Palm Coast Mayor Milissa Holland said this evening that one of her reelection campaign’s television commercials that started airing this week will be edited to remove a frame that her opponent, the leaders of the local Republican and Democratic parties and the head of the local NAACP said was racially insensitive or outright racist. The frame showed her opponent, Alan Lowe, drinking beer with a black man just as the narrator implied (falsely) that Lowe is a criminal.
Holland and Lowe are both Republicans running in an ostensibly non-partisan race. Lowe demanded that the ad be taken down, calling it “racial profiling” and “blatantly racist.”
“I am outraged, considering the climate that we’re in, especially the racial tensions in our communities,” said Jearlyn Dennie, also known as Pastor J, who chairs the Flagler County Republican Executive Committee. “Because I am black I’ve had five white women look at it to see what they thought about it.” They shared her reaction. “I have made contact with Milissa Holland, she did tell me that was not her intention.”
Linda Sharpe-Matthews, who heads the Flagler branch of the NAACP, called the ad “unfortunate” and said it “just reinforces stereotypes.” She had seen the ad Wednesday. “Knowing Milissa I don’t think it was intentionally racist, I think it was insensitive and she should have given it more thought,” Sharpe-Matthews said. “But I can’t say it was intentionally done. Actually when I saw it last night I just sort of rolled my eyes.”
After Holland’s campaign manager and Holland herself initially defended the image in question as innocuous, blaming Lowe for “deflecting” from his own past–records point to a checkered history–Holland said any suggestion of racial insensitivity “is not me,” and that “there literally was no intent” to do any harm. “I would never want in any way shape or form to offend anyone. I have great respect and regard for every single human being in our community. I’ve demonstrated that over the years of my service and as a member of this community.”
Holland added: “I said to Pastor J the residents know my heart and would never believe this nonsense, and it’s incredibly offensive to even suggest this.”
Holland’s record on diversity, outreach and sensitivity to minorities hasn’t been in question going back to her days as a county commissioner, starting in 2006. “I’ve not seen Alan Lowe as part of this conversation until now,” Holland said. “If this is turning to him being offended I don’t see how he’s participated in anything that has moved this community forward other than his complete neglect of his responsibilities.” Holland recently pushed for a “unity” letter from Palm Coast during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement and she’s publicly and strongly rebuffed residents who have themselves dog-whistled about “Section 8” housing, a euphemism covering white residents’ opposition to affordable housing.
Which is what makes her approval of the ad perplexing, though even inattention would raise questions about her command of her campaign.
Holland said she was not involved in the production of the ad beyond appearing in the frames in which she did, and bringing together some of the people she appeared with, among them, she stressed, Greg Davis, president of the Flagler Tiger Bay Club, and who is black.
Neither Holland nor her campaign manager, Brianna Jordan, would say who produced the ad, how often it would run or where. FlaglerLive learned that the ads are showing in different versions on Fox, MSNBC and CNN, roughly 30 times a day from now until Election Day. According to Holland’s campaign finance records, she paid the Republican polling firm McLaughlin and Associates $22,700 on Sept. 21 for ads on cable.
The firm, based in Blauvelt, N.Y., a New York City suburb, specializes in “public opinion, survey research, strategic consulting, media buying for corporate clients and political campaigns,” according to its website. Jim McLaughlin, the company president, “helped to elect President Donald J. Trump,” his profile notes, while John McLaughlin, the CEO, “worked as an advisor and pollster for Donald Trump from the primaries through election day.” (An irony: in the mayoral race, Lowe has embraced Trumpism down to his Trump-style red hat, Holland has not.) McLaughlin’s clients have also included Jeb Bush “and 16 current Republican members of Congress.”
It’s a high-powered firm. Its productions are not made by amateurs. They’re made by seasoned professionals who know what they’re doing, in a business that seldom leaves anything to chance, let alone in a 30-second campaign ad.
As attack ads go Holland’s 30-second TV spot against Lowe follows a familiar template.
It begins with a full-on portrait of Lowe and the superimposed question: “Who is he?” The narrator questions his financial judgment, his “failure to pay taxes, foreclosures, he was even charged for theft in Flagler County.” (A 1992 petit theft misdemeanor charge was dropped before Lowe was arraigned.) As the narrator suggests Lowe’s criminality, the picture of Lowe next to the Black man appears, both holding beer bottles, a beach in the background. The split second is easy to miss. The implication is not.
As a few more images of Lowe scroll by, the narrator asks: “Think Alan Lowe is fit to be mayor of Palm Coast?” The screen mushrooms red with the capital-lettered answer accented by the narrator’s exaggerated indignation: “THINK AGAIN.”
The next 16 seconds provide the usual contrast, making Holland look like the Second Coming with focus-group tested liturgy (“jobs,” “trustworthy,” “effective,” “values”) caroling images of Holland with Well Known Local Republican, Holland with Old Veteran, Holland with Young Doctor Wearing AdventHealth Logo, Holland with Kids, Holland with Dog (leashed, in compliance with city ordinance). The version running on Fox described above focuses on veterans and kids, a muted focus in the other versions, which highlight health care more and don’t show the picture at the heart of the controversy.
Had that been it, the ad would have been a sharp blow against Lowe’s campaign, which is not planning a television ad buy, according to Lowe. The two are in a close race. If Holland coasted to victory four years ago, the primary showed her to be all but an underdog, eking her way to a runoff against Lowe with just 32 percent of the vote (to his 28 percent) in a five-way race. She’s weathered months of accusations and withering reporting by the News-Journal that she’s allowed her work with Coastal Cloud, the Palm Coast-based company, to intersect with her work as mayor. She’s continuously denied the accusations, conceding a couple of misjudgments. The accusations are supported by only meager evidence. All the while she’s been associated with the city’s internal administrative turmoil, though she has nothing to do with it other than being the manager’s boss: Turnover has been brisk, untidy and at times spiteful since Matt Morton took over. She did not campaign during the primary, focusing instead on covid-related town hall meetings and other city business and perhaps thinking, as former Mayor Jon Netts did in 2011–the last mayor to win reelection, back when contests were held in off years and as special elections–that she would coast to another victory without campaigning.
It was only this month that she kicked into campaign mode. The ad was to be the equivalent of a media-buy onslaught Lowe couldn’t match. The weapon’s first salvos now appear to have misfired.
Neither Holland nor Jordan had any idea who the Black man in the picture was. Lowe identified him as “Philip” (he didn’t know his last name), a resident of Dominica, the tiny island nation north of Martinique where Lowe had once lived and where he traveled in 2017 on what he says was a humanitarian mission in the wake of Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 storm that demolished the island. Philip had washed out to sea and managed to make his way back, Lowe said. “We were celebrating his life, this is a man who almost died in a hurricane,” Lowe said. “As a candidate I expect anything they want to play against me, but the racism they threw in there, that’s out of the league, that’s disgusting what they did.”
“The photos were taken directly off of Mr. Lowe’s Facebook page, and one of the images that was pulled was from him living the high life in the Dominican Republic and drinking beer and not paying his taxes, his debts to his investors and it was reflective of the fact that he was not recognizing those that he had harmed,” Holland said. In fact, nothing in the long sequence of images from Dominica indicates that Lowe was “living the high life.” Numerous images show the devastation of the island, several show the loading and unloading of supplies, including basic staples, and one is of a meme about losing oneself “in the service of others.”
Jordan, Holland’s campaign manager, defended the sequence in an interview before Holland directed that the ad be edited. “There’s absolutely nothing racist about this commercial in the slightest, couldn’t be further from the truth and the fact that our opponent is making this accusation is ridiculous,” Jordan said. Jordan runs her own consultancy, Front Street Consulting, and ran campaigns for Sen. Travis Hutson and Adam Putnam when he ran for agriculture commissioner. Both won.
Explaining why that photograph in particular was used, she said: “There were not many photos, there were a handful of photos and we used the ones that we could find.” (The bank of photographs, however, include many of Lowe.) She said the ad was tested with “a very diverse group of individuals, including African-Americans,” without issues, specifying that it was at least a dozen people, at least half being “minorities of some type.”
“Whatever people draw a conclusion on from this ad, that’s on them, we feel very confident that the majority of people will see this ad and take away the conclusion that Alan Lowe is not the best man for the job, as simple as that,” Jordan said. Asked in mid-afternoon if the ad would be edited or taken down, she said no.
Dennie isn’t buying it, at least not in so far as the campaign production is concerned. “It was done on purpose, it really was. I don’t know that she did it on purpose,” Dennie said of Holland. “I’m not placing blame.” But she was. To Jordan, she said: “You and your team with more degrees than a thermometer knew what you were doing. This was calculated.” Of Holland, she said, “She approved it, she watched it, she saw it, but what all this does to me is just proves that people are not sensitive to racial profiling in the media. Either she knew what she was doing or she was completely oblivious to it, either way, that’s a problem to me.”
There’d been friction between Dennie and Holland. Holland claimed the Republican Executive Committee was endorsing Lowe. “I told her that was not the truth, we have not endorsed either one of them,” the REC chairperson said. “For them to say anything outside of that is not only unfounded but absurd.”
Mike Cocchiola, who heads the Flagler Democratic Party, said he’d met with both Holland and Lowe for 90 minutes each and decided to personally support Holland–but not endorse (a distinction in name only). But he was explicit about the television commercial: “I want no part of it. I don’t want anything that is not vetted, that is not true, and while I attack Alan Lowe for being a Trump Republican, that is as far as I would ever go, and the Democratic party wants no part of it and has no part of it. We will not promote it, we will not show it, we will not touch it with a 10-foot pole. If it’s that kind of an attack ad, we don’t do those things. We’ve all agreed as a Democratic Party that we will not go that low. We want to beat Trump, we don’t want to be Trump.”
Holland’s decision to edit the ad reflected a recognition that however interpreted, the ad segment was a blunder–not unusual in campaigns, though the nature of the blunder raises a question of judgment even as the quick pivot also pointed to a correction. “I’m human,” Holland said this evening. Referring to her tenure as mayor, she said: “I am very proud of the work I’ve been able to do. I wish I could celebrate all of that.”