Perry Mitrano was elected chairman of the Flagler Republican Executive Committee Wednesday evening, defeating former school board member Jill Woolbright by a crushing margin even as Woolbright was backed by Rep. Paul Renner and nominated by Palm Coast Mayor David Alfin.
The vote for the party chairmanship was 48-19, Mitrano said. Woolbright lost again by a similar margin to Kenny Seybold, Flagler County schools’ custodial director, handing Woolbright her third loss in four months.
Mitrano replaces Bob Updegrave for the two-year term. Darrell Boyer, an ambitious 24 year old, is REC secretary, and Lance Alred, a candidate in a different school board race last August, is treasurer. Alred and Boyer were elected unanimously.
Internal party elections are not ordinarily newsworthy. This one, however, reflects political dynamics that reverberate beyond the party and the county, especially as Republicans control all but a handful of Flagler’s elected seats, when Renner is House speaker, and in his last term, and when Republicans are cleaved by fierce divisions, in Flagler as elsewhere, over the direction of their party.
The REC now appears decisively inclined to continue former Chairman Bob Updegrave’s approach–more centrist, to the relative extent that Republicans can be centrists at all, than extremist. In contrast with Flagler, for example, Clay County’s REC on Sunday elected Anthony Sabatini chair, positioning him to be state party chair. Sabatini, fresh from a failed bid for a congressional seat after four years in the House, works hard to be among the state’s most far-right Republican, denying the legitimacy of the 2020 election, denying Covid science and embracing conspiracy theories cribbed from the QAnon playbook. Woolbright would be in his camp.
Mitrano is no centrist in the true sense of the term, but he he brings a calmer, more laid-back temperament to the chairmanship, and is not disposed for rabblerousing rebellions: he knows how government works, since he was a product of government. He was until 2019 Bunnell’s director of waste management and was a candidate in the 2020 election for the East Flagler Mosquito Control District board and for an appointment to the Palm Coast City Council.
Woolbright, after a bizarre campaign that followed on the heels of a vengeful two-year tenure on the school board–she is the only school board member in the nation to file a criminal complaint against her own superintendent, over library books–was defeated in the August primary by the only Democrat to get elected on any local government board in this year’s elections. She was backed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in that election.
DeSanti is broadly seen as the likely challenger to Donald Trump in the 2024 presidential primary, with a solid chance of defeating Joe Biden. That has created a dynamic of its own in Tallahassee, with officials like Renner auditioning for potential cabinet or administration posts. Similarly, there’s intense jockeying taking place in Flagler for the successor to Renner, in a House district where Flagler voters count for all but about 23,000 voters in St. Johns. Alfin’s name has been making the rounds as Renner’s successor.
Renner was not at the REC meeting at Pine Lakes Golf Club. Word in the room was that he’d asked Alfin to nominate Woolbright on his behalf.
“I would not phrase it that way,” Alfin said this evening. “Paul Renner and I did discuss Paul’s continuing support for Jill Woolbright, that is correct, and I offered to nominate Jill for the position of chair at the REC. Definitely not on his behalf, that would be incorrect.” Asked why he nominated Woolbright, one of the more incendiary political figures of the last election cycle, Alfin said because someone else had nominated Mitrano, and because “I wanted to see as many candidates nominated as possible.” Alfin ran for mayor as a moderate and won bipartisan support as a moderate.
“I made sure that all of the candidates that had stepped up and shown an interest in the position were nominated and could be evaluated by the quorum of the membership and voted on that way, and that’s what happened,” Alfin said. “At the end of it the membership the vote count indicated the membership was very clear on the direction they wanted to take.”
But he did not directly answer whether he was himself satisfied with that direction. “My issue with both the REC and the DEC, because I’ve spoken to both groups in public,” he said of the local Democratic Party, “is that neither political organization has impressed me with their investment in political candidate development. Both benches are thinning. As a result, we open ourselves up to suspect candidates on a cyclical basis, every time an election cycle comes by, and it infuriates me that we don’t have a deeper bench.”
The REC had been riven by vocal, often angry or disruptive backbenchers, especially on procedural matters, who’d pinned their hopes on a Woolbright chairmanship, among them Jearlyn Dennie and Sharon Demers.
“So far I have spoken to some of those members and they’re all very energetic, offering help, offering to be fund-raisers, trying to get more people into the party,” Mitrano said. “I really feel like instantly we opened up a new door to a new location, it was amazing at the end.”
Renner’s backing of Woolbright is not necessarily a reflection of his love for Woolbright, but of his fealty to DeSantis, who had endorsed Woolbright during her school board run. Renner has taken a hard turn right since he won the speakership, aligning himself with DeSantis more predictably than Renner’s intellect and former independence would have suggested he’d be willing to do.
But Flagler’s REC indicates there may be a limit locally even to state power.
“The result spoke for itself, that’s for sure,” Mitrano said. “Once I took the gavel, the secretary and the treasurer went without any hitches, they were basically all landslide victories, nobody opposed the two people that ran, Boyer and Alred. That goes to show you that sometime it just takes a different hand on the hammer. Bob did a masterful job of raising money, of getting Republicans into the Republican world. He was a great mentor no matter how anybody else nearby felt. It was very disturbing, I didn’t like the way he was treated, I didn’t like the way members treated each other.” Mitrano said he will prize civility and process.
He credited the Updegraves for their work: when Bob and Joanne Updegrave, both of whom chaired the state party’s registration committee for a combined five years, began their work in Flagler in the wake of Barack Obama’s first victory in 2008, Democrats had a majority in registrations in the county. Today, they are 17,500 voters ahead. Demographics had a lot to do with it: Flagler’s proportion of voters 65 and over went from 23 percent in 2010 to 31 percent today, with younger–more liberal–voters eroding most. But the Updegraves’ work also was a significant factor.
“We began programs to register Republicans copied from some Pennsylvania experience–no one wants to hear how you did it up north–but applying some of those market techniques” locally, Bob Updegrave said. He also credited Gail Wadsworth’s Republican Club, “and members and leadership of both organizations have put a lot into registrations that have paid off.”
Marge rooyakkers had been vice chair during Updegrave’s tenure, with
Kathy Carey as treasurer and Debbie Meeker as secretary.
“I think every Republican in Flagler County should appreciate or will come to appreciate he outcome of last evening’s board elections,” Bob Updegrave said. He paused, and recognizing the political landscape locally, with Republicans as the near-one-party power, he said: “We have a tremendous community, we the Republican Party, the executive committee, have a tremendous responsibility to this community to get it right.”