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Flagler Chamber Launches School For Business-Minded Political Candidates, But Behind Closed Doors

| July 31, 2015

flagler leadership institute

Some make it, most don’t. The aim of the leadership institute is to help prospective candidates understand whether they’re prepared for a campaign, and how to better run one if they are. (© FlaglerLive)

The Flagler County Chamber of Commerce has been taking applications from local residents exploring a run for public office, a dozen of whom will be competitively selected to take part in what the chamber calls the “Flagler Public Leadership Institute.” The institute will consist of two full days of training on Sept. 17 and 18 at no cost to participants, and may become a biennial chamber program that coincides with general election seasons.


But although it is designed exclusively for individuals who may become public officials who will operate in the public eye—and some of the program touches on the job’s assumption of transparency—almost the entirety of the program will be run behind closed doors. None of the seminar sessions will be open to the public or the press. The chamber is not revealing who will make up the committee that selects the candidates chosen for the program. Nor is the chamber revealing the list of applicants, though it may reveal those who make the cut.

“These aren’t people that are in the public eye yet, they’re not public officials and we are a private organization, so that’s why we are keeping the process closed,” Rebecca DeLorenzo, president of the Flagler chamber, said. The program accepts neither declared candidates nor officials currently in public office because that would raise ethical matters. Public officials or candidates may not accept freebies without those contributions being part of their campaign or ethics reports.

Nine people have so far applied for the program. The chamber is aiming for 12 but may go up to 15. The cost of the program is between $7,500 and $10,000, including the fee for its main presenter and two days’ worth of meals for participants.

The application tells prospective candidates that the program will help them gain insights into the electoral process. But the program, while ostensibly non-partisan, is not necessarily open to any type of candidate. DeLorenzo specified in an interview that candidates will be filtered based on interests that parallel the chamber’s.

“We’re a business organization and we’re looking for individuals we feel will represent the business community well,” the chamber president said, “so it is a type of filtering process. Not that we’re endorsing or financially supporting any candidates, because we’re not, but we want them to have our small businesses here in Flagler County at the top of their minds, and if business is not at the top of their minds it may not be the program for them.”

The program is a copycat of the Tampa Bay Public Leadership Institute and is run by Mark Mills, an ex- staffer for Republican lawmakers and the Senate Republican Conference on Capitol Hill and the president of the Public Leadership Institute. Mills’s focus, too, is on getting business people to run for office. His non-profit institute’s advisory board is stocked almost exclusively with business leaders.

“The goal in mind is to teach them about the process of being a candidate, the process for leadership strategies,” Mills said. “We may talk about some issues, may not, but this is a curriculum that focuses on how to start the process if they choose to run, and what’s going to be expected of them as a public leader,” during the campaign and once they assume office, should they win.


Helping candidates understand whether they want to run, how to run, and what to keep in focus.


Mills defended the closed-door nature of his program, saying the participants are not yet candidates, his curriculum is proprietary, and he wants to foster open discussion in a private event. “Every public office should be absolutely transparent, and I’m a firm believer in the sunshine law but these people aren’t candidates,” Mills said.

Brian McMillan, editor of the Palm Coast Observer, had inquired at the chamber about whether the program would be accessible to reporters.

“I would have hoped that this would give us a window into who’s potentially running,” McMillan said. “I believe that knowledge about the candidates and who they are is a really a key part of voter education. The more educated the voters are the more likely they are to vote and the better our community is. So the more transparency we have on this, the better it is for our community. At the same time I can understand where if someone is thinking about running and one of their hang-ups is they’re not sure if they want to run through the scrutiny of their lives, they may not want to declare themselves as a candidate in the event the public security starts now.”

The way the program is being portrayed raised more questions in McMillan’s mind than its closed doors. Screening for business friendliness, he said, “changes the dynamic of the whole enterprise, because educated candidates are good for the community no matter what their viewpoints are.” He was under the impression that the screening was focused more on separating serious candidates from unserious ones (in a county that has been producing its share of unserious and unprepared candidates in recent elections.)

“If they’re going to screen these future aspiring committed leaders for business friendliness,” McMillan said, “then they should be transparent in how they’re advertising it. It would be more appropriate to call this the Flagler Public Business Institute, or something like that. If that’s the case, then so be it.”

Its business framework aside, the program will in fact be educating candidates about the nuts and bolts of running a campaign, filling out paperwork the right way, respecting campaign finance documentation deadlines, and so on. A 2010 recruiting letter from Mills cites such things as “government budgeting, economic development, leadership ethics, candidate-filing requirements, communication strategies, and many others” as constituting the heart of the program.

Besides hearing plenty from Mills, who’ll lead the sessions, they’ll also hear from a few speakers, though that list has not been finalized locally. So far, two certain speakers will be Marian Johnson, senior vice president for political strategy at the Florida Chamber of Commerce, and Kaiti Lenhart, the Flagler County Supervisor of Elections. The chamber is hoping Sen. Travis Hutson and Rep. Paul Renner—Renner went through the program in Jacksonville, before he moved to Palm Coast—will also speak, though the schedule may coincide with a legislative committee week in Tallahassee.

Rick Belhumeur, a Flagler Beach resident who sits on numerous advisory boards—the city’s planning board, the transportation planning organization board, the chairmanship of the county’s affordable housing board and the county’s parts and recreation advisory board—has made no secret of his intention to run for a Flagler Beach City Commission seat next year, though he’s not declared for it. He is applying for the leadership program. “Where else do you learn more than people who have already experienced certain things? I think it’ll be a win-win,” Belhumeur said.

Mike McElroy, president of the Ronald Reagan Republican Assemblies, the right-wing pressure group that has fielded candidates in almost every race in the last two election cycles (winning seats on the Palm Coast City Council and the Flagler County School Board) said he wishes he’d had the benefit of the institute to prepare him for his own run for school board, which he lost. “Certainly if they’re first time candidate I’d recommend they do it,” McElroy said. “You learn something on your own the hard way if you don’t have some guidance, but I’m not certain we’d have someone right now.” He was referring to potential Reagan group candidates. “I would hope they open the process top as many applicants as they can, but I certainly understand them wanting to have business friendly people.”

chamber president flagler rebecca delorenzo

Chamber President Rebecca DeLorenzo. (© FlaglerLive)

Participants usually have three chief concerns, Mills said: what they should run for (many candidates aren’t clear about what specific office is right for them), what impact their candidacy will have on their family, and what impact it will have on their business, their job, their career. “We’ve had people, and we talk about this openly, who’ve gone through the program, who’ve owned businesses, who should begin thinking about a transition of their business if they run for state legislature or county commission—do they have someone waiting in the wings,” Mills said, or can they find someone who can carry on the business, as their own commitment to the political job will be heavy. They must also take in  consideration what financial consequences they’re taking on, since the political office is generally less well paid than their private venture.

That’s not necessarily the case with county commission seats, which pay $50,000 a year, or any constitutional office, which pays at least double that. Those positions attract candidates who are interested as much in the money as they are in winning political office.

About a quarter of the participants in Mills’s programs end up running for office. But the program “is not just for people who think they’re going to run in 2016,” Mills said. Some participants use it as an exploration for future plans.

Howard Holley, a candidate for the county commission in 2014, started attending Mills’s program in Jacksonville in 2013, before he announced his candidacy. That program was lengthier, extending to monthly lunches past the two days of intensive seminars. Holley had to drop out once he announced, but he had attended the earlier sessions, which he described as “a huge benefit from my perspective.”

“The two days really immersed me in thinking about politics,” Holley, who until then had spent his life in management and executive positions in private business, said. “For me I hadn’t considered running and didn’t think I would, but when you’re thinking about it, when you’re immersed in the discussion about politics and running for election, your perspective changes.”

The program makes certain questions clear: “Why should you run, what are the things you want to understand about yourself, your family, about what you’re trying to do in the community—just very, very thoughtful concepts,” Holley said. But the program doesn’t answer the questions for the prospective candidates. It frames them in such a way as to enable them to answer them more knowingly than they might have previously. Some might not even have asked themselves those questions, or forced themselves to answer them. In other words, the program is not—as Holley put it—“prescriptive.” It will not show candidates the way to a decision, and it will certainly not show them a way to win, but will help them navigate the way to a more effective campaign.

“The big thing I heard and walked away with is, it’s not about you, it can’t be about you, it has to be about what you can do for the community,” Holley said. “It helped me to view why I was running and to think about what I was trying to accomplish. I don’t know that that inherently gives you a leg up.”

Once the program is over, the Flagler chamber will not follow up with participants, endorse any of them or lend campaign support of any sort. The program’s aim is exclusively educational, DeLorenzo, the chamber president, said. Beyond that, the chamber hopes to keep the program going in future elections.

As for this election’s crop of applicants so far, DeLorenzo diplomatically called them “really good candidates,” while Gretchen Smith, the chamber’s government affairs director, said: “It’s not all the names of people you’d expect, which is a good thing.”

Download a copy of the application here or see below.

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18 Responses for “Flagler Chamber Launches School For Business-Minded Political Candidates, But Behind Closed Doors”

  1. tulip says:

    $7500-$10,000 to participate in a two day class? Nothing shy about the Chamber asking for the big bucks, while be enabled to exert some influence on who they will support or not support down the road.

    • Algernon says:

      Sorry Tulip, the program is free for whoever participates. The article says the course will cost the Chamber the amount stated to put on the program, and some special donations will help offset the cost. The Chamber is not asking for “big bucks” from the people taking the class.

  2. My thoughts says:

    Time to make this an unpaid position. Will the candidates agree to forego the salary?

  3. BIG JOHN says:

    Why the secrecy? Are they trying to become the Flagler County version of the Bohemian Grove or the Bilderbergers? What are the criteria for getting accepted into such a nefarious program? I hope they don’t have to sell their souls for a chance at the brass ring.

  4. YankeeExPat says:

    Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)………(Character, Mr.Ed Rooney) ………. So that’s how it is in their family!

  5. DW Ferg says:

    The media surely will get an opportunity to report on the participants, the process, and more importantly the Outcomes of this program. Since no taxpayer money is in play, the Chamber can decide what they owe the media as far as sunshine and ” blue sky” openness. In my humble opinion !

  6. Donna Heiss says:

    Is this even legal? I did not think the chamber was the allowed to have any political association.

    • Algernon says:

      Of course the Chamber has an interest in government/business relationships – and the politics that go with them as candidates run for local, state, and national office. The Chamber, along with the Home Builders and the Realtors, has run candidate forums for years to help educate the community about the people running for all the local and regional offices. And, yes, it’s legal.

  7. Layla says:

    Doesn’t the Chamber receive public money? If so, this is illegal.

    • Algernon says:

      Layla, the Chamber’s tourism department manages tourism efforts for the county, so yes, there’s public bed tax money involved. It’s all very open and info is widely available from the Flagler County TDC.

      This is separate and does not involve public money, especially since the chamber is not endorsing any candidates.

  8. M&M says:

    I’ve lived here for 13 years and I have no idea what these people do except collect a salary and go to free lunchs.. I think it should be dibanned and done away with.

    • Algernon says:

      M&M, you owe it to yourself to become better educated about what the Flagler County Chamber of Commerce does for and in the community. Here’s their website: http://www.flaglerchamber.org/

      If, after looking at the website, you want to sit down with someone knowledgable, either say so here or call the Chamber and it can easily be arranged.

  9. snapperhead says:

    It should be called the ” I’ve got more money than brains Institute”.

  10. Oldseadog says:

    “. The program accepts neither declared candidates nor officials currently in public office because that would raise ethical matters. ”

    WOW Some officials currently in public office are the ones that most “…what’s going to be expected of them as a public leader,” during the campaign and once they assume office, should they win….” are the very ones that need such training!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (IMHO)

  11. tulip says:

    It’s all about money and having influence over the political scene. Candidates can learn by watching how other more seasoned politicians act and pay attention to those with class and brains and those with no class–we have some of both here. Hopefully they will learn from the people in office that do have knowledge and try to do what’s best for the county. We do have a couple of those kind.

    A candidate should pay close attention and be involved in the city and county issues and acquire as much knowledge as possible and be able to talk about the issues intelligently when the time comes, have a mind of his or her own and not be allowed to be persuaded by others to change their mind, for whatever reason ,on an issue he or she believes in and not to make “deals”.

    A candidate should visit and get friendly with businesses and organizations and learn about their agendas.

    No charge for the suggestions.

    • Algernon says:

      Suggestons all good and common sense. Thanks Tulip.

      I’d think about the “not to make deals” part a bit. Politics is the art of compromise, to get the most good done for the most people. At least it should be. Learning to make deals without giving away the store is a goal for a good politician. And part of that is for some politicians who may feel strongly about an issue to be willing to change their mind IF they learn facts that actually change thier understanding. It happens.

      So it falls back on the public sometimes to look at a politician who makes a deal or changes his or her position to ask why he or she did that. It may be a very responsible thing to have done. So an educated voter needs to figure that out, and not just have a knee jerk negative reaction. Sadly many voters are stuck on position “A” and can’t evolve to “B” when new facts appear.

  12. Brad W says:

    Having concern over the Chamber trying to “breed” local candidates really shouldn’t be a concern in my opinion. The bottom line to having quality people in our local elected positions comes down to voting smart, but the truth is that in Flagler County our local voting record is horrible. We have a culture of candidates that rely on name recognition and focus a large amount of energy in throwing up numerous signs all over and other simple exposure-advertising. We allow them to gt in their sound bites with 60-second answers to important questions at public forums. We allow it to continue and demand little from candidates to truly important positions and issues that effect daily lives. And it is not enough to say”Well, people just don’t vote.” Yes, people do here . . . at least every 4 years in presidential election years. It’s the in-between times that are horrible. And I place a lot of that blame on an Elections Office that has done nothing to grow voter turnout with a strategic community outreach program. And, yes, they have the time and resources in that office because the past Supervisor had plenty of time and resources to run attack efforts on local elected officials and communities.

    Although I think Gretchen Smith is great, I think the Chamber has had little effect on local politics because the Chamber itself has a problem effectively connecting with the community. It’s culture needs an overhaul and move from the cliqueish elitist persona that the community has regarding them. Businesses sign up with them but most will tell you they find little benefit. The Chamber needs an overhaul in their leadership at all levels and until that happens they will continue to have little impact on voting.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Great. The business community slapping each other on the back while “teaching” themselves how to set each other up to slurp from the public trough…All so they can become Republican candidates who complain about all the “takers” in our society who take advantage of the system. Classic. Narcissistic and nauseating, but classic.

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