Democrats: New force in Hernando
By DAN DeWITT
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 9, 2000
BROOKSVILLE -- John McCormick, who describes himself as a loyal Republican, has a half-dozen signs touting newly elected Democratic County Commissioner Betty Whitehouse on the lawn of his business in Brooksville, Hernando Pest Control.
He spent many hours in recent weeks making telephone calls from his office, trying to persuade people to vote for Whitehouse and against her Republican opponent, Janey Baldwin.
He even walked into a Democratic gathering to offer his services.
"They all turned around and looked at me and said, "Whoa,' " said McCormick, who lives near Baldwin and said he has opposed her over several neighborhood issues.
Baldwin lost, as did the two other Republican commission candidates, Carey Carlson and William "Alonzo" Merritt, meaning Hernando County will have an all-Democratic County Commission. Two other Republican candidates, Gus Guadagnino for supervisor of elections and Garry Allen for tax collector, were beaten by wide margins. Democratic candidates also ran tighter-than-expected races for sheriff and the District 44 House of Representatives seat.
In every case, the Republicans had spent more money than their Democratic opponents.
It was the best showing for Democrats and the most disastrous one for Republicans in more than a decade. And it follows a series of stinging setbacks for the Democratic Party in the 1990s.
In 1991, when then-Commissioner June Ester switched parties, the commission became all-Republican. In 1993, the number of registered Republican voters surpassed the number of Democrats -- an advantage that has grown ever since. Democrats who went to the polls in the 1996 primary found, for the first time ever, no local races on the ballot.
Democrats and Republicans both offered several reasons Wednesday for the stunning turnabout. Among them:
The Democrats had unusually experienced and well-connected candidates. Democrats worked harder this year than in previous elections. Large numbers of elderly voters, frightened that Republican candidate George W. Bush would risk Social Security and other entitlements, tended to vote Democratic. And, finally, many local Republicans -- generally the more cohesive of the two local parties in the past -- worked against one another.
Outgoing County Commission Chairman Paul Sullivan and some of his supporters backed Democrat Mary Coyne Aiken against Merritt, who had beaten Sullivan in the primary. McCormick and some other party members tried to undermine Baldwin's campaign; Baldwin also said the Republican Executive Committee did not put forth much effort on her behalf.
"If you have a Democratic sweep, you have to wonder how effective your Republican Executive Committee was. Their job is to get out the vote," Baldwin said.
"It concerned me, yes, the lack of enthusiasm for my race, especially in the primary" against Anna Liisa Covell.
Meanwhile, she said, REC members seemed to work very hard for Allen and Guadagnino.
"There were factions," she said.
Several REC members, including Mary Ann Hogan, rejected this notion -- both that the REC was ineffective and that it played favorites.
"We worked very hard," said Hogan, a longtime Republican leader in the county. "We worked like dogs, I'll tell you. My ear nearly fell off from being on the telephone."
The REC kept track of absentee voters and sent them campaign literature, including Baldwin's, she said. Republican workers, stationed at polls throughout the county, kept track of Republicans who had not voted and called them on election day, even offering them rides to the polls.
She, instead, said the Democrats were able to scare elderly Republicans into thinking their benefits were in jeopardy.
"I'm old, or older, and it makes me ashamed of other older people who allow themselves to be influenced by an actor calling them up. I would like to think that the greatest generation, as Tom Brokaw called them, who weren't afraid to fight Hitler, have now sunk down to be a bunch of namby pamby scaredy-cats," she said.
Democratic Executive Committee Chairman Al Jenkins agrees with her, but believes the concerns were legitimate.
"People were so worried about Social Security, they voted Democrat all the way down the line," he said.
However, he also thought the Democratic candidates were strong. Democrats Eddie McConnell, who lost in a tight election for sheriff, and Annie Williams, who won the supervisor of elections race, and Juanita Sikes, the new tax collector, all had more than 20 years of experience with their agencies.
"Those people are pseudo incumbents," Jenkins said.
But, said Diane Rowden, the Democrat who defeated Carlson, "you can have a strong set of candidates and they will lose if people don't get out and work for them."
Democratic Executive Committee members put forth a tremendous effort, Rowden said, and REC Chairman Frank Colletti agreed, saying that if the Democrats didn't work harder than the Republicans, they at least erased the advantage Republicans have held in the past.
There is no evidence, though, that Democrats urged more members of their party to come to the polls than in previous elections. Turnout in strongly Democratic precincts was no higher this year than in 1992 or 1996, according to the Supervisor of Elections Office.
Still, Rowden said, party loyalists did work harder to generate enthusiasm for local candidates.
"(DEC member) Steve Zeledon, the guy is the hardest worker I've ever seen and the Democratic Womens Club just got it into gear," she said.
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