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.”
Hmmm, she used poor judgement. Like when she moved to fire Craig Coffey and didn’t know she didn’t have her fellow Commissioners support? Or when she slandered her husband when he decided not to continue to support her financially after years of separation? Or when she sent emails to other municipal governments from her city email account attempting to garner additional business for Coastal Cloud? Every single one of these things have been reported by Flagler Live, and I’ve left plenty of other poor judgements out. But I see a pattern. Does she care at all about the lives of all of the employees that she and Morton have forced hardship on by firing them for not drinking the Salesforce kool-aid? Does she care about the poor judgement she is making with our tax dollars by discontinuing the use of software already paid for, that’s been functioning well, so they can replace it with another Coastal Cloud solution that will require the purchase of even more Salesforce licenses? Have you looked into that yet FlaglerLive? Oh, that’s right, Morton doesn’t comply legally with public information requests so you’ll never know what they’ve really been up to. You would have to be a total fool to vote for that for 4 more years! Oh, and how long would Coastal Cloud continue to employ her once her position at the city is done? We can only pray that we get the opportunity to watch and see this coming year.
Time For Change says
Matt Morton is the gift that keeps on giving to Milissa Holland. As evidenced by his spiteful pursuit, based upon dubious representations, of Jay Maher’s termination, Morton possesses neither the judgement nor temperament to be the city manager. It will cost the city far more to defend itself than the $15,000 allegedly due Mr Maher. However, given the city struggles to even provide its employees with the uniforms they pay for via payroll deduction, his actions should surprise no one.
Mike R. says
It was in such poor taste. It’s all I thought about. I was like, is she saying the black guy robbed crap with him? So confusing. Poor dude for unknowingly having his image ripped off a pic and used to suggest he’s a criminal.
Deborah Coffey says
Now Republicans are racially sensitive? They’ve been dog whistling to racists for decades. They elected the biggest white supremacist in the country, Donald J. Trump…with more dog whistling and out and out racism. They own racism in America. Neither candidate is fit to serve the public.
Bill C. says
Deborah, my thoughts exactly. A den of (Republican) Trumpites calling each other racially insensitive. I concur with Mike Cocchiola’s statement. What you think of this ad says more about you than it does about either candidate.
This woman and Morton need to be removed from office. Both wrong for Palm Coast
James M. Mejuto says
Makes you wonder where Holland is getting all that to run TV spots. Both candidates are Republicans.
TV spots for a mayor’s job ! ?
Disappointed in Palm Coast says
She’s raised $40,000 (mostly from developers, corporations and PAC’s) and spent $22,000 on a tv spot (that I guess she suddenly doesn’t approve?)… to get a job… that pays $12,000 a year. Yeah that’s logical. Follow the money folks.
Low and Behold says
I voted for Alan Lowe and so should you !
I am not aware of any efforts by Lowe to explain the criminal charge, his financial difficulties and his non-payment of taxes. Voters are entitled to a full explanation.
All Lowe has to say is he is under audit.
It would seem some people are immune from explanation like Cornelia Manfre not being forthcoming in her Flaglerlive interview in reference to a civil action that was brought against she and her husband by Cinnamon Beach HOA. Flaglerlive went after the incumbent for not being forthcoming to the same question but not Mrs. Manfre who is running for his seat.
me too says
Desperate people do desperate things.
C’MON MAN…..To say she has nothing to do with the “inner turmoil” at City hall is beneath you. You know this woman better than most and know she pulls all the strings. Spanky boy Morton is just her puppet, his job is to make her wishes happen and take the heat…Everyone in City Hall knows this. Most of us are doing our best to let everyone know she MUST go. The ones that are not are enjoying big paychecks and have made a deal with the devil (at the expense of their co-workers). Until she is voted out, City Hall is not working for the citizens anymore, we are implementing Coastal Cloud fast and furious, no questions asked (if you want to keep your job). Let’s not even start with her balls to write about someone else’s past…
Trailer Bob says
$22,700 for some ads on TV? I always question those running for office who end up paying more in advertising than the position pays.
John the Baptist says
It is a discusting commericial which shows the low level Holland will go to. Mr. Lowe has not attacked her personal life which from what I understand is a train wreck. I truly believe she has a moral compass issues. It is no secret in City Hall what will happen if an employee questions the city’s relationship with Coastal Cloud or Salesforce. They are terminated on bogus charges! Also, I would bet that with this Mednex project coming, Costal Cloud/Salesforce will get the contract to provide all programs and software to this new venture. By the way, how come Holland is the only council member to have a Salesforce software license? Interesting! I also understand that since she did not get the Fire Department’s union endorsement for her run for Mayor, she is now attempting to cause personnel disruption within the department.
Sorry, I see nothing but bad with Holland as Mayor. She needs to go.
I don’t see a single selection on the ballot worth wasting the time to bubble in or wasting a stamp to even vote.
Time for a NEW Mayor. New people, New Leadership.
Mr. Deeds says
Time for Melissa to go. Using government resources for personal gain is a clear violation of ethics. The constant turmoil she has created cannot be ignored. Who will be she indebted to if reelected? Just follow the money.
Concerned Citizen says
I have noticed a disturbing trend here in Flagler County.
When our politicians can’t campaign ethically and honestly they resort to smear tactics. They also resort to name calling and threatning their constituents. Especially when called out for not doing their jobs correctly.
If you or I conducted ourselves this way in the private work force we would be looking for new jobs. And righfully so. Because you usually sign an employee handbook that lays out how you conduct yourself.
I have always held elected officials to much higher standards as they are sworn in to do a job. That oath should mean omething. Every job I have ever had from enlisting in the Airforce to graduation Basic Law Enforcement training and going to work for a Sheriff’s Office after. And I still conduct myself accordingly. Politicians should be no different. But sadly they are. When they fail to do their job they should be held accountable.
Milissa is cocky and so sure of her self she believes she doesn’t have to campaign. She has been apparently bought by all the major busniesses to ensure that they have free reign in this County. She stopped caring for us a long time ago. Now she will use that support to smear other candidates and neutralize that threat to her reign on the throne. Her and Matt Morton will run this city into the ground.
We have a chance this election to vote all new office holders. I mentioned it once before in an earlier comment. Why is this county so resistent to change. And insistent that someone stays in a position 20 plus years? Are you all that frightened of change? Another quote I have shared with you is this.”Insanity is doing the same thing over and over. And expecting different results” We need to remember that at the polls. And vote these self serving,empire builders out.
Flagler County needs change and quick. Do you part before it’s too late.
Melissa Holland has been pretty transparent through it all. She’s done a lot of good over the last 4 years. Palm Coast is far better off now than it was before Holland took office. Things look pretty shady around Alan Lowe, he’s not transparent, what does the citizens really know! All I hear him say and do the whole campaign has been about smearing Melissa Holland.Where there’s smoke there’s fire. My vote and all my family’s votes are going to Melissa Holland for Mayor.
C’mon man says
I’m voting for whoever let’s me park my pull behind trailer in my driveway
Jason Dominick says
Having a beer with a jamaican is now racist? palm coast is extraordinarily racist for middle to late age ladies. im 40 years old and from South Carolina. I never experienced rascism growing up ( some overseas), but when we came to palm coast. the racism was alive and well. 3 different middle-late age white women insulting my kids. they are 2 and 5. because my much prettier wife is Viet. and 2 of these were at the first friday events at flagler beach. at the republican tent. dumbasses didnt even realize i vote for them.