BRADENTON – Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash issued a statement this week, urging his supporters and local Democrats who were froze out of what would have been an open primary, to give a protest vote for the District 7 County Commission race on November's ballot. The 22-year veteran, who lost to a developer-backed challenger in the primary by less than 2 percent following one of the ugliest attack campaigns in county history, said that voters can send a message that they don't accept the sort of “fraudulent” and “illegal” campaign he says helped lead to his opponent Betsy Benac's victory.
Commissioner McClash says that after failing to secure the nomination by a mere 248 votes out of more than 25,000 cast, he has been overwhelmed by supporters asking why he couldn't run as an independent, as well as Democrats who were unaware that the primary had been closed off. Contested primaries in which no opposition has filed for the general election are normally opened up to all voters. However, a loophole in the state law allows people registering as a write-in candidate to be on the general election ballot, which then restricts the primary to party members, since there is technically opposition in the general election.
McClash said voters can simply write in, Joe McClash, McClash, or even just Joe on the line for the write-in candidate. Though the write-in votes for McClash will not count, he hopes it will send a strong message that such tactics won't be accepted by the voters in Manatee County. McClash says he even broke with election tradition, refusing to congratulate his opponent on her primary win, because in doing so, he felt he would be endorsing an illegal and fraudulent campaign.
“I just couldn't,” said McClash. “I would have had no problem if she'd run an honest campaign to try and demonstrate that she had better ideas on where the county needed to go. There was enough difference between us on key positions to just inform the voters where we stood and let them decide. Had she done that and beaten me by even a single vote, I could have easily accepted the outcome. But not only was that not the case, I think it's clear that her campaign broke the law in their efforts to use special interest resources to sway voters by misleading them with false information. If we just sit back and allow that to happen, then we're saying it's okay for the next time someone else is targeted. Soon those special interests will own the entire board.”
McClash said that Benac clearly coordinated her campaign with an electioneering communications organization called Take Back Our Government (TBOG), which violates state election laws. He says the appearance of a separation allowed Benac to send positive “puff” pieces, while the campaign's dirty work was done by TBOG, funded almost exclusively by interests related to Carlos Beruff and Medallion Homes.
McClash says the campaign's paper trail is flush with evidence of coordination between the two, including piggy-backed robo calls by the same company – one tarring McClash, the next advocating Benac; both using the same Virgina-based political marketing firm, the same Sarasota County-based accountant and even a second marketing firm that was shared by the two.
After the election, it was discovered that the write-in candidate, whose participation closed the race off to more than 15,000 Manatee Democrats who showed up at the polls, was connected to Beruff. Thomas Dell, who has not made himself available to the press, participated in forums or debates, or actively-campaigned for the race in any way, is a tenant of Beruff. McClash says that since the developer has spent nearly a hundred thousand dollars funding efforts to unseat him, and has been quoted in the press as being motivated to do so, it's hardly a stretch to presume he was behind encouraging someone to take the minimal steps required to become a write-in candidate, if he thought it would help Benac's chances of victory.
Contrary to some people's understanding, in Florida, write-in votes can only be counted for candidates who have filed to be write-in candidates before the qualification deadline. Unlike some other states, Florida uses one deadline for both the primary and the general, preventing a candidate vanquished in their party's primary from running as an independent in the general, a la Joe Lieberman. The open primary would accomplish something similar – were it not for the write-in loophole (and the fact that primary turnout is lower). But while McClash's write-in votes won't impact the election, he says there's more to it.
“This is the reason we need campaign and election law reforms,” said McClash in the release. “Until someone says enough is enough it won’t change. It started at the national level, then to the state and now it is at the local level. We will never get good people to run or remain in office if money can buy a seat by flooding an election with deliberate deception and fraudulent campaigning.”
Take Back Our Government Takes Aim at Joe McClash
Editor's note: Joe McClash is the owner and publisher of The Bradenton Times, but has no editorial role in the publication. All decisions on content are made by the Editor-in-Chief, Dennis Maley, who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.