Illness has sidelined Palm Coast City Council member and incumbent candidate Bill Lewis at a critical time in a primary election in which he faces three challengers.
“He is suffering with a significant case of shingles,” Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts said today. Shingles is an extremely painful viral infection that can incapacitate its victims, though it’s generally not life-threatening. The mayor had a brief conversation with Lewis, and the council has excused all his recent absences. (Three consecutive unexcused absences from the council could lead to forfeiture of the seat, according to the city’s charter.) Lewis’s absence hasn’t been a significant factor as all votes during that period have been unanimous. Tie votes would have led to failed motions.
The last meeting of the council Lewis attended goes back to July 15. He’s missed two workshops and two business meetings since. He’s missed a half dozen campaign forums and meet-and-greets. He’s not been campaigning. His political signs are almost invisible. He’s not returned numerous calls or emails or responded to his FlaglerLive candidate interview.
But according to Dan Parham, the head of the Flagler County Democratic Executive Committee, Lewis, a Democrat, is still in the race.
“I didn’t know he was missing council meetings. I did know he wasn’t very actively campaigning,” Parham said today. “He expects that by primary time he should be up and about again, by the 26th. As far as I was concerned I felt his chances were all going to depend upon his record. There’s three unknowns coming in, challenging him, one Republican involved, and as far as I was concerned basically it was going to be with whether people are satisfied with what he’s done so far. He’ll at least make it through the primary, if not, he’s not going to make it. Of course in my position there’s not much I can do no matter what I may personally feel.” Parham says he’s encouraging Democrats to go out and vote.
Lewis turned 83 in June, making him 11 years older than the next-oldest member of the council—Mayor Jon Netts, who’s 72, followed by Bill McGuire, 71. Lewis, born when Herbert Hoover was president, is the oldest elected official in Flagler County, and the oldest local candidate, beating by six years the next-oldest candidate, Joel Rosen, who’s running for Palm Coast City Council as well, but in District 2. Lewis is the District 4 incumbent.
Already a vulnerable candidate before his illness—Lewis’s involvement on the council has been low-key to disengaged—Lewis drew three challengers, all newcomers: Woody Douge and Norman Weiskopf, both Democrats, and Steven Nobile, a Republican. Douge works in the local court system and has been campaigning hard, as has Nobile, a business owner. Weiskopf isn’t taking his campaign seriously and may be a non-issue. But not so Douge and Nobile. The fact that Lewis has never won a competitive election may also play into the primary’s results: he was appointed to his seat in 2008, then ran unopposed the following year.
“Other than a very brief phone conversation I couldn’t even begin to guess when he’s going to be back,” Netts said this morning. “What does it do for this election? It certainly calls into question whether he’s going to be able to return, whether he’ll be able to campaign effectively. He has a track record to run on, his time he spent on the planning board and his time he spent on the city council. Whether that’s enough I don’t know.”
Parham’s fear going into the race was that the three Democrats in District 4 would split the vote and let Nobile, the Republican, through, in a primary bound to draw proportionately more Republicans than Democrats or independents, because only Republicans can vote in the two county commission races, though all registered voters can vote in the school board and city council races. But even there, Democrats are rare, with three of the four Democrats running in all local races concentrated in Lewis’s contest. That’s an ostensibly non-partisan race, but Parham says voters misunderstand the meaning of non-partisan: the office is non-partisan, he says. The candidates are not: they’re registered with one party or another (or as independents), and have the backing of their party or the factions within the party, and the factions’ adherents. That’s certainly been the case with Republican candidates, whatever the race.
In Lewis’s district, if one of the four candidates gets 50 percent or more of the vote, the race is over: he’s the winner. But if no candidate meets that threshold, then the top two vote-getters will face each other in a run-off in the Nov. 4 general. Lewis’s likely hope is that despite being absent from the trail, he could make it through to a runoff on the strength of his record, and contest the general.
His opponents are not faulting him for his absence (which certainly doesn’t hurt them).
“It’s not my judgment on his health, or if it’s that’s what the problem is,” Nobile said. “He needs to judge, not only can he make it through the campaign, but can he make it through the next four years, and I’m not going to comment whether he should or shouldn’t.” He added: “it does make it a little difficult for the voters. The good thing is he does have a record to run on.” Illness, he says, changes matters. “We just need to cut the guy some slack and try to do whatever we can to help him get into the campaign so the people can have a good fair choice.”
Douge termed the Lewis situation “unfortunate,” considering what he has done for the city. “He has the city’s interest at heart that’s probably why he’s still in the race. It’s up to him to make that decision.”