Detert re-elected, while Cutsinger wins District 5 seat vacated by Hines because of term limits
Two of the three Republican candidates for County Commission easily defeated their Democratic challengers this week, the unofficial Nov. 3 results show, even though this was the first time since the 1990s that voters had been limited to casting ballots just for candidates who reside in their districts. The Single-Member District initiative won voter approval during the November 2018 General Election.
In response to that election change, the county commissioners last year voted 3-2 to implement new districts. (Commissioner Charles Hines opposed the final map, while Commissioner Christian Ziegler said he believed the board should wait on the 2020 Census results.) All the board members except Ziegler contended that drawing new lines was necessary to ensure that the population count would be as close to even as possible for each of the five districts.
After county staff research — at the board’s behest — showed the population growth since the 2010 Census was within margins that did not indicate a need for redistricting, the commissioners called for staff to hire an outside consultant.
The new districts map approved on Nov. 19, 2019 moved most of Newtown, the traditionally African American community in North Sarasota, out of District 1. A number of Newtown residents pointed out that the majority of the voters in that community are registered Democrats.
Finally, District 3 was redrawn to encompass most of Venice, where incumbent Nancy Detert lives. Prior to that change, District 3 included much more of North Port.
Opponents of the redistricting initiative contended that the commissioners pursued the action in an attempt to help Commissioner Michael Moran, especially, to keep his District 1 seat this year. They also pointed out that the boundary changes for District 3 would aid Detert’s re-election efforts.
Residents of Newtown filed a class action lawsuit against the county over the redistricting, filing their case in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, in Tampa. However, Judge William F. Jung ended up ruling for Sarasota County, writing that “race was not the predominant motive” for the commission action, as the plaintiffs had argued.
The closest any Democratic contender came to a County Commission seat on Nov. 3 was in the District 1 race. Moran defeated Democrat Mark Pienkos by taking 55.89% of the votes, with a total of 52,790 ballots cast, according to the unofficial count.
In the 2016 General Election, Moran won 58.46% of the vote, defeating former Sarasota Mayor Fredd Atkins of Newtown. (Atkins was one of the lead plaintiffs in the federal redistricting lawsuit.) With all county residents eligible to vote in the commission races that year, the ballot tally in the contest was 211,750, the Supervisor of Elections Office records show.
This year, Pienkos won six of the 15 precincts in District 1, the unofficial report shows. Among those Pienkos carried was 121, where he won 51.89% of the votes. That precinct is The Meadows Community Center. Both Pienkos and Moran are residents of The Meadows.
Pienkos’ biggest win came in Precinct 123, where he garnered 66.67% of the votes, based on a News Leader review of the unofficial results. That precinct is located at the First Brethern Church of Sarasota, which stands at 150 N. Shade Ave.
Moran’s highest total came in Precinct 107, where he garnered 70.25% of the votes. That precinct is located at the Old Miakka United Methodist Church.
He also prevailed in Precinct 233 — the one moved to District 1 as a result of the November 2019 approval of the new district boundaries. Moran received 4,076 of the votes there, compared to 2,799 for Pienkos, unofficial results show. That precinct is located at the Sarasota Baptist Church, which stands at 7091 Proctor Road.
Commissioner Detert won 63.08% of the votes in her contest for the District 3 seat. Her challenger was 24-year-old Cory Hutchinson of North Port.
Hutchinson prevailed in only one precinct, 311, the Supervisor of Elections Office data show. That is located at the George Mullen Activity Center in North Port. A note on the Supervisor of Elections Office website says the precinct had fewer than 30 votes.
The turnout in the Detert/Hutchinson race was 59,114, the unofficial tally shows.
Prior to her 2016 election to the commission, Detert served in both the Florida House and Senate.
In the District 5 race, former county Planning Commission member Ron Cutsinger of Englewood took 61.16% of the votes, defeating Alice White of North Port. The number of ballots in that race was 45,569, according to the unofficial count.
Cutsinger won every precinct in District 5, according to the unofficial results.
Commissioner Charles Hines, who initially won the District 5 seat in 2012, had to step down from the board this year because of term limits.
‘Strong local candidates’ versus ‘dark money’
Asked for comments about the results of the County Commission elections this week, Kindra Muntz, president of Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections — which led the Single-Member Districts ballot initiative — sent the News Leader the following statement on Nov. 5: “Despite the last-minute 2019 redistricting of Sarasota County by County Commissioners to shift population numbers to ensure their re-election, the 2020 elections realized the promise of single member districts for electing County Commissioners in Sarasota County. Strong local candidates emerged from each district to compete to bring the voices and issues of their constituents to the county table. Despite campaign limitations because of the coronavirus, these candidates made creative efforts to reach out, share their skills and experience, listen to their constituents and learn their concerns. Like contestants in so many other races in Florida, their main challenge was the vast amounts of money poured into support for their opponents. Until campaign finance reform and Dark Money in elections are seriously addressed, that will always be a challenge, but single member districts for electing County Commissioners offer the greatest promise for local candidates to compete effectively even against the onslaught of cash. They energize the people of the district, give them a Commissioner who they can finally hold accountable, and elevate issues that need to be addressed. Whatever candidate wins, with single member districts, the people win.”
The last campaign finance records available from the Supervisor of Elections Office prior to the election this week showed that Moran had raised $70,094 through Oct. 29.
He also benefited from political action committees sending out mailers on his behalf, as the News Leader previously reported. The political action committee influence on local elections is what Muntz was referring to as “Dark Money.”
Pienkos’ campaign finance filing for the period of Oct. 17-29 showed him with a total of $35,746.05, though $21,500 of that was in the form of loans he made to his campaign.
Cutsinger raised the largest amount of all the commission candidates through Oct. 29: $91,960.60, campaign finance records show.
In contrast, his challenger, White, reported a total of $13,156.20 in contributions in her last filing before the election.
Through Oct. 17-29, Detert listed $24,020 in contributions. Her opponent, Hutchinson, had raised $8,327 by the end of that two-week period, the Supervisor of Elections Office records show.