By ALICIA LEONARD
An oft-bemoaned issue around election time, is why more qualified people don’t run for office. Long before the last ballot was counted for the Walton primary election, the Herald started asking just what does it take to run for office? Many participants in the local races offered up some of their experiences and advice to those who may seek office in the future.
One of the first things people think of is the intense scrutiny local candidates come under, from not only the media, but from supporters of opposing candidates. Local candidates are vetted on the message boards, the supermarket aisles and political forums thoroughly and as we saw in the primary race, some even become fodder for mass e-mailing. A thick skin is then the first prerequisite for taking a shot at an elected position.
Walton County School Board member Mark Davis, said it takes “a tough hide and the ability to accept criticism without letting it get to you.” New commissioner Celia Jones concurred, “I least liked negative press and last-minute negative campaigning, but when you get in this business, one has to go in knowing that these things might be part of the process. A public servant must have tough skin, not takes things personally and a heart to forgive quickly.”
Family is often drawn into the race and needs to be prepared, said candidate Robert Nelson. “It is hard. It requires a commitment like nothing I have ever seen,” he said. “And this stretches to the rest of your family and your friends. Make sure you sit down with them and they understand that for several weeks they are rarely going to see you or even communicate with you except in passing.” Davis agreed. “An understanding with your family and yourself that sometimes your life will not be your own. There are demands on your time and energy over which you have no control,” he said. “That is even more true once elected.”
The process also allows for candidates to have an almost introspective look at themselves while expanding the number of people they come in contact with during the race. Tom Cooper, a candidate for sheriff, said, “It takes time, effort, energy and, most of all, fortitude. I learned many things, including some things about myself, and met many people that I would probably never have been introduced to.
Money comes into play with the amount of advertising and meets and greets the candidates can provide to get their name out to voters. Some spent big and some spent small. Marsha Winegarner was not successful in unseating Davis from the school board, but had this to say about election cash, “My purpose for entering this race was to share and use the knowledge I have accumulated in over a decade of working for the Florida Department of Education in schools and districts all over Florida. I think most candidates entered because they had some experience to share that would benefit the county. Unlike most candidates, I was not ready to spend thousands of dollars of my money or someone else’s money to hold this office. With my $312 spent to date, I was able to gain 36.35 percent of the vote and my opponent spent $1,799.23 for 63.65 percent. Neither of us went overboard with paid advertisements and solicitations.”
When asked how the process could be improved, many candidates responded about the need to consolidate the many forums that were held. Tony Cornman, a candidate in the sheriff’s race, explained, “The one thing I would like to see is more coordination between parties hosting forums. I think the forums are a great way for people to meet the candidates and to see what they have to offer. The turnout at most of the forums was very small and some weeks we had three or four. It seamed like the same people were at most of the forums so you were speaking to the same crowd. It would be nice if we could have maybe three or four large forums, spread them out over the entire county and advertise them well.”
All of the candidates agreed on one thing. One must have a drive to serve the public for the run to be worth it. Davis concluded, “After serving 13 years, being re-elected for the fourth time, I am more optimistic about the future of this county and the school system than when I was first appointed in 1995. The political process and serving as a public official has only enhanced my belief in our form of government and in public education.”
In the end, most candidates kept their sense of humor, even after defeat. Winegarner signed her email to the Herald as “Regards, Marsha Winegarner, unsuccessful Candidate for Walton County School Board District 4.”