Mr. Chatterbox

Who Exactly is Disgraced Political Candidate Melissa Howard?

Mr. Chatterbox investigates.

By Robert Plunket October 25, 2018 Published in the November 2018 issue of Sarasota Magazine

Melissa Howard with her husband, Ian. 

Image: Rebecca Baxter 

Hasn’t this been the greatest election season ever? So much conflict, so many interesting characters. Like that woman in South Florida who claimed she was abducted by aliens at age 7 and still got endorsed by the Miami Herald. Politics has become the great drama of our age, and even on—or especially on—a local level, the excitement is full force.

Take Melissa Howard. I first became aware of her at a county Republican meeting. Seven or eight candidates were being presented to the party faithful, and I was looking for first-timers with star quality, the ones who might be going on to bigger things.

Howard seized my attention right away. She was glamorous, with long blond hair and creamy skin. I was vaguely aware of who she was. She chaired galas—some of them major, like Wine, Women and Shoes—and raised money for children’s charities and sat on boards. She was an archetypal Sarasota society woman. What on earth was she doing at the meeting?

Running for office, it turned out. She was facing a lawyer named Tommy Gregory for the District 73 State House in the primary. I watched her all evening. She was a standout. There was something substantial about her. She wasn’t the least bit fragile, and she talked about her working-class roots, including being the first one in her family to attend college.

When she introduced herself, she said that she wasn’t a very good public speaker compared to her courtroom-sharpened opponent. I mentioned her remark in my column, and then said she went on to prove her point. Snarky, but not as snarky as many things I’ve written about politicians over the years, and I also wrote she seemed like a rising star.

A few days later my editor received this e-mail.

I have appeared in your magazine at least 20 times chairing many events for our local non-profits, including Wine, Women and Shoes with Terry McKee. Heather [Sarasota’s former style editor] was on stage with us as well. Please ask them about my public speaking skills. Why do you allow a self-proclaimed humorous writer to cover politics? You will never be the media sponsor of any non-profit I’m involved with going forward, and there are many. Your writer has clearly never seen me actually speak in public. The REC was a Q&A, they asked us to answer yes or no. Nothing has been given to me or my husband. My parents had their GED's. I put myself through college and have worked extremely hard the last 25 years, in addition to serving my community. Stay out of politics unless you are going to research the candidates, report on their platforms, and hire a REAL political expert. This man is a comedian. I am cancelling my subscription and am telling everyone I know to do the same.

Later that day, she sent another email, which included this remark:  I don’t find lying funny at all. I said I’m not a trained trial lawyer, not a bad public speaker.

In my 35 years as a humor columnist, I had never gotten such an angry, vindictive response. Now I was really interested. Who was Melissa Howard?

Her political bio told a classic American success story. She was born in Ohio and grew up poor in a Rust Belt city. Her mother gave her $20,000 so she could go to college and she attended Miami University. Then she worked for Marriott and recruited and trained salespeople for Microsoft until she met her husband, Ian. He was an entrepreneur with a background in everything from fitness and wrestling promotion to pharmaceuticals and drones. They set up something called the International Medical Expo and Market Place, a trade show that takes place twice a year in Miami.

The Expo appears to have done quite well. On her financial disclosure form, Howard declared a net worth of $7.5 million. She and Ian live in a McMansion in the Lake Club at Lakewood Ranch valued at $1.5 million. They own and manage 15 rental properties. They employ five people full time.

I asked around about Howard. Most people recalled a pleasant, friendly woman, “real nice,” as one of them put it. Some women who worked with her on benefits said she could be “bossy” or “a bit of a diva,” but everybody praised her work with foster children and the fact that she volunteered for guardian ad litem.

But what about her private world? Which Sarasota did she inhabit? This remained a little fuzzy until I found out about the tape. Yes, as in all good scandals there’s a tape. Several years ago, Howard and some friends hired a camera crew and put together a sort of audition tape for Bravo. They sat around the pool in sexy outfits and perfect make-up and discussed their lives. Maybe Real Housewives needed a Sarasota franchise. They were the perfect women to deliver it. After all, they lived the lifestyle—the blond hair, the Botox, the Bentleys, the second marriages, the opulent homes in gated communities. It seemed like a slam-dunk. But Bravo passed on making the women stars—and it turns out Howard had a Plan B.

In a newspaper interview at the start of her campaign, Howard said that she’d been planning to enter politics for some time and had been waiting for the right opportunity. This occurred when a seat for the State House in District 73 became available. Her contacts put her at the highest level of the local Republican establishment. Florida State Rep. and Sarasota GOP chairman Joe Gruters was her finance chairman, and Carlos Beruff, the wealthy developer and power broker, put a great big sign of hers in front of his office complex.

Things went great at first. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported she had a double-digit lead over Gregory. Then, a glitch. A conservative website claimed she didn’t really have a college degree. Howard flew into action. Literally. She got on a plane and went up to Ohio, where she got her diploma out of her mother’s storage unit and was photographed with it. There was only one problem. Miami University said that the diploma wasn’t real and Howard never graduated.

The ensuing scandal was covered by all the major news media, including The New York Times and the Washington Post. At first there were her cries of “fake news” and then eventually her acknowledgment of the truth, including her statement that “I never intended to deceive or mislead anyone,” which became an instant catchphrase, in Sarasota, anyway.

And after all that, she declared she would stay in the race and “lead by example.”

The world rose up against her. Social media comments were brutal, mocking not just her but the party.  The word “laughingstock” kept coming up. Finally, the Republican powers that be couldn’t take it anymore. They told her to get out, and the next morning she did. Now she’s on probation and doing community service. The International Expo has shut down, according to its website. Sarasota’s first Post Truth politician has gone down in flames.

There’s a Shakespeare play somewhere in there, with irony in every scene. No one would have cared if she had a diploma or not. A woman of her accomplishments could rightfully boast of not going to college. But it was so important to her that she even crafted a phony diploma. Was it because her mother—the long-suffering mother who worked in a factory to save $20,000 for her daughter’s education—thought she had graduated? Did the lie go back that far?

You can’t help but feel sorry for Howard. As Gruters put it, “I hope she gets the help she needs.” There is something heartbreaking about her story, the enormous longing she must have felt to do something with her life, the years of hard work and then the payoff—ending up a multimillionaire in Lakewood Ranch, poised on the brink of a brilliant second career in politics. It’s a Real Housewives dream come true.

But the lie turned it all into a nightmare. Even in today’s turbocharged world of politics, it turns out, truth still really is truth, and here in Sarasota, at least, truth matters. 

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