Mr. Chatterbox

Mr. Chatterbox Sizes Up Our Political Candidates

This month: We're going politicking.

By Robert Plunket July 26, 2018 Published in the August 2018 issue of Sarasota Magazine

Image: Shutterstock

They say our next election is going to be a wave, either red or blue, depending on who you’re talking to, with all sorts of new candidates vying with the old stalwarts. I wondered if any new political stars are emerging here in Sarasota.

To find out, I started with the Republicans. They’re easier to find (24 events during the month of June alone) and I was hoping they’d have better food. First stop: the monthly Republican Executive Committee meeting.

The room was packed, with people standing against the walls. There was an odor in the air I couldn’t place. Then I realized—it was the sweet smell of success. Republicans have had an exhilarating year. The Trump presidency is turning out to be more viable than the naysayers predicted, and State Rep. Joe Gruters reminded the crowd they had a lot to do with it. Sarasota Republicans gave Trump the Statesman of the Year award—twice—when he was still somewhat of a joke.

The eight or so candidates present had to talk a little about themselves and answer questions. A few were old-timers like Ray Pilon and Joe, but I was more interested in the ones running for the first time. What an enormous moment this was. They were putting themselves on the line to be judged. Some would go on to real political careers and real power. Others would end up selling real estate in North Port.

It quickly became apparent that there are two issues you have to embrace if you’re a Republican. First, you must affirm that life begins at conception. Second you have to be pro-gun. Heck, you have to be pro-bump stock. Once we got over these formalities, the questions ranged around a bunch of issues, many of which I never heard of. What does e-verify mean? Are we planning to grow hemp?

What did become clear was the split in the Republican Party. No, it’s not moderate versus conservative—they’re all conservative—but rather businessman versus lawyer. Everybody was either one or the other, and each side saw itself as the way to go when rewriting the laws—which they are gleefully waiting to do—once the red wave hits.

My favorite moment occurred when the neophytes tried to answer the question, “What’s the purpose of government?” As they each fumbled for some platitude about individual rights, Gruters finally grabbed the mike and said the purpose of government is to protect our business climate. A happy sigh settled over the room as the question was settled.

Any potential stars here? I must say I was not too impressed. There were a lot of “deer in the headlight” moments. Melissa Howard, a rich businesswoman from Lakewood Ranch (net worth $7.5 million) running for Florida's District 73 seat, looked very glamorous but made a tactical error when she pointed out, rightly so as it turned out, that she wasn’t much of a public speaker. Tommy Gregory, a lawyer with Williams Parker, also running for District 73, brought his three sons to pass out campaign literature and had a nice self-deprecating sense of humor, but the evening belonged to Joe and Ray.

Then surprise guest Baxter Troutman came out. Perhaps you’ve seen his ads on TV—the wise, affable Florida rancher who’s running for Secretary of Agriculture. He wears cowboy boots and goes fishing in his own pond. Well, guess what? He’s Katherine Harris’ cousin!

Their mutual grandfather was rancher and citrus baron Ben Hill Griffin. And yes, Baxter did get his share of the family fortune. In 2009 he had $40 million. Now he has $29 million. (I think we have the same broker.) He’s been term-limited out of the state legislature so now he’s running for a statewide office.

I was quite taken with his down-home charm and folksy style. And let’s face it—people want to vote for somebody named Baxter Troutman. It’s the best politician name ever.

Baxter is very forward thinking and is busy investing in all the marijuana they’re going be growing up in the Panhandle. (Medicinal marijuana, of course. He calls it “hemp.”) I was surprised, though, to find out that in a 2015 marijuana enterprise he partnered with a doctor who owned an abortion clinic. Hmm. Marijuana growing. Abortion clinics. Florida politics. Sounds like the beginning of a John Grisham novel.

Baxter’s charming wife Becky came along from Winter Haven for the evening. He proposed to her on the floor of the House back in 2008. But he did a lot of things on the floor of the House, including cracking a bullwhip to make a point. On an unhappier note, Baxter was arrested in 2012 for throwing a bedspread at Becky and had to spend the night in jail. This prompted a debate in the local papers. Was a night in jail the proper punishment for throwing a bedspread at your spouse?

I was impressed with the Republicans. They’re focused and energized and clearly having a moment. The only false move came toward the end when they were handing out the raffle prize—an autographed book by Karl Rove—and Joe asked for a vote on whether they should proceed with the plan to raffle off an AR-15 decorated with the “Make America Great Again” logo at a future fund raiser. The man next to me mumbled, “Oh, please don’t do that,” but the motion passed.

Now, let’s meet some Democrats. The first one I saw at the campaign event for David Shapiro—he’s running against Vern Buchanan for Congress—was, oddly enough, Gabrielle Giffords. She is the former congresswoman who was critically injured in a mass shooting at a campaign event in 2011. She was here to do what she could for the anticipated blue wave. I’m glad to say that she’s recovered pretty well. There’s a slight limp, her right hand is permanently balled into a fist, and she speaks with a minor hesitation, but other than that she seems in great shape.

The Democrats who gathered at The Francis downtown were a little younger and more diverse than the Republicans and had more stylish clothes. They also had olives, meatballs, cheese cubes and a cash bar. The mood in the room was defiant and upbeat; there was much talk about standing up to bullies, and the solid victory of Margaret Good seemed to give everyone hope that there could be an upset.

Margaret beat Congressman Buchanan’s son James in a recent special election for the state house. This didn’t deter James, though. He’s now running for the same job but in a different district with more Republicans. So they got Ray Pilon to run against Margaret. He used to have that seat but quit to run for state senate, which he lost. Confused? So are the voters.  

The most interesting person I met at the Shapiro fund raiser was Olivia Babis. She’s the Democrat running against Joe Gruters for the state senate, and she doesn’t have any arms. This puts her in an unusual position for a politician in that she can’t shake hands. She also can’t pass out campaign literature, but she solved this problem by handing me an invite to her fund raiser with her foot.

Of course, I went. It was held at the Sahib Shrine and I was amazed to see the parking lot was completely full. It was all pool service trucks. My goodness, I thought—somehow she’s managed to get the pool boy vote.

It turned out they were having a pool expo at the Shrine, and Olivia’s event was being held in a smallish room off the bar. There were perhaps 40 people present, and while munching chicken wings we heard her story.

A politician’s “story” is crucial. For Vern it’s building a business empire worth millions. For Joe Gruters it’s rising up through pro-life politics and finding the right star (Trump) to hitch onto. For Olivia it’s triumphing over her dramatic disability.

Her grandparents—who raised her—were told to put her in an institution. But they didn’t, and gave her as normal an upbringing as possible. She went to public schools and graduated cum laude from the University of Memphis and is now getting her master’s online from City University of New York. She is 41 and lives with her boyfriend. She drives a specially modified van, works at the Suncoast Center for Independent Living, and does most everyday tasks with her feet.

“People have always been telling me it’s impossible for me to do things. To go to college. To run for office. Well, I do five impossible things every day, and that’s before breakfast,” she said.

Impressive as she is, it’s unlikely that Olivia will beat Joe Gruters. That would be front page news the world over. But in today’s frenzied political world, even the unlikeliest candidates can become stars. 

Filed under
Show Comments