There was a flurry of activity at the Flagler County Supervisor of Elections’ office just before noon today. Noon was the end of qualifying for all offices on the ballot in the Aug. 30 primary and the Nov. 8 general elections.
Republican Jason France was a late arrival to qualify for the county commission seat held by Barbara Revels. He made it with only a few minutes to spare, after his printer had proven uncooperative, though Dave Sullivan, the former chairman of the Flagler County Executive Committee, had also not long before filed to run for the seat.
Ralph Lightfoot, the chairman of the Democratic Executive Committee, walked in just after 11:30 a.m., with Melinda Morai—a former candidate for Supervisor of Elections, in 2008—ready to have Morais sign up as a write-in for Supervisor of Elections, but only if a Republican pulled the same sort of chicanery several Republicans did in 2014 and in 2012 to close what would otherwise be a universal primary: the three candidates running for Supervisor of Elections—incumbent Kaiti Lenhart, Abra Seay and Kimble Medley—are all Republicans. So their primary will actually equate to a general election and will decide the winner for that office. Therefore, under Florida law, the election will be a universal primary, open to all voters—Republicans, Democrats, Independents and minor party registrants.
Had someone filed to be a write-in, it would have automatically closed the primary to Republican voters only, because that write-in would then have been on the general election ballot in November. It’s a loophole in Florida law, a loophole that was supposed to have been closed when voters approved a constitutional amendment in 1998 precisely to avoid tampering with primary elections and to ensure that when candidates of only party are running, those elections remain open to all voters.
Lightfoot wanted to ensure that if a Republican pulled that write-in trick, he would have his own Democratic candidate ready to file, just to give voters a choice in November, knowing very well that neither write-in would stand a chance.
At 11:45 a.m., Anne-Marie Schaffer, the chairman of the Republican Executive Committee, walked in, sending a few pairs of eyes darting all over the place to figure out if she was there to qualify for something. She wasn’t. She was tending to party and precinct business.
The minutes passed. Lightfoot and Morais paced. Even Lenhart, the elections supervisor, was counting the minutes: as any supervisor of elections appreciative of giving more voters a choice in her own election, she, too, favored a universal primary.
Finally high noon struck. No Frank Miller showed. There was a thumbs up or two. Big sighs of relief were not heard, but sensed. For the second time in six years, Flagler County would have a universal primary for an important local office: the supervisor of elections’ election will be open to all registered voters. (Six years ago the primary election between Bob Abbott and Nate McLaughlin, for county commission, was also a universal primary.)
As noon marked the end of qualifying, two major local elections were also decided: Tax Collector Suzanne Johnston and Property Appraiser Jay Gardner were again automatically re-elected, without opposition. It’s an old story with these two. Gardner has never faced an opponent in his four elections since 2004. Not even the first time he ran, when he replaced John Seay (father-in-law to Abra Seay, the candidate for elections supervisor.) Johnston faced opponents only in her very first race, in 2004, when she flattened Kerry Ellis in the primary with 80 percent of the vote, then demolished Rick McGraw in the general, with 65 percent of the vote. With results like that, seldom equaled in the county in recent memory, no opponent has dared go up against her since, though a lot more than those results has added to her popularity since: she and Gardner have a reputation for running the most efficient, most customer-oriented government offices in the county. Not surprisingly, they’re often in each other’s offices.
For Gardner noon passed without him realizing that he’d won until he was told later. He’d been on the phone, dealing with a problem in the Hammock. Johnston had been more anxious, checking the supervisor’s website several times a day to make sure no one had filed.
And other than Sullivan’s late-breaking decision to run, there were no late surprises. All nine candidates for sheriff who’d announced their intention to run qualified. One of the four Republicans who filed to run in the District 1 county commission seat held by Charlie Ericksen withdrew (Gerald Eggert), leaving Ericksen, Ken Mazzie and Dan Potter in that Republican primary, with Democrat Jason DeLorenzo, the Palm Coast city council member, waiting for the winner in the general. Revels has no Democratic opponent in her primary either. Michael Groves, a Republican, withdrew from the Republican primary for her seat leaving Sullivan and France.
There were no changes in the school board races. In the three very busy Palm Coast City Council races, Travis Kaufman, never a serious candidate, had withdrawn from the race for mayor, leaving John Brady, Milissa Holland, Ron Radford and Dennis McDonald. The two council seat races are unchanged with their combined seven candidates. And in the congressional race, of course, Ron DeSantis has decided to return to that contest and try to hold on to his seat after dropping out of the race for U.S. Senate, now that Marco Rubio is again looking to keep his seat. (See the full list here.)
Outside the supervisor’s office just after noon, there were hugs and congratulations for Johnston, who was just leaving for lunch with Rae Nescio, her long-time deputy who, like most of the 32 tax collector employees, wears many different hats in the office.
“Congratulations, oh, I’ve got goosebumps on my legs, yohoo, and after that we’ll work on you for another four,” Donna Masse, who’s worked five and a half years at the tax collector’s office, said as she hugged Johnston. “I echo and 10 times echo” what Masse said, Leslie Jantzen, an eight-year employee, said. “She’s fantastic.”
These weren’t employees being obsequious before their boss, but genuinely happy and proud individuals who might as well been congratulating a family member for a seminal achievement. Most of the employees were at that moment secretly preparing a celebration for Johnston, with cake, to surprise her when she’d return from lunch.
“I don’t think we’ve aver fired anybody, and we never have anybody leave,” Nescio said, remembering the layoff of just two employees during the Great Recession. “We have zero turn-over rate, because Suzanne is such a great person to work force, that nobody ever wants to leave our office.” She compares the atmosphere in the office to home.
As to her string of unopposed re-elections, Johnston said: “It really is because I care, care about the residents. I think that if it was my mother or father standing there needing help, I would need to see that they get the help. We treat everybody coming in here just like it is somebody that we know our mother or our father, and give them all the help they need and deserve.”
Soon she was joined by Gardner. “Jay works for me also, he does very well,” Johnston said of the property appraiser.
“What’s that show on TV? ‘Tyrant’?” Gardner joked.
“My resume is made for this job,” Gardner said, trying to explain why he’s had as much success as Johnston. “This job was made for me, that’s the way I see it. I like the job, I’m very comfortable in it, but the things I did in my past—I’ve been an appraiser for 30 years. I’m involved in the community. The different things, whether the Rotary, the Education Foundation, the Chamber of Commerce.”
“The reason you don’t have opposition,” Johnston tells him, “is because you take the time to go in the lobby and help the customers, explain to the customers, if they need to have their house re-checked you make sure that it’s done, you answer the telephone yourself.”
It’s no secret to anyone that Johnston and Gardner have the most exemplary public service marriage in the county–showing, as Gardner puts it, how government can and does work well. “I see what we’re doing as something that everybody should be doing,” Gardner said.
“Suzanne and Jay are the ideal team for Flagler County taxes,” Nescio said. “They work together well, because both offices have to get along well to make sure everything is done right. He appraises the taxes and we collect them, so it’s a big communications between them. It makes it so easy.”