Most Leon County, Tallahassee incumbents cruised to re-election but voter discontent is real
With a recount in one county commission race now resolved, the field is set for Leon County and City of Tallahassee offices in November. Christian Caban edged out Lynda Bell to make the runoff for Leon County Commission District 2. He will face Hannah Crow in the general election. Caban is one of more than a dozen new names that jumped into local politics this year. Yet as the dust settled, most of the area’s incumbents secured their re-election during the primary.
Among those winning outright were Judge Jason Jones, longtime county Commissioner Bill Proctor, county Commissioner Rick Minor, school board member Alva Swafford Striplin, and city Commissioners Jeremy Matlow and Dianne Williams-Cox.
The primary races had been seen by some local politicos as a litmus test. Progressive Democrats viewed a vote to give Florida State University $27 million for improvements and repairs to Doak Campbell Stadium as a business giveaway. They also viewed the party’s moderate center as everything wrong with local politics following the federal corruption convictions and imprisonment of developer J.T. Burnette, former city commissioner Scott Maddox and his aide, Paige Carter Smith.
Yet the results of the primary show incumbents were able to fend off most of the challenges, and former county commissioner Mary Ann Lindley notes no one went full ‘vote the people out,’ as groups like One Tallahassee, which backed a number of progressive candidates this cycle, had hoped.
That doesn’t mean Leon County voters are pleased with their leadership, says Lindley, pointing to the sheer number of new names running for office. “Seventy-five to 80% [of the candidates] were new names and faces,” Lindley says. “That says something about the frustration voters feel.”
And yet so many new names may have also confused voters, says Lindley, thus helping the incumbents. It was also a primary, and voter turnout during primaries tends to attract the people most vested in the outcomes of those elections. What also may have turned off voters were the myriad of increasingly nasty fights over these local offices waged by outside groups like Grow Tallahassee and Our Tallahassee primarily.
“These outside groups tried to hijack the elections,” Lindley says, “and voters rejected both. The campaigns brought out the worst in everyone—and folks didn’t buy the ‘all-or-nothing’ approach.”
Proctor, who easily cruised to re-election, says he’s never seen a local election quite like this one.
“Black candidates running, younger candidates running, women running…I’ve never seen as many different factions and constituencies represented, and it's really starting to look like Democracy," he said while standing outside his watch party at the Moon.
And that’s a good thing, said Proctor, if the factions can get better organized, and clarify their messages to voters.
“There is an emerging force, and the clarity of that message in terms of what they do want is not as clear as what it is not wanted. So I think with a little sharpening of the message to focus on what they want and do want, versus what they don't want is critically important."
Evan Power, chair of the Leon County GOP, agrees with that last sentiment.
"There are a lot of people who want to have a voice and there are a lot of things that aren't going the way people want here in Tallahassee," he said.
"There's crime, homelessness and for better or worse, nimbyism and development is also a problem. And I think you have a lot of competing interests and a lot of people who want to add to that discussion. And you're seeing a lot of new names and a lot of new faces and I think that's probably good for the city because it means we're moving beyond the past and the same old people making the decisions, and now we're having a discussion on where we're moving as a city."
While the primary results may not have completely broken the status quo in local politics, Proctor and Power say establishment groups have been put on notice that they need to have more seats at the table.
How they did
Grow Tallahassee (pro-business, pro-growth) endorsed the following candidates:
- Mayor John Dailey—runoff with county commissioner Kristin Dozier
- City Commissioner Diane Williams-Cox—won outright
- David Bellamy—lost to Jeremy Matlow
- Bill Proctor—won outright
- Christian Caban—runoff with Hannah Crow
- Nick Maddox—runoff with Josh Johnson
One Tallahassee(progressives): some official endorsements and other candidates received money from Commissioner Jeremy Matlow.
- Josh Johnson—runoff with county commissioner Nick Maddox
- Jeremy Matlow—won outright
- Adner Marcelin—lost to Diane Williams-Cox
- David O’Keefe—runoff with Paula DeBoles Johnson
- Paula DeBoles-Johnson—runoff with David O’Keefe
This year’s primary cycle also featured an extremely high amount of money raised. Candidates for local offices cleared the $2 million mark—fueled by a change in state law that increased individual contribution amounts and an influx of outside money from affiliated groups. Yet in several races, the person who raised the most money didn’t win, as was the case in the City Commission Seat 3 race where David Bellamy far outraised and outspent Jeremy Matlow but lost. In the County Commission District 5 race, the top fundraisers—Jay Revell and Dustin Rivest-- lost to DeBoles-Johnson and O’Keefe.