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Activist was wild card in race

Because the margin between the top two candidates was small, Ansel Briggs may have been the determining factor.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 9, 2000


INVERNESS -- More Citrus voters cast ballots against David Hickey than for him in Tuesday's general election, yet the former assistant superintendent still won the job of the district's top educator.

The wild card in the race was a community activist named Ansel Briggs.

Briggs, who has no party affiliation, earned 5,483 votes, or just under 10 percent. With the margin between Hickey, a Democrat, and incumbent Republican Pete Kelly standing at just 1,066 votes, Briggs may have been the determining factor in the race.

That is a big role to fill for a man whom officials could easily dismiss just a couple of years ago as he made the rounds of public meetings in a long beard and '60s retro clothing. Briggs has stood before public boards for years, asking questions about how government does business and how it treats the public it serves.

He worked to save the old Lakeview School, complained about the treatment of elderly patients with Alzheimer's disease and regularly attended School Board meetings, acting as the public's conscience on issues ranging from purchasing rules to how the board allows public input.

Then Briggs trimmed his beard, bought a couple of second-hand suits and gained the interest of an entire group of people who didn't want to re-elect the incumbent superintendent or put his former assistant in the superintendent's job.

Just what that did to the outcome of Tuesday's race depends on who answers the question.

Weston Stow, chairman of the Republican Executive Committee, believes strongly that Briggs cost Kelly a second term as superintendent.

"I think that Ansel, being the very intelligent, articulate . . . person he is, attracted the votes of some very, very high-thinking people," Stow said. He noted that those people would be the same who might have voted for Kelly.

"And Kelly, being the reticent, low-key, modest, much-too-modest candidate who really didn't tout his accomplishments and didn't let the public know how much he's done for the school system, that cost him the race," Stow said.

On Tuesday evening, Kelly said he had no idea what cost him the race, although he speculated that Hickey's negative campaigning may have gotten more attention than his own efforts to talk about what has been accomplished.

When asked about the Briggs factor, he noted that without the third candidate in the race, Hickey may have received more votes.

Hickey said he thought Briggs' candidacy would do more to hurt him. But he also said he doesn't know enough about politics to know the real impact.

Joe Cino, chairman of the Democratic Executive Committee, said he didn't put too much stock into the theory that Briggs caused Kelly to lose. Instead, he said, Kelly was the source of his own problem.

"The voters felt that Mr. Hickey was more qualified. Obviously, he has the credentials, and those spoke for themselves with all his experience," Cino said. "Then when you looked at Kelly's history, he had a lot of baggage, and to blame the third party for this is not right."

Briggs said he isn't sure whom he hurt more, but he is sure that Citrus voters didn't want any real change; they elected a candidate who has been part of the administration for years and who is tied to past administrations.

"I think the school district and the children are the losers because of it," Briggs said. "This is something that I had to do, and I did it."

His plans are unclear, but running for office again doesn't seem to be in the cards. Briggs said he does expect to continue to push the idea that the school superintendent's job ought to be an appointed one, rather than an elected one.

Stow also said he thinks the time has come to change the system.

"No one believes more in the political process than I do, but I truly feel that the superintendent should be appointed," he said. "This has just torn the system apart, pitting friend against friend, principal against vice principal. . . . Petty politics should not affect the children in the schools."

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