It’s been the worst week of Joe Mullins’s nearly-four year tenure on the Flagler County Commission, less than six weeks from the Aug. 23 primary.
On Wednesday, a straw poll organized by the Republican Executive Committee in Flagler resulted in a 77 percent win for Leann Pennington, Mullins’s opponent in the Republican primary on Aug. 23. She took 41 votes to his 12 among Republicans, a trouncing that suggests trouble for his reelection chances.
“The spectacular showing of a nearly complete unknown is stunning,” a Republican who was at the meeting said, asking for anonymity.
But for Mullins’s money, Pennington is a strong candidate in her own right–measured, thoughtful, deeply rooted in Flagler and opinionated, and until recently little known. She’s benefiting from a roiling blowback against Mullins.
All week, Mullins has gone national–not the way he’d have wanted, but, judging from a ceaseless pattern in his time in office, likely the only way he could have: by drawing attention to his abuse of authority, his threats to public servants, his manipulation of judges, and his insults of constituents.
This week alone, NBC News, People Magazine, the conservative New York Post, the liberal Huffington Post and Daily Kos, England’s populist Daily Mail, Yahoo News, and of course several Orlando television stations and the News-Journal picked up the story after FlaglerLive reported over three articles since June 23 that Mullins in a series of traffic stops sought to pull rank, abuse his authority to get out of citations, claimed that he was “over the state” and that “I run this county” (meaning Flagler), and threatened a trooper’s job while he was himself getting warned of being taken to jail if he continued to defy law enforcement. Every time, he then begged favors of judges. It’s turned into his own troopergate.
Only WNZF, Flagler County’s news radio, and the Palm Coast Observer have yet to run a story about the incidents. Both say they will this coming week. (AskFlagler did earlier this week.) The Observer and WNZF’s Flagler radio are beneficiaries of heavy advertising by Mullins, who often uses his company’s name as an umbrella for his local campaigning. He buys and hosts a half-hour commercial on WNZF every Friday, for $200 a week, which he has used to smear opponents, call for the beheading of liberals and often spread disinformation, which he repeats in public appearances.
Mullins–who currently faces a $2.4 million federal lawsuit alleging fraud–has insulted fellow-commissioners directly and threatened one of them before. He’s slandered a Flagler Beach city commissioner. He sponsored a busload of participants to the Jan. 6 Trump rally that devolved into an insurrection (see the video below), drawing a charge from another Flagler Beach commissioner that he’d violated his oath. He’s been criticized by fellow commissioners at the county and in cities for making false and inflammatory claims. His own commission repudiated his use of county letterhead to peddle lies about Joe Biden’s election.
He executed a cozy land deal with a former county administrator he oversaw. He’s insulted and demeaned members of the LGBTQ community, women, non-Trump Republicans and non-Christians, and has frequently used racist terminology and imagery on his Facebook page. A school board member called him a “pied piper of hate.”
But despite repeated calls to censure him, two commissioners–Donald O’Brien and Dave Sullivan–have stood by him again, again and again, minimizing issues and refusing to censure, instead elevating him to the chairmanship of the commission, which he currently holds.
It’s taken videos of Mullins disrespecting law enforcement and attempting to abuse his authority over Florida Highway Patrol troopers for his behavior to go viral and draw near-universal rebukes, even from the chairman of the Flagler County Republican Party.
“His behavior or his actions are not becoming of a Republican elected official and stand as a disappointment,” Bob Updegrave, the local party chairman, said today. “My charge is the enhancement of the Republican brand in Flagler County, to better serve our registered Republican community, period. So it’s that disappointment in his behavior’s effect on the Republican Party brand in Flagler County.”
Mullins’s troopergate has triggered a series of social media memes and videos, one of which has collected over 17,000 views so far. He’s received emails from property owners demanding that he remove his campaign signs from their land (“My family drives these roads and you are making them feel very UNSAFE for ALL of us,” one wrote on July 13), and his own Facebook page’s comments are bulging with ridicule, memes and images like that of a Mullins sign in a garbage can.
When asked if Mullins should remain chairman of the commission, Updegrave said it was not his call. “Any action with regard to that is in the hands of the other four members of the commission, or himself,” he said.
Sullivan was critical of Mullins’s conduct with the troopers, but stopped short, as he has in the past, of calling for action. “I guess publicity is publicity and bad publicity is not good, but I don’t think there’s anything he’s done legally or illegally that would warrant removal at this time,” Sullivan said of Mullins. But the comment Mullins made to the state trooper “was not a smart comment to make at that point in any way.” He added: “I think it was a poor use of language and not good behavior for any citizen.”
Sullivan reverted to the ceremonial aspects of the job, somewhat disingenuously: the chairmanship is coveted for a reason. It grants the chair ceremonial authority, of course, but it is also the most high-visibility position of any panelist, and its holder speaks for the county, signs for the county and, in Mullins’s case, uses the position as a cloak of authority. “Chairmanship is mostly a Robert’s Rules position,” Sullivan said, referring to Robert’s Rules of Order, the commonly used manual for local parliamentary bodies and boards. “He only gets 20 percent of the vote, like everybody else. I think at this point in time, we’re fine, we’ll switch chairmanship in November. We have an election coming up, so I don’t think it would be an opportune time” to switch chairmanship.
Sullivan said the commission itself was “doing fine as far as decisions we’re making,” and that he himself was doing his best to stay out of the politics of the season, because he is a member of the Flagler County Canvassing Board this year. “I don’t think it’s my role to get into the political side of this because no matter what I would say it probably would have an effect one way or the other, I’m really trying to avoid comment on this particular incident.”
Mullins is said to be seeking counsel from officials locally, possibly to issue an apology about his behavior–a prospect that drew scoffs from some Republicans who only spoke privately. Sullivan said Mullins had not sought counsel from him. “If he did, I would just tell him right now I just can’t get involved.”
The straw poll is bad news for Mullins, but it’s not necessarily fatal, even though a similar poll in 2018 picked the winner in 10 of 14 races. Mullins was in that 2018 straw poll too–and lost it, too, albeit by a smaller margin, with Nate McLaughlin, the incumbent at the time, taking 67 percent of the vote. Mullins went on to win the primary with 57 percent of the vote. But back then Mullins was the relative unknown profiting from disenchantment with McLaughlin.
Wednesday’s straw poll had incumbent Sen. Travis Hutson beating his Republican challenger, Gerald James, with 91 percent of the vote. Incumbent County Commissioner Greg Hansen took 87 percent of the vote in his race against Denise Calderwood and Janet McDonald–but four years ago, McDonald in that straw poll took only 22 percent of the vote in her school board race against John Fischer and Carl Jones, with Jones actually beating both, with 43 percent. McDonald ended up taking 40 percent in the first round, and beating Fischer in the general election with just 326 more votes out of 46,000 cast.
In the District 2 race for the Palm Coast City Council, the straw poll had Theresa Carli Pontieri beating Alan Lowe and Shauna Kanter with 86 percent of the vote. Sims Jones, being a Democrat in that non-partisan race, did not appear on the list or as a choice. Nor was the council’s District 4 race on the straw poll ballot, because Fernando Melendez and Cathy Heighter will not be on the ballot until November. Wednesday’s poll drew on 44 participants, compared to 171 in 2018.