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District 5 Hernando County Commission

William "Alonzo'' Merritt and Mary Coyne Aiken seem to work hard to avoid a polished political image.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 1, 2000


For seven months, Republican William "Alonzo" Merritt focused his time and money knocking incumbent County Commissioner Paul Sullivan out of the District 5 seat.

Democrat Mary Coyne Aiken, meanwhile, sat back without a primary challenge, waiting to see who would be her general election opponent.

Now, the two left standing are working to court voters in what appears a contest to see who can be the least like a politician.

Merritt, a home builder, prefaces all of his public comments with phrases like "I'm not a public speaker" before launching into his desire to bring consensus to a once-fractious board. Trying to shed the image of being a creature of Hernando Beach, Merritt has reached out to other parts of the county to hear residents' concerns.

He has alternately listed road repairs, quality of life and growth management as his top priorities. He calls for bringing more business to Hernando County so young people can have jobs, and he backs a "Buy Hernando" policy for county government.

Merritt also promises to listen to the public, something he says Sullivan rarely did.

"You need someone to represent you as the people," Merritt told the African-American Club of Hernando County recently. "I will do that."

Aiken, meanwhile, keeps audiences laughing with a comical commentary on local politics, which she says has become too stuffy and impersonal for the general populace.

She talks in broad terms about issues, saying she refuses to indulge in "threadbare rhetoric" about topics she does not fully understand. But she pledges to listen to residents, represent their interests and rely upon staff members to craft the best solutions to problems that arise.

Aiken supports passage of a second homestead exemption for low-income senior citizens and says the county government should consider implementing a "living wage" pay policy for its employees and companies that do business with the government. She also has suggested that the county build a multilevel parking garage in downtown Brooksville with a swimming pool on the top.

"The commission should exist for happier things," Aiken said.

THE JOB

County commissioners are elected at large for four-year terms, though commissioners must live in the district they represent. Commissioners adopt ordinances governing the county to ensure the safety, health and welfare of its residents. Commissioners earn $44,376 a year.

REPUBLICAN

WILLIAM "ALONZO" MERRITT, 53, of Hernando Beach was born in Georgia and has lived in Hernando County most of his life, graduating from Hernando High School in 1967. He is self-employed as a home builder and has owned Seascape Custom Homes in Hernando Beach since 1997. Merritt also owns companies in Tennessee and Key West. He has been a member of several civic organizations, including the Hernando Builders Association, Hernando Beach Property Owners Association and the First Hernando Republican Club. His wife owns Seaside Realty in Hernando Beach, where the couple lives with their two children. ASSETS: house, properties, banking accounts, boat. LIABILITIES: mortgage, credit cards, car lease. SOURCE OF INCOME: salary.

DEMOCRAT

MARY COYNE AIKEN, 73, of Spring Hill was born in New Jersey and came to Hernando County 15 years ago. Currently retired, Aiken was an assistant art director for several magazines and later a publication designer in New York. She opened Rags to Riches, a consignment store, in 1989 in Spring Hill. The shop closed in 1996. She has not run for public office before, and she does not list memberships in any civic organizations. Aiken attended Mount Saint Mary College in New Hampshire and Cooper Union Art School in New York. She is a widow and has no children. ASSETS: home, savings, mutual funds. LIABILITIES: none. SOURCE OF INCOME: Social Security, investment income.

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