Monday evening at Buddy Taylor Middle School the News-Journal hosted a forum featuring the nine candidates for Flagler County sheriff. It’s the most fiercely—at times angrily and ludicrously—contested local race of the election. A peripheral incident Monday shows why.
John Lamb, one of the nine candidates, appeared “rattled” during the forum, in the words of several observers, a characterization Lamb disagrees with. He says he was bothered by a lie, not rattled.
A man had been taunting Lamb outside for an hour before the forum. The man was masked with what appeared to be ca camouflage bandanna, wearing camouflage pants, riding a bicycle near the school on Belle Terre Parkway, and carrying a tall sign that, jutting from the rear of his seat read, in red, capital letters: “DID YOU KNOW? LAMB & HIS FAMILY DO NOT LIVE IN FLAGLER.”
The taunt has been shadowing Lamb for much of his campaign. He is at the tail end of his career at the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. He does not yet own a house in Flagler. But he’s right: the sign is a lie. His wife, a former detective at the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, accepted a position teaching fifth grade at a Flagler County public school, in the heart of Palm Coast. The Lambs’ two youngest children start school there Wednesday morning. The family rents locally. They still have their house in Jacksonville, both because their son, who’s in college there, uses it and because they haven’t yet decided whether to rent it out or sell it.
The masked man with the sign, Lamb said in an interview this evening, was somebody’s attempt to get him “unnerved” and off his game, he said.
Lamb went up to the man before the forum and told him the sign was wrong. “When you come out with bald-faced lies, that’s what bothers me,” Lamb said, without denying the masked man’s First Amendment rights. “Everybody assumes that just because I’m renting here I’m not a resident here. There’s plenty of residents who rent.”
The man didn’t engage with Lamb, the candidate said. Nor did he take off his mask. “I can only assume it was one of the candidates,” Lamb said—that is, a candidate’s supporter.
The man is Richard Rubin, 56, who’s been involved in Mark Whisenant’s campaign, one of the nine candidates for sheriff, and frequently appears at his events. He’s hosted at least one fund-raiser for Whisenant at European Village, where he runs Coconut Island, the shop, with his wife Antoinette Rubin. (She’s donated to the Whisenant campaign in the form of a $450 in-kind donation, for a special event; Coconut Island received $250 from the campaign for advertisement on July 1.) Richard Rubin donated $100 to the Whisenant campaign on April 25. He describes himself as “retired law enforcement” in his donation.
The Rubin who taunted Lamb has previously run afoul of the law: he has an arrest record in Flagler County, once on a felony charge. In August 2009—the day of his 50th birthday—Rubin was charged with grand theft. He had the victim’s vehicle towed from a parking spot near European Village, and “had made prior statements to a witness who provided a written and verbal statement that he had a personal vendetta against the victim,” according to the charging affidavit. The charge was dropped.
A year later Rubin was arrested on a battery charge after he struck the victim and pushed the victim to the ground before bystanders pulled Rubin away, according to his arrest report. A year and a half later he pleaded no contest. Rubin and Whisenant did not return calls Tuesday evening.
Lamb did not know Rubin’s identity or that a Richard Rubin had donated to the Whisenant campaign until a reporter informed him.
“I sit here and I’m not surprised,” Lamb said. “I don’t know that other candidates have joined forces and are trying to attack me or what, I get beat up on Facebook by Jerry O’Gara, I guess Whisenant has taken his turn.” Two candidates—O’Gara and Rick Staly, the former undersheriff—walked up to Lamb at the forum and assured him they were not connected to the masked man outside.
In the interview moments later, Lamb said he was willing to give Whisenant the benefit of the doubt. “There’s no way to say that Mark put him up to it,” Lamb said. “He may have done that entirely on his own.”
But someone called the cops on Rubin. Lamb said he did not do so, nor does he know of any of his supporters who did so—though, he noted, that could well have happened. He said he would seek to find out.
It appeared that Rubin was not doing anything illegal. But there is an odd law on the books, written 65 years ago during the more rabid days of red scares and anti-communist McCarthyism—and likely vulnerable to a legal challenge, as most of that era’s laws across the country have been scrapped or fallen to challenges—that forbids the wearing of a mask, hood or other device on a public way. The Florida Supreme Court has since found chapter 876 of Florida law (entitled “Criminal Anarchy, Treason, and Other Crimes Against Public Order”) to implicate First Amendment protections unless the act is accompanied by willful violence or criminal acts. Some Muslim women, for example, who routinely wear full head coverings in Florida are not barred from doing so anywhere, including on public ways.
The law, however, remains on the books.
Someone—the record does not show who: 911 callers are exempt from the public record law—called 911 about the man on the bike at 5:10 p.m. Monday, when Rubin was at the entrance to the school, by the traffic light—on a public right of way. The 911 caller specified: he (or she) did not want to be contacted by the law enforcement officer who would respond to the scene, suggesting that whoever called was connected to a campaign and also did not want to be unmasked.
By 5:23, one of two sheriff’s deputies had spoken with Rubin and gotten his identity. Rubin, the deputy reported, “was obviously conducting a peaceful protest against a specific candidate for sheriff,” the 911 notes state. Rubin apparently did not want his identity known, but the deputy told him it would become part of the record. “The subject was advised why he was being stopped and was also advised per f.s.s 876.12 he was not authorized to conceal or hide his face. He was advised to uncover his face. The subject was very compliant and produced his Florida ID after he was advised all that information.” But Rubin wanted to follow-up with a supervisor, who spoke with him at 7:30 p.m., when Rubin said he’d be calling the sheriff about the incident.
Rubin may be a Whisenant supporter, but he’s not casting a vote in the Aug. 30 primary: As of the May 22 database at the elections supervisor, Rubin was not registered to vote in Flagler County, though that may have changed by last week, when registration books closed.