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"Polarization" the theme of Maddox-Johnson race for Leon County Commission At-Large seat

Two men in suits face each other with microphones in front of them and a banner reading "WFSU Public Media PBS NPR" behind them
Lydell Rawls
Challenger Josh Johnson and Leon County Commissioner face off in a candidate forum at WFSU

The run-off between Leon County Commissioner Nick Maddox and his challenger, Josh Johnson, is expected to be a tight race. Maddox is seeking his fourth term, challenged by schoolteacher Johnson. The incumbent says voters want leaders with experience, while the challenger says they want new leadership.

Maddox says this year’s race has been more contentious than any he’s experienced in the past. He decried what he sees as the “polarization” of the campaign in a 30-second TV ad funded by his Together We Can political committee. He also spoke about it in an interview with WFSU.

“This election cycle has been horrific when it comes to the polarization and the negativity," he said. "It’s been like nothing I’ve ever seen in 12 years, so I’m hoping that over the next four years, we can bring that togetherness, that we’re all one, back to Leon County as well.”

Maddox does see a positive aspect to the competitiveness. He says it’s engaged the voters and given him, as an elected official, the chance to listen.

“And it gives me some tasks over the next four years to work on," Maddox said. "So it’s never a bad thing to have a contested race or have someone challenge you, because in those times, you find out the things you’ve done well, the things you need to work on. But more importantly, you find out the issues that are important to the people that you’re representing so you can take those things into office over the next four years.

Johnson says he didn’t need a close race to learn what issues matter most to area residents. He’s driven by his knowledge of the lives of his students and their families. One thing he says they’re struggling with is the threat of violent crime.

“Quite literally, I could name name after name after name. I’ve got picture after picture after picture on the walls of my classroom of students who were going to the fair or doing whatever and were gunned down," Johnson said. "And while this isn’t to obfuscate the responsibility of the bad decisions that they made, it is to highlight that if we are going to consider this a crisis and a problem, we have to prioritize like it’s a crisis and a problem.”

Johnson speaks often of “the tide that lifts all boats.”

“However, I think that some of the boats have had holes in them," he said. "And I, every day in my classroom, up close and personal, have seen some of the boats with the holes. People that go through more from 6:30 to 7 in the morning than I will all day.”

A subtext of the campaign is that Maddox abruptly left his job as executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of the Big Bend last year. The Tallahassee Democrat reported that he was the subject of sexual harassment allegations at the time. And a political committee that supports Johnson sent out a text to that effect. Here’s Maddox:

“What I will say -- and I’ve said it before -- I think it’s a mischaracterization -- I did not leave the Boys and Girls Club for any other reason but to be able to focus to the campaign and to be able to look at the next four years and really push hard," said Maddox. "So I look forward to the 8th. I look forward to continuing to work hard for Leon County over the next four years.”

Johnson says he’s not associated with Ethics in Government, the political committee behind the texts about Maddox.

“And I’ve continued to talk issues, as a matter of fact, to the detriment of some of the people who’ve supported me who say ‘[whispers] Josh, you’re running against an incumbent, you should really be going negative.’ And I just believe, maybe naively so, that we can win on issues," said Johnson. "And it looks like for once in my life, I was right. Because we’re going to win on the issues. [laughs] Absolutely.”

Whatever the outcome, Maddox hopes that once the votes are counted, Leon County finds a way to come back together.

“You know, it can’t be an us-versus-them situation," he said. "It’s got to be “We’re all in this together. How do we all work together to make things happen?”

Following a pattern common to this election cycle, Maddox, who voted to spend $27 million on repairs to Florida State University’s Doak Campbell Stadium, has collected more than twice the amount of money that Johnson has. He’s been endorsed by the Police Benevolent Association, the Tallahassee Board of Realtors, the Capital Outlook, Congressman Al Lawson and Reverend R.B. Holmes.

Johnson opposed the money for Doak Campbell Stadium. He’s been endorsed by the Leon Classroom Teachers Association, the Leon County Democratic Environmental Caucus, the Big Bend Chapter of the AFL-CIO, the Florida Chapter of the National Organization for Women and Tallahassee City Commissioner Jeremy Matlow.

Follow @MargieMenzel

Margie Menzel covers local and state government for WFSU News. She has also worked at the News Service of Florida and Gannett News Service. She earned her B.A. in history at Vanderbilt University and her M.S. in journalism at Florida A&M University.