St. Petersburg Times Online: Election 2000
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Voters discard politics of race in picking elections supervisor

By DAN DeWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 9, 2000


BROOKSVILLE -- Annie Williams, who won the supervisor of elections contest convincingly Tuesday, said she doesn't like to dwell on race, or, as she calls it, "that black and white stuff."

Sometimes, though, in Hernando County, it has been hard to ignore.

The 44-year-old can remember, as a young girl, her mother leading her to the black-only restroom in the rear of the courthouse.

In 1991, when the elections job was open, she felt free to seek the appointment from the Democratic governor. She would not have run for the job, though, because she doubted a black candidate could win a countywide election.

"Mostly because of that," said Williams, who lost the appointment to Ann Mau.

Less than a decade later, Williams, a Democrat from Brooksville, became the first black candidate to win a countywide election in Hernando since Reconstruction. She won in a way that convinced her and other observers that voters paid very little attention to race.

She beat a white opponent, Republican Gus Guadagnino, by 13 percentage points. She raised less than a third as much money as he did and spent less time campaigning, partly because she was tied to her job as assistant elections supervisor.

And, because Hernando's black population is less than 4 percent, she necessarily carried many predominantly white and Republican precincts. Guadagnino won only three of the county's 51 precincts.

"You have to look at it the way it is, her support came from everywhere," said Richard Howell, a board member of the Hernando chapter of the NAACP.

"It's great. It's monumental. It's historic."

People, apparently looked only at her qualifications, Howell said.

"The question I never got to ask the guy who was running against her, was, who was going to train him. It didn't make much sense to elect him so she could show him how to do the job."

Hazel Land, a retired Brooksville lawyer who helped found the NAACP here in the 1960s and lost a race for circuit judge in 1994, said Williams' 24 years of experience in the elections office made her obvious choice.

"This was a perfect opportunity" for voters to elect the first black candidate, Land said.

But she was by no means a shoo-in. Besides having more money, Guadagnino had broad community support and the recommendation of the St. Petersburg Times. The result was due mainly, he said, to the high turnout among the county's Democrats.

"I'm not a betting man, but if I was I would have thought (that) position was going to be safe for the Republicans," said Frank Colletti, chairman of the county's Republican Executive Committee.

But even Colletti had some mixed feelings about the race. He congratulated Williams warmly while watching the presidential vote recount Wednesday at the Supervisor of Elections Office.

Besides her experience, he said, she has always seemed a friendly, capable presence in the office.

"I had no qualms about totally supporting Gus, but as an American, I am happy to see that everyone has the capability to achieve their goals," he said.

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