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Wakulla Commission Candidate Stays Mum About His Past As Accusations Swirl

WakullaCushman.jpg
LHatter
/
WFSU News

A Wakulla County Commission race is growing increasingly bitter in the final weeks ahead of the November fourth election. The attacks against one candidate in particular are centering on whether he’s been stretching the truth when it comes to his military service, and education.

Steve Cushman’s troubles began earlier in the year when he declared his candidacy for a seat on the Wakulla County Commission. It started with a profile published in the Wakulla News, which Cushman says was inaccurate. The original article stated Cushman was an Air Force pilot, and Cushman says his critics jumped on that.

“They (opponents)  pulled my military records and there was a mistake in the paper which we already  knew about and we discussed. Between my campaign and the people here we decided to leave it laying because it wasn’t a big deal. Of course, to the veterans its a big deal because of the whole, 'taking advantage' of something they fought hard for," he says.

Cushman was in the Air Force ROTC program at the University of North Texas in 1990. Critics have accused him of inflating his service record. The outrage dissipated for a while but recently flared up again after WFSU-TV’s election show, “Bandwagon,” inadvertently repeated the error. A correction in the Wakulla News in July stated Cushman was in the Air Force Indoctrination program, and it’s possible while there, Cushman, who is a licensed pilot, earned that license. It is also possible to be a pilot in the Air Force, but not be an Air Force pilot. Cushman says there are a lot of things that have been said, and reported about him that are wrong, and inaccurate, but he’s reluctant to set the record straight himself.

“And I have documents to back it up but I’m not going to give it to them," he says. "I want them to throw it out there, and then I want them to show the proof. When do people get smart enough and start asking, ‘okay,  ya’ll keep making all these accusations, where’s the proof?'”  

Cushman maintains there’s no prerequisite to running for office that mandates a candidate disclose all their personal information to whoever asks for it, and he’s right. Wakulla County Supervisor of Elections Buddy Wells, says there are only a handful of requirements for people interested in running for public office. The first is being a registered voter in the district.

“You know, that person would have to file to run for an office.  There’s two ways to qualify. One is by petition method or one is by paying the fee," says Wells.

Cushman is named in a potential lawsuit against Tallahassee Community College and its Aquaculture Program where Cushman served as an instructor for oyster harvesting earlier this year. One of his businesses deals with oyster aquaculture. The complaint, filed by a former student in the program, says Cushman isn’t qualified to teach it. But the program is a non-credit course, and therefore, has different instructor qualification rules than other courses. Both TCC and Cushman have said the potential complaint is baseless, but it has raised another issue. Does Cushman have a degree from the University of North Texas? UNT, citing federal rules, refused to verify his enrollment status. Cushman says his academic records are sealed. TCC says it did not verify his credentials because it was not necessary for the program. Cushman says he has a bachelors degree in Psychology from UNT but will not say when he graduated.

 “I would love for a paper, or radio or someone to come out and ask these people, ‘show me the proof he didn’t fly. Show me the proof he doesn’t have a college degree. Show me the proof he doesn’t know what he’s doing in the aquaculture business," Cushman says.

Proof is hard to get. When he filled out his employment contract with TCC, Cushman listed that he attended but had not graduated from UNT as of January of this year. A large ad published in the Wakulla News accuses Cushman of outright lying about his military service record and a complaint with the Florida elections commission about that issue was dismissed earlier in the year. Critics of Cushman’s have seized on his reluctance to answer questions about his past as a means to attack his candidacy. Cushman believes the attacks are unfair and political. But are they warranted?

“Someone who decides he or she wants to run for public office really gives up a lot of his or her privacy rights. You become a public figure. People want to know about your background," says Gayle Workman,  a former journalism professor at Florida A&M University. She’s also active in the League of Women Voters of Florida.

“When you leave your private life to become a candidate, yes, you become a person in the public and your background is under very tough scrutiny.”

Cushman jumped into the race to challenge sitting Commissioner Jerry Moore, who has been controversial for his support of an ordinance that repeals a wetlands protection buffer zone, and for his nearly one million dollar sale of land to the state for road construction. Cushman says he believes the attacks against him are political. He says because people who would have supported Moore, also support him.

“If you look at Jerry and I we’re aligned on some of the same ideas. If Jerry were to drop out of the race tomorrow, I think a lot of his people will vote for me, and there definitely not going to vote for Anderson because of the Wetlands issue. That’s what driving this whole campaign.” 

The other candidate in the race is Bill Anderson. Still, there is some merit to Cushman’s concern. The announcement of the potential lawsuit came from an email address nearly identical to an organization Cushman runs. The person bringing the charges in the TCC complaint is also a Cushman critic. Most people have strong opinions for and against Cushman’s candidacy which has also been fueled by their positions on the Wetlands issue. Both questions—whether Cushman gets a commission seat, and the fate of the county’s wetlands ordinance, will be decided on Election Day.