A capacity crowd filled the Hilton Garden Inn in Ponte Vedra Beach July 27, as dozens of candidates turned out to meet with constituents and supporters at “Politics in St. Johns.” Co-sponsored by the Ponte Vedra Recorder and the St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce, the event attracted candidates from races up and down the ballot – including the 4th congressional district race.
Former Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford, who is seeking the office, said his decades of law enforcement experience would be an asset in Washington. “During my career, I mainly worked with very diverse coalitions – it’s all about relationships,” he said. “I’m not an ideologue. I’m not going to go to Washington and kick sand in people’s faces. I believe in getting things done, and Congress needs to do the same thing.”
State Rep. Lake Ray, who is also seeking the seat, said constituents tell him they are concerned about jobs, the economy, national security and immigration. In addition, he said, they’re worried that the recent indictment of Rep. Corrine Brown on federal corruption charges and Rep. Ander Crenshaw’s retirement will weaken Northeast Florida’s representation in congress.
“People are very concerned about leadership – and about having continuity and strength of leadership,” he said, adding that his experience as a state legislator would be an asset in maintaining that continuity.
Fourth congressional district candidate and County Commissioner Bill McClure, meanwhile, noted that redistricting has changed the composition of the district, with St. Johns County residents now comprising approximately 30 percent of its residents.
“St. Johns County will play a very big role in the election,” McClure said. “We have a history of being very conservative – and I intend to keep it that way, fighting for conservative fiscal policies.”
David Bruderly – the lone Democrat in the 4th District race – underscored different priorities, including creating jobs and rebuilding infrastructure through clean water, cleaner energy and by capitalizing on the technological capabilities of the region’s naval bases.
“Obama’s got the right idea with his climate plan but it’s got to be implemented at the local level,” Bruderly told resident Laura Warren, who identified herself as “a Ponte Vedra Democrat – one of three!”
“If Jacksonville wants to grow up and become a 21st-century city like the chamber’s always talking about,” he continued, “it needs to get a little more progressive in terms of the people we send to Washington.”
Both candidates seeking election as sheriff were in attendance, including former sheriff’s office employee Debra Maynard, who said one of her priorities if elected would be to address domestic violence issues involving law enforcement officers.
“I have a real problem with officer-involved domestic violence,” she said. “If we’re going to send people to jail, we better hold our own accountable.”
Maynard said she was encouraged by the response she has received from residents.
“I think I have a silent majority,” she said. “People want a kinder, gentler law enforcement – someone who’ll lower the testosterone level. They want more of a ‘Mayberry, RFD’ department.”
Sheriff David Shoar – who is seeking re-election to his fourth term – sees things differently.
“People tell me, ‘Sheriff, we’re safe, we feel safe,’” said Shoar, adding that in the past five years the county has seen a 37 percent drop in crime. He acknowledged, though, that the significant increase in St. Johns County’s population during that time has stretched the department’s resources.
“Of course, people would like more deputies in their neighborhoods and shorter response times,” he said. “In some ways, I think we’re a victim of our own success.”
To address those concerns, Shoar said, he has submitted a budget request to add more officers in the coming fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
In the race for the Board of County Commissioners, candidate Henry Dean (District 5) called his first run for elective office a “grand adventure.” Yet Dean is no stranger to public service: He served as executive director of the St. Johns River Water Management District for 17 years, during which time he negotiated the acquisition of the Guana River Preserve.
If elected, Dean said his priorities would include managing growth and reining in “runaway development.”
“Very simply, any new development needs to pay for itself and needs to be in an appropriate area that’s not destroying our natural resources and our wetlands,” he said.
Business owner Paul Waldron (District 3), said county infrastructure, development and finances would be among his priorities, and cited his business experience as an asset he would bring to the board.
“Sometimes I feel the county has more of a spending issue than a funding issue.”
Candidate Dottie Acosta (District 5) and Jerry Cameron (District 3) both touted their extensive administrative experience in government. Acosta worked for nearly three decades in the county Property Appraisor’s Office – a role she said put in her regular contact with county and state officials.
“I know how the county operates, so I would make a smooth transition,” Acosta said. “I’m not doing this for notoriety, I’m not doing this for money, I’m doing it for the citizens.”
Cameron’s background, meanwhile, includes a decade as St. Johns County’s assistant county manager, a stint as city manager of Fernandina Beach and service as police chief of two communities.
In addition to issues such as development and infrastructure, Cameron said residents have expressed their concern over what they perceive as dissension among the current members of the Board of County Commissioners.
“It hampers decision making,” he said. “When you’re in a position of trust, you can’t personalize any issue. We’ve got enough of that at the national level. The commission is going to have to work together to get things accomplished.”
Resident Carole McManus praised the St. Johns County Chamber and the Recorder for organizing the candidate/constituent meet and greet. “I think it’s a great idea to have events like this so people can meet with the candidates,” said McManus, the chairman of the First Coast Tea Party. “Education is key.”
While McManus agreed that development is an issue of concern to many residents at the local level, she said that voters have more basic concerns when it comes to their representation in Washington.
“People want to have their elected representatives be accessible to them,” she said, “and to vote according to their constituents’ wishes.”