SWFL State of Play Today: Sorting through the herd

04-28-20 sheep stampede

April 28, 2020 by David Silverberg.

Southwest Florida is not usually known for stampedes—of any kind. But right now a herd of political candidates is charging through the landscape from Cape Coral to Marco Island and all are hoping to emerge as the region’s representative in Congress.

Thirteen candidates have now qualified to be on their parties’ August 18 primary ballots, according to the Florida Division of Elections; two Democrats, 10 Republicans and one Independent.

Who exactly is running right now? And just as important, why has there been such a Republican stampede in a place like Southwest Florida, a place that’s usually so politically quiet and somnolent?

This article will attempt to sort the herd.

The Democratic contest

01-15-20 Holden and Banyai
David Holden and Cindy Banyai

On the Democratic Party side, both Cindy Banyai and David Holden will be on the primary election ballot on August 18. At a Jan. 15 meeting of the Collier County Democratic Party’s Progressive Caucus, both pledged to support whoever emerged as the Party’s nominee.

The Paradise Progressive has been holding online debates between Banyai and Holden on Coronavirus and the economy and will continue to ask pertinent questions. Both are intelligent, articulate candidates committed to social justice and democracy. Banyai did internships on Capitol Hill and taught abroad in Asia. David Holden, who holds a Harvard University degree, served in Democratic Party positions in White Plains, NY and ran for Congress in 2018 against Rooney.

But while the Democratic primary contest has seen a civilized discussion of the issues, the Republican primary battle, in keeping with the tone set by President Donald Trump, has been wilder and less enlightening.

The Republican stampede

The 10 Republican candidates can be divided into three groups.

The rich amateurs

Businessman Casey Askar and urologist Dr. William Figlesthaler are the richest candidates, with cash on hand of $3,482,873 and $1,011,164 respectively, fueled by personal loans to their campaigns. Based on their Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings, Askar has loaned his campaign $3 million and Figlesthaler $1,470,000 ($1,060,000 in the first quarter of 2020 and $410,000 in the fourth quarter of 2019).

Neither has any prior electoral experience, neither has ever held a government position (unless you count Askar’s stint in the US Marines) and neither has ever served in a legislative body. Both are running on the strength of their belief in Donald Trump and their respective business successes—fueled by lots of personal cash.

(Neither responded to questions from The Paradise Progressive asking them to name specific measures they would take in Congress to support and sustain the SWFL economy.)

The Old Pros

State Reps. Byron Donalds (R-80-Immokalee), Dane Eagle (R-77-Cape Coral), Heather Fitzenhagen (R-78-Fort Myers) and Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson (who on April 8 submitted his resignation effective Nov. 30 from the mayoralty, as required by law so that he can run for Congress) are all local elected officials with legislative or executive experience and existing bases of support.

Dan Severson served in the Minnesota state house from 2002 to 2011, giving him legislative experience, although not in Florida.

The poor newcomers

Darren Aquino, a New York actor before moving to Naples, and Christy McLaughlin, a recent graduate of Ave Maria Law School, who will turn 25 this summer to become eligible for office, did not report receiving any campaign donations in the first quarter of 2020, according to the FEC. Dan Kowal, a Collier County sheriff’s deputy who previously served as a US Capitol policeman, only entered the race on April 21.

In a class by himself is Independent Antonio Dumornay, a former Republican who switched to Independent.

The issues

On the Republican side of the ledger, there is virtually no distinction between any of the candidates when it comes to addressing the issues or taking policy positions.

The chief qualification they all cite is total loyalty to Donald Trump and his program—whatever that is at the moment. All are Trump defenders, so their only distinction is the fierceness of their fealty.

Christy McLaughlin stood out this this past weekend by holding an online rally calling for Florida to end any Coronavirus restrictions. She is the only candidate among the Republicans calling to end all forms of quarantine and join Trump’s “liberation” movement.

It is interesting that Dan Kowal, the newest newcomer, doesn’t mention Donald Trump anywhere on his website’s home page. While he’s another angry Republican— “It’s time to stop being ruled by the loud minority: the career politicians, special interest groups, and big business” —it’s not until well into his website, under “key issues” that he declares, “I Stand With President Trump. I’m a patriot. I’ll work to bring justice to those who conspired against the President and against this Great Nation.”

Why the stampede?

So what’s going on here? Why so large a herd of undistinguished and indistinguishable Republican candidates?

The answer is that the 19th Congressional District appears to be a plum ripe for plucking by any candidate, no matter how marginal.

The usual calculation is that in Southwest Florida only the Republican primary counts and winning that primary is tantamount to winning the general election. And the Republican primary is determined by a tiny minority of Republican activists who this year consist of fanatical Trumpers. If a candidate can win even a small following among the people who are certain to go to the primary polls, he or she can take the election.

What is more, the rich amateurs are calculating that enough money and enough advertising can easily sway these primary voters and the usual qualifications like roots in the community, name recognition, knowledge of the region, attention to local issues—in fact, attention to any real issues at all—is irrelevant.

The old pros have a more traditional approach, clearly believing that their past electoral successes, existing following and service record will stand them in good stead. In this, Dane Eagle stands out both for his political experience in the state legislature and his geographic base in Cape Coral, the highest populated city in the District, where he has an existing infrastructure on the ground.

But this year it would be a mistake to count out the Democrats. Even in conservative Southwest Florida unhappiness with the president’s Coronavirus response, his clear ineptitude in dealing with the crisis and what appears to be derangement in his statements and public appearances, may be wearing on more traditional Southwest Florida Republicans.

What is more, the March 17 revolution in the City of Naples, where voters threw out the mayor and entire city council, may just be a harbinger of a widespread discontent and readiness for overall change.

In the meantime, the stampede for Francis Rooney’s seat provides an interesting spectacle, better entertainment than TV and something to behold in wonder while quarantined at home.

Liberty lives in light

©2020 by David Silverberg


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