By April L. Bogle
I don’t know anyone who wants the political battles being fought at state and national levels coming to this island paradise, but it seemed to me the level of partisanship in the December 2022 Fernandina Beach City Commission nonpartisan runoff election was inviting the conflict to come on down and pay a visit. It got so nasty that the News-Leader newspaper ran a front-page story highlighting citizens’ pleas for the acrimony to stop.
Now that the election is behind us, I decided to dig around and piece together what happened. My goal? For our community to begin a civil discussion about how we want to go forward in our city elections. Do we want elected officials focused on their political party “values” or on how we preserve and protect the things that make this island a rare gem?
Let’s start with an easier question: Why are the city’s elections supposed to be nonpartisan?
“In principle, local elections are nonpartisan because issues such as where to build a road in a community are local, nonpartisan issues,” said Michael Martinez, a professor of political science at the University of Florida.
Elaine Kamarck, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said local elections becoming partisan can “distract from and interfere with common sense local government.”
“People running for local office can get caught up in national hot button issues that don’t have a place at the level where people want roads fixed and new playground equipment – the basics,” she said.
However, both experts also said that most nonpartisan elections contain some level of partisanship.
“My experience is there are many nonpartisan elections where people know who is Democrat or Republican. Sometimes a party officially endorses candidates or people know their background. Usually, nonpartisan elections are local and people know more about the candidates,” said Kamarck.
Martinez explained that the “partisan-ness” in a nonpartisan small-town election varies from only two people running and both affiliated with the same party to cases where “sometimes things get pretty nasty.”
“We are in an era of hyperpolarization, and it is going to spill over in some places including some municipalities,” he said.
So now for a more difficult question: If nonpartisan elections typically have some level of partisanship, are there any legal requirements or limits on the level of partisan-ness allowed by candidates or their political parties?
Florida Statute 106.143 (3) contains two key points on this issue:
- “A candidate for nonpartisan office is prohibited from campaigning based on party affiliation.”
- “A political advertisement of a candidate running for nonpartisan office may not state the candidate’s political party affiliation.”
Darron Ayscue, who defeated Genece Minshew for Commission Seat 5, stated in the Nov. 29, 2022, questionnaire published by this news outlet, that he is “fully endorsed by the Republican Party of Nassau County.” He sent a direct mail piece to residents’ homes that showcased the party’s endorsement of him and featured a photo of him with Gov. Ron DeSantis. He also put on his candidate Facebook page a posting from the Republican Party of Nassau County Facebook page stating, “The Republican Party of Nassau County endorses Darron Ayscue and Dr. [sic] James Antun for Fernandina Beach City Commission.”
Ayscue said he didn’t violate the election’s nonpartisan stipulation because no party affiliation was listed next to his name on the ballot.
I’m no lawyer and cannot say whether or not these actions violated state law, so I reached out to Frank Santry, an attorney based in Fernandina Beach. He said that, while Ayscue’s actions do appear to have been in conflict with FS 106.143 (3), it’s unclear if that statute will be seen as legally binding in Fernandina Beach. Why? In 2021, the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Florida issued an injunction against enforcing it on the grounds that it violated the First Amendment by prohibiting “core political speech during an election campaign.”
“This injunction is not binding in other U.S. District Courts, therefore it wouldn’t be binding in the Middle District, where Fernandina Beach is situated. But it might be given weight if the issue were raised here,” Santry said.
Another part of the statute, FS 106.143 (5) (b), reads, “Any person who makes an independent expenditure for a political advertisement shall provide a written statement that no candidate has approved the advertisement…” and “The advertisement must also contain a statement that no candidate has approved the advertisement.”
A direct mail piece promoting Ayscue and Antun, with the return address of Conservative Leadership for First Coast, a political action committee (PAC) in Gainesville, Fla., did not contain the “no candidate approved” statement.
Additional direct mail pieces that focused on the candidates’ Republican Party affiliation, sent by the True Conservatives PAC out of Tallahassee, Fla., did contain the statement “Not approved by any candidate.”
Santry said the First Amendment concern with FS 106.143 regarding funding and disclosure requirements have been decided in favor of the state’s right to regulate. “It appears that Conservative Leadership for First Coast may have violated this section of the law with its direct mail piece, while True Conservatives complied with it,” he said.
A third question: Why do nonpartisan elections contain partisanship?
According to Martinez, making party affiliation known can increase voter turnout. “Party labels cue voters – most voters have an image of what a Democrat or Republican stands for – and this cue may help them decide who to vote for.”
And it appeared to give Ayscue and Antun the turnout they needed. Going into the runoff for Seat 4, Mike Lednovich had an 803-vote lead over Antun, while Minshew was ahead of Ayscue by 665 votes for Seat 5.
In the runoff, Antun won by 323 votes; Aysuce by 211. Voter turnout was 38.83 percent, up from 29.43 percent in the 2020 runoff.
“When I campaigned door to door, I was asked well over a thousand times what party I belonged to,” Ayscue said. “When I engaged them at the front door, that was the number one question, the defining factor.”
Lednovich, an independent, and Minshew, a Democrat, did not publicize a party affiliation and did not receive contributions from any political party, although the Democratic Party did distribute their nonpartisan campaign literature and post support for these two candidates on Facebook, according to Kathi Donegan, president of the Democratic Club of Amelia Island during 2022.
“We’re legally allowed to contribute up to $500 to support candidate campaigns, but we chose not to give any money to any candidates in this campaign because it was a nonpartisan election,” Donegan said.
In addition to publicly endorsing Ayscue and Antun, the Nassau County Republican Party contributed $250 to each of their campaigns.
Chris Kirkland, chairman of the Executive Committee of the Republican Party of Nassau County, said he believes “it’s not illegal or unethical for parties to weigh in on nonpartisan elections because it is their First Amendment right to do so.”
“Darron [Ayscue] is one of ours and has been a long-standing member of the Executive Committee,” he said, adding that Ayscue actively campaigned for DeSantis and former President Donald Trump.
After Ayscue and Antun attended an Executive Committee meeting, Kirkland said, the party publicly endorsed them. “We liked what they had to say.”
Antun said he accepted the party’s public endorsement because “we had been informed the opposing candidates had been endorsed by the Democratic Party” because the local party office was distributing yard signs for them. “It was my understanding this was a gray area, receiving support versus claiming party affiliation, but it was a gray area that I felt okay in.”
In addition, Antun said he would have posted the party’s Facebook endorsements of him on his Facebook page but technical issues prevented that. However, regarding the direct mail campaign, he said he had “no control over pushing that through.”
“Parties were interested in making that happen beyond my communication,” he said, adding he was frustrated because his name was printed inaccurately on some pieces as James John Antun. “If I was going to spend thousands of dollars on my campaign I would have gotten my name right.”
While party affiliation may increase voter turnout, Martinez said the downside is that it might cue voters to vote based on national partisan issues that are not relevant to municipal issues.
Antun mostly agrees. “Any sane person can agree it’s about getting things done first and if it’s a local issue, it shouldn’t be a Democrat or Republican issue.” But, he added, citizens in the runoff wanted to know where candidates stood about issues based on their party affiliation, such as financial policy, and that makes sense to him.
Ayscue says his party affiliation doesn’t define him and that “what you do for your community as an elected official has nothing to do with being partisan.”
So the final question: Should we change the city charter so that we can hold legally partisan elections?
Ayscue says discussions are taking place and he’s gotten feedback that people are split 50-50. “I don’t necessarily see the need to change this to partisan right now. As a public official, I have to do what the public wants, and I don’t see it’s an issue that’s been brought forth to be considered. We would have to change the charter and that would need overwhelming support.”
Antun had a similar response. “Before the runoff, I couldn’t have told you if I have an opinion on partisan versus nonpartisan because I felt like people should vote for a candidate based on what the candidate stands for.” Now, he’s open to making the election partisan. “I’m not hung up on making it a partisan election necessarily, but if a majority of city residents want that, we need to consider it.”
Lednovich, who served as Seat 4 commissioner from 2018-2020 and mayor from 2020-2022, said he thinks the new city commission’s proposal to change election dates to coincide with primary and general election dates is a precursor to proposing the elections be partisan. Traditionally, city elections have been held separately so they don’t get overlooked on a lengthy national and state ballot.
On first reading at the Jan. 17, 2023, city commission regular meeting, the proposal passed four to one, with commissioner Chip Ross providing the dissenting vote. At the time of this writing, it was not yet public when the second reading will take place.
Ross believes the date change issue is a “done deal” from his fellow commissioners’ perspective. He also says partisanship in the city elections started a couple of elections ago, with the Democrats, but it “wasn’t as blatant as it is now.”
Minshew agrees. “Partisanship has always been part of the city election but never as overt as in this last cycle. The Republicans were blatant.”
“A pox on both sides,” Ross said. “They need to stop this partisan bickering and find common ground.”
Lednovich encouraged citizens to show up at commission meetings and make their voices heard. “A political party is now in control of the city, which is not the intention of the city charter,” he said.
Editor’s note: April Bogle is a long-time corporate communications consultant from Atlanta who moved to Fernandina Beach a year ago. She holds a BA in journalism and political science from Indiana University and an MFA in creative nonfiction from Wilkes University. She has agreed to focus on writing about complex issues for the Observer, and we are happy to introduce her to our readers.
Clear and understandable presentation of the issue. I look forward to more of April’s writing.
Very clearly written. Well done! I look forward to more articles as well.
Agree with Jean on the understandable presentation and I look forward to more work from April!
I am struck, however, by one recurring theme in this debate that appears above:
Traditionally, city elections have been held separately so they don’t get overlooked on a lengthy national and state ballot.
There were more votes cast in the November City/General election for FBCC candidates than the December (standalone) runoff…….so what is the basis of the “overlooked” theory? I don’t see where it’s overlooked to any degree that we should worry about during the General Election.
I provided a vote breakdown analysis a month ago as a comment. The large swing was mainly a function of two candidates holding steady (one had exactly one more vote in December vs. November) while the front runner support fell very dramatically. Why that occurred is pure conjecture.
My opinion is the current standalone runoff brings out the voter who is seriously connected and concerned with the City. Shouldn’t that be the voter that counts? The General Election brings out all sorts of people with more State and National agendas as the most important issue to vote on, but rather than “overlooking” the City election, they cast their vote there also with no regard to where the candidates may stand.
I wouldn’t change a thing……stay non-partisan…..keep the cycle as is. The standalone runoff in December probably yields the best results, IMO.
We live under a government “by the people”.
This means that “the people” decide..
Locally, December run-off elections have had a very low level of people participation.
Aligning this election and all city elections with broader state/national elections ensures more citizen involvement-not just the “connected”.
We do not live under a government “by the most connected/serious people”.
Party affiliation is irrelevant unless a political party inserts itself.
Local candidates should not declare affiliation….don’t conflate that with voter participation.
Al…..yes, and for some reason many decide not to vote in the runoff. They can if they want to…..but many don’t care. That’s on them.
My concern is I think we get more uninformed votes in November. I have zero clue in November whether to retain all of those judges or not, as an example….but I still cast a ballot on the subject anyway. I think the standalone yields a more informed result (and I don’t care about “affiliation” at all……I vote for who I think will take us in the right direction).
So, as I understand the concluding paragraphs of this presentation … Democrats seem to be OK with partisanship … and admit they have engaged in it (and even started it) … but are shocked … I say they are shocked … at how blatant the Republicans also exercised partisanship in the last election. Partisanship is OK as long as it isn’t “blatant” as they decide to describe it. Since the Democrats are so greatly outnumbered in Nassau County I would have thought they would have preferred to keep this genie in the bottle … a partisan battle they will not win. All these Democrats pontificating and complaining about losing elections is getting rather tiresome. That these “Democrat” candidates did as well as they did would suggest many Republicans must have voted for them in spite of their Party’s endorsement. I sincerely doubt many Democrats used their own judgment and voted for the “Republican” winners. I wonder why.
“Since the Democrats are so greatly outnumbered in Nassau County”. True for the “county” but what is the mix in the “City”. Does anyone know? I think it may be fairly even.
It really boils down to this….liberals (in both fiscal and social issues) in our conservative City have taken City Commission seats in the past because they quietly organized a local following with help of the Democratic Party while most people weren’t paying attention to what they stood for. They also peel off “no growth” conservatives to add to their voting block. People in the last election finally “woke” up (if I can use that word in a non-partisan way also) to their tactics and rebuked these policies and candidates by getting the word out and showing up to vote. Non-partisan at least in The City of Fernandina Beach means the minority forcing their will on the majority. People don’t want their businesses shut down, they don’t want massive amounts of red tape, they don’t want arrogant no it alls on their Commission. That’s the real scoop.
Ah so Grasshopper do you see we are governed “by the people” to “preserve and protect” our homes said The Master. Learner’d student then said, “but Master if this is so, why has this island been raked and exploited for so many years?” Ah Grasshopper, such is politics. Remember to approve your ACH for your taxes Grasshopper……. the City needs your money as only they know what is bestest for you. And so confused Grasshopper walked away…….. I have a wonderful bridge charging tolls in Tuson AZ for sale. Want to invest?
I too used to believe in Fairytales.
Very good article! I believe nonpartisan elections should remain nonpartisan and that candidates who campaign based on their party affiliation should be disqualified from the ballot.
Assuming the information that April presented is correct, it is obvious that Ayscue broke the law.
Thanks for the summary, but the assumption that City business is non partisan appears very flawed … a subject you chose not to pursue. Are there potential issues that would be partisanly viewed? When presented with a hypothetical million dollars, candidate Minshew wanted to gave it to the poor, not to the taxpayers. Partisan? In philosophy, perhaps. What about the citing of an abortion clinic on Island? Or making FB a Sanctuary City? Oversight of the policing? Mandating only EVs in the center? What about locally based taxation or regulation of local businesses? I submit, there are vast political differences here … so why hide behind ‘nonpartisan’?
I believe the problem lies in the silly candidate ‘questionnaires’, which make all candidates de facto look alikes. Given that they provided little insight into the candidates’ beliefs, I found affiliations helpful. Perhaps, next time, you can work on better debate questions and questionnaires … so the differences become apparent, and we don’t need to consider party affiliation in order to choose.
I never knew the party affiliations of our city commissioners until this election and I liked it that way. Of the “people”, should be all the people, not just Republicans or Democrats. I now fear the name-calling, demonizing, fear-mongering and culture wars will ensue in city politics, fostering division in “Mayberry by the Sea.” Very sad We can do better, but do we have the will?
Very informative article.
I believe most folks would agree when choosing a political party affiliation, their decision is based upon party ideology, that which matches their personal ideology. In local politics/elections, are we to believe the candidates do not have any such ideological views when it comes to local decisions? Are we to be so naive as to not acknowledge a great many decisions coming from the Judicial system do not fall upon the ideology of the political party the judges are members? Could judicial decisions be based upon the judges own and political affiliation ideology more than law? Often times I looked up party affiliation of judges ruling re: cases against the ruling political party (National level). For example, if Trump issued an executive order, a democrat judge more often than not, ruled against the order and vice-versa re: Obama’s ex. orders. Ideology plays a major role in a persons “thinking” on issues both locally and nationally. Examples to support such are “endless” and it would be naive to believe otherwise!
I might add. There is an article from Pew Research titled: Views on parties issues and ideologies. Worth reading
Clear and concise, answers all the questions as to what was happening. I could not vote and was bombarded with flyers for these two candidates.
Thank you for addressing issues boldly taken here in our community.
The question was asked and one might want to go to the trouble of looking at all the statistics on the Election Supervisor’s website. Participating in the runoff were 2340 GOP, 1288 Democrats, and 826 other so just over half GOP. Eligible voters were a bit less GOP (the GOP had a better turnout). Though less GOP than the County overall … the City’s GOP still greatly outnumber the Democrats. That Democrats in the past opened the partisanship “bottle” … though not as “blatantly” they scream … suggests poor decision making.
If one makes a simplistic analysis you could say it looks like all the Republicans voted for Antun and Ayscue and all the Democrats and all the “other” voted for Lednovich and Minshew (unlikely and the “other” would not have received the GOP endorsement mailouts). But looking at results by precinct, etc. suggests that many voters voted for the person and not the party. The most Democratic precinct in the County is downtown (the MLK Center precinct). Registered Democrats and Republicans are almost even in number. Antun carried the precinct (not Ayscue). Precinct 13 is 2 to 1 Republican … but the City portion of the precinct was won by Lednovich (but not Minshew). It would appear many voters in both parties did not toe the party line.
From my discussions with neighbors I never heard that Antun and Ayscue were their candidates although we all knew they were … it was on issues and some of what Lednovich and Minshew were selling they weren’t buying.
OMG chicken little, the sky IS falling. According to Lednovich, “A political party is now in control of the city, which is not the intention of the city charter.” Really? It’s not enough that one political party is in control of the media, our federal government institutions, and academia. But thank God April Bogle is here to send out the alarm that Republicans control Fernandina Beach. In the future April, try telling us something that we don’t already know. Nassau County Florida has been overwhelmingly Republican for decades. Used to be 90/10. Now it’s more like 65/35. So, you are outnumbered April. Deal with it.
And guess what? Checked the Nassau County voter rolls. April Bogle is a registered Democrat. Time to retreat to your safe space April – permanently.
Party affiliation matters, especially at the local level. I’m a Republican, and would never vote for a Democrat. There is no such thing as non-partisan at the local level, even if you try to legislate it away. Local politicians become state and sometimes national politicians. Keep Florida free. No democratic socialist local politicians masquerading as non-partisan.
Wow why cannot the democratic side understand the simple concept of the people with the most votes won? All of this whining and hyperbole boils down to one thing, the democratic liberal faction cannot accept that they did not get their way, (crying closet time?)
I find this article only serves to increase the political divisions.