagnino shakes the store owner's hand.
At the counter, an employee slaps a "Vote Gus" sticker on his shirt, mirroring the 250 signs Guadagnino has posted throughout the county.
Once settled into a straight-back chair at one of the shop's tables, he is interrupted repeatedly.
"See ya tonight," Bob Kirshy, day manager of Domino's Pizza in Spring Hill, yells to Guadagnino. It's men's night at Spring Hill Lanes, one of Guadagnino's many hangouts.
Guadagnino waves, then continues.
For the past 18 months, Guadagnino says, he's been transferring authority at his businesses -- Joni Industries and Seaboard Pencil Co. at the Hernando County Airport Industrial Park -- to his wife and other employees, preparing to make an exit.
If elected, he says, he will be detached from the companies and devote all of his energy to the elections office. But he doesn't like to say "if." Confident in a victory, Guadagnino does not have any backup plans if he loses.
"Plan B doesn't exist," he says.
It is the experience from his businesses -- overseeing employees and budgets -- that has helped frame Guadagnino's approach to the elections office.
"I can only be as good as the team I have to work with," he says, adding, "I have no intention of going in there and dropping an ax."
On the other hand, he wants to delegate more responsibility to the workers in the elections office so they can be more responsive to the public.
He doesn't have patience for "dead weight," he says, and would like to see more buzz in the office than he witnesses on his visits.
Guadagnino sees himself and his generation caught in the middle between parents who gave up their lives fighting in wars and children who are seemingly apathetic about the right to vote.
"They do care. They probably care more than my generation," he says. But today's twentysomethings were never taught the significance of a vote by their parents.
"My generation gave up a lot of values for the almighty dollar," he says.
Young people need to be reached where they live their lives, through the Internet or community events, like car shows, he says.
"It is more important for the office to get involved with what people are interested in instead of getting people interested in what the office is involved in," he says.
Over at his two businesses at the airport, combined in 14,000 square feet, most of the cars of the 14 to 15 employees have "Vote Gus" stickers on them. His office is lined with pictures of his family.
Behind the front counters -- filled with trophies, shirts, flags and pencils -- and through double doors, designers work behind computers, and other workers move busily behind silk-screen machines and pencil assemblers and stampers.
Machinery buzzes along with the sounds of music from a distant radio.
In one of the back offices, Guadagnino shows off his patent, wooden pencil-vending machines.
"It's a nice job," says Bob Paul, who'll turn 77 this month but chooses to continue making the boxes instead of retiring. "(Guadagnino) is very understanding and appreciates what you do."
Next, Guadagnino is off to a political forum at Oak Hill Hospital, where all but the County Commission candidates stand around and wait for one-on-one questions from hospital employees on their lunch hour.
After21/2 hours, the candidates pack up their literature and signs and wait for the first among them to leave.
Guadagnino is one of the last to go. "See you tomorrow night," someone calls to him. That would be for the Republican Executive Committee dinner. Guadagnino plans to be there, too.
Williams: Turnout boost needs parties' cooperation
The forum hadn't been easy for Williams to attend. It was the first time back to the hospital since her father passed away there a year ago. Afamily woman and native of Brooksville, Williams now spends a lot of time with her mother, even taking her to some of her political forums.
It seems that running for office couldn't come at a worse time for the supervisor of elections candidate. While other political candidates use vacation time to spend days or afternoons meeting and greeting, Williams can't break away from the office during its busiest time of the year for more than an hour or two here and there, she says.
Aside from her mom, Williams has her disabled husband and two children to tend to at home. She admits she hasn't raised much money for her campaign -- $5,292 to Guadagnino's $15,580. Still, despite her busy work and personal schedule, she thinks her name and knowledge of her experience are circulating in the community because she gets messages of support from people she doesn't know.
"Because I'm doing my job, it's really hard for me to get out," she says in the cafeteria of the county government center in Brooksville during a break. "That's why a lot of people don't see me. I'm at work."
She would welcome more support from the Democratic Party in distributing her literature, though she says she has about 250 signs up.
Also, she's been attending the political forums and church activities, getting the word out about her experience in the office, where she worked since age 17, with about three years off to go to college.
As evidence of her responsibilities, stacks of requested labels sit on her desk. Candidates need them to send their literature out to absentee voters. She shows off the 51 computers in a back, locked room with pink walls and mauve carpet, where the interoffice blinds are drawn and only she can work when programming and testing the machines with the test ballots expected that day.
The Accuvote optical scanning computer system is new, used for the first time in March. She helped pick it out by visiting other counties to see how they run elections. Before then, punch cards were put through card readers, sometimes taking several hours to tally. Now results can come in as early as 7:30 on election night, she says.
During a break in the cafeteria, Williams speaks to the need to increase voter turnout, a big issue that she and Guadagnino have raised. But it's not one the elections boss can fix alone, she says.
"I would like to work with the Democratic and Republican parties," she said. "It's going to take more than one person to try to increase voter turnout."
For her part, she would like to push more mock elections in the schools. Currently, she visits the high schools every year to register seniors who are 18 years old.
"I'm just going to have to play it by ear right now and see," she said.
Williams doesn't anticipate making any major changes in the way the office is run if she is elected.
"I would let things stay the way they are, but continue to cross train," she said.
More than any other issue in the campaign, her big strength, she says, is her knowledge of and commitment to the office.
"I know the elections laws and how to implement those laws," she said. "It's not something I have to learn. It's nothing that can be learned in two to three weeks."
Use of technology
GUADAGNINO: Supports a new computer program for the office Web site that would allow residents to vote on important issues, then compare their choices with the voting record of their elected officials. He also wants to see more information put on the office's Web site about voting.
WILLIAMS: Says she would try to put more information on the office's Web site about voting and the office's duties. She wants to explore speeding up the posting of election results on the office's Web site.
GUADAGNINO: In addition to the above-mentioned computer program, he would sponsor car shows and other events to try to reach younger people who aren't voting in high numbers. Also wants to encourage "rap sessions," where young people would discuss issues facing the community. Has already published a children's activities book about electing the president and distributed it to the school district.
WILLIAMS: Supports more aggressive mock elections in schools to get younger people involved early in voting. Also wants to partner with the Democratic and Republican parties to distribute educational materials.
GUADAGNINO: In favor of reaching more senior citizens by bringing voting booths to assisted-living facilities and hospitals so the elderly can vote in person. Thinks absentee ballots are sometimes confusing and impersonal for seniors.
WILLIAMS: Opposes mobile voting booths; says the way she interprets state statutes, a precinct can have only one voting location. Also, many residents of care facilities are still registered where their homes are, disqualifying the facility as a place where they can vote. Favors more absentee balloting instead.
GUADAGNINO: Favors creating new precincts to be ready for growth so voters no longer have to crowd certain polls while leaving others practically empty.
WILLIAMS: Says a new computer program she helped implement that scans votes and replaces punch cards can handle the growth because there are 14 computers added to the 51 in place for each precinct. She agrees that future precincts need to be mapped.
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