Robinson’s loss in School Board race seen as big upset in Aug. 18 Primary

Former chair of Republican Party of Sarasota County known for his work with multiple political action committees supporting conservative Republicans

These are the unofficial results in the two races for School Board on the Aug. 18 Primary ballot. Image courtesy Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office

Thanks to votes cast during the Aug. 18 Primary Election, the Sarasota County School Board will have two new members.

And the victory of one of those is considered a major upset: Tom Edwards of Venice defeated incumbent Eric Robinson, also of Venice. Edwards captured 52% of the 102,690 votes cast countywide, the unofficial results show.

In the second race, former school district employee Karen Rose of Sarasota won 56.18% of the votes, defeating her opponent, David Graham, also of Sarasota. In that contest, the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office’s unofficial results show, 103,220 votes were cast.

On her campaign Facebook page, Rose noted that she spent 29 years “as a Teacher, Principal, and Executive Director” of middle schools in the county. For 12 of those years, she was a special education teacher, the Facebook page pointed out.

Both she and Robinson were endorsed by the Realtor Association of Sarasota and Manatee (RASM), her Facebook page noted.

Karen Rose. Photo from her campaign’s Facebook page

On his campaign website, Edwards keyed in on one major point of contention among School Board members in recent years. He called for diligence “in protecting our public schools from the voucher system and privatization,” adding, “Education funding from Tallahassee lawmakers will be at risk due to the impending financial crisis.” With the latter statement, Edwards was referring to the coronavirus public health emergency.

“Free and public education is a cornerstone of our democracy,” he wrote.

Further, Edwards pointed out that “the safe re-opening of our schools is critical to protect our students, teachers, staff, and their families. Protocols and procedures need to be established incorporating CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines and input from local health officials. We need un-manipulated, transparent data. This requires a steadfast non-political focus. I will be that board member(emphasis on the website).”

A June 12 tweet from the Republican Party of Sarasota County on Eric Robinson’s campaign Twitter account called Robinson “a proven conservative on the leftist Sarasota County School Board who will fight to maintain the district’s high ratings and raise the reading and math scores of the lowest performing students.”

The Sarasota County Democratic Party had promoted Edwards’ candidacy on its webpage devoted to the Primary.

With Robinson’s loss, Democrats maintain control of the School Board, as board member Shirley Brown was a Democrat even before she won her seat the first time, and member Jane Goodwin changed her registration from Republican to Democrat earlier this year, SRQ Magazine’s Jacob Ogles reported.

Robinson not only is well known as a former chair of the Republican Party of Sarasota County, but also as a principal of a CPA firm in Venice — Robinson Gruters & Roberts — that handles campaign finances for Republican candidates. The Gruters in that firm is state Sen. Joe Gruters of Sarasota, who also is chair of the Republican Party of Florida.

Beyond that, Robinson has chaired numerous political action committees (PACs) in Florida.

Eric Robinson. Photo courtesy of the Sarasota County School District

In fact, Robinson’s long-time involvement with PACs supporting Republican candidates most likely was his undoing in the School Board race, political observers have opined.

On Aug. 26 — just eight days after the primary — the Florida Elections Commission conducted a hearing into an alleged illegal 2017 contribution involving Sarasota City Commission candidate Martin Hyde, who lost again this year in a bid to join the city board. Robinson chaired the PAC to which Hyde made that contribution.

During the hearing, Stephanie Cunningham, assistant general counsel for the Florida Elections Commission, testified that Robinson chairs 26 active PACs and is the former chair of 37 political committees, electioneering communications organizations, and committees of continuous existence. (See the related article in this issue.)

Community activist Cathy Cannon Antunes years ago dubbed Robinson the “prince of dark money” for his behind-the-scenes work with PACS whose goal was to elect conservative Republicans.

The 2017 activities involving Hyde and Robinson’s Making a Better Tomorrow PAC “have resulted in a $1,500 fine for Hyde [and] a $2,000 fine for the GOP,” Antunes pointed out in a recent blog. “With fines that are 50 percent or less than the illegal donation, political financiers may consider the penalties just the cost of doing business,” Antunes added.

The voter participation factor

Yet another factor some political observers have credited for Edwards’ victory was the turnout of Democrats in the Aug. 18 Primary.

Rachel Denton, communications and voter outreach manager for the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office (SOE), told the News Leader last week that Republicans cast 48,132 ballots in the primary, while 44,650 Democrats voted and 13,556 nonpartisan voters participated in the primary, according to the unofficial results.

For the Aug. 30, 2016 Primary, Denton wrote in an Aug. 25 email, a total of 40,706 Republicans cast ballots, compared to 28,020 Democrats, 7,957 others not registered with either of those parties and 22 citizens registered with the Libertarian Party of Florida.

Further, total voter turnout for the August 2106 Primary was 26.08%, compared to 32.27% for the Aug. 18 Primary, based on the unofficial count.

Robinson ended up being unopposed for the District 3 School Board seat in 2016.

Robinson’s largest tally of votes last week — 3,437 — came from voters at Precinct 417, located at Sarasota Square Mall.

His second biggest total — 2,906 — came in Precinct 231, an SOE report shows. That precinct is located at Beneva Christian Church, which stands at 4835 Beneva Road in Sarasota. His third-highest count — 2,829 — came at Precinct 535: Woodmere Park in Venice.

This map shows the area encompassed by Precinct 231. Image courtesy Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office

Edwards received the largest number of his votes — 1,930 — at Precinct 417. The second-highest total — 1,492 — was recorded in Precinct 535. His third biggest number — 1,470 — was tallied at Precinct 231.

The total voter turnout in Precinct 417, at Sarasota Square Mall, was 39.39%, the SOE reported.

Campaign spending

The last campaign finance reports Robinson and Edwards filed before the Primary — covering the period from Aug. 1 through Aug. 13 — also show that Robinson spent more than eight times as much money as Edwards did in the race up to that point.

Edwards reported expenditures totaling $24,933.56 through Aug. 13, while Robinson’s tally was $214,100.54, according to records filed with the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office.

Tom Edwards. Photo from his campaign website

Altogether, by the time that report was filed, he had raised $222,195, the document says. However, by the News Leader’s calculations, Robinson gave the campaign $170,000 of that total.

Robinson’s Aug. 1-13 report also shows he gave his campaign $45,000 during those two weeks. He also had contributed $25,000 to the campaign in February, March and May, those reports show, plus two more contributions of $25,000 each in July.

Robinson’s biggest expenses listed in the Aug. 1-13 report were payments of $27,207 and $24,756 to Data Targeting Research LLC in Gainesville for “Design/Print/Postage for Mailers.” A third payment to that company — $4,500 — was noted for “Campaign TV Spot Production.”

He paid another $20,000 to Multi Media Service Inc. of Alexandria, Va., for advertising and $10,000 to Andrick & Associates of Sarasota for “Postage/Mailers.”

By Aug. 13, Edwards reported having raised $32,109.30. He received $900 from the Floridians for Smart Government of Sarasota and $50 from the Sarasota County Democratic Environmental Caucus of Florida, among that batch of contributions. According to the Florida Division of Elections, the chair of the Floridians for Smart Government PAC is Frank Alcock, director of academic initiatives and special projects, as well as professor of political science and environmental studies, at New College of Florida.

Edwards’ report for Aug. 1-13 shows his biggest payment for that period was $2,234.50 to Postcard Mania of Clearwater for advertising. He paid another $2,000 to George Thurlow of Gulfport for consulting, $1,000 to Norman Wirtz of Nokomis for accounting services, and $944.23 to Facebook for advertising.

When Robinson ran for the School Board seat in 2016, he raised and spent $32,579.96, campaign finance records show. His final filing for that race says he refunded a total of $57,470.04 to 189 contributors.

His biggest expenditure among those listed in that final document was a contribution of $12,859.17 to the Education Foundation of Sarasota County.

Robinson filed for re-election on Feb. 3, the Supervisor of Elections Office website says.

Edwards figuratively threw his hat in the ring on March 30, the Supervisor of Elections Office records say.