Manatee County primaries will close bitter, personal campaign season

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Two bitter contests to see who serves on the Manatee County Commission for the next four years will soon reach a conclusion.

Longtime County Commissioner Carol Whitmore faces a spirited challenge from Republican Primary opponent Jason Bearden. That has played out in a heated countywide election for her at large seat where Carol Ann Felts also had made a run.

Meanwhile, incumbent County Commissioner Misty Servia must deal with a Republican challenger of her own in Mike Rahn. The two vie for her District 4 seat.

In both elections, the race will effectively be determined by the Aug. 23 Republican Primary. Write-in candidates closed the Primaries, meaning only registered Republicans can cast ballots on Tuesday.

Both contests have played out in negative mailers, angry video ads, and, in one memorable case, at a local police station.

In June, Whitmore pulled up several of Bearden’s campaign signs and delivered them to the Holmes Beach Police Station. She said the signs were placed at a public right-of-way and private property where he did not have permission to place them. Bearden responded by asking for theft charges.

After the local State Attorney recused himself, Gov. Ron DeSantis reassigned the case to the 12th Judicial Circuit, but has since suspended the State Attorney there.

Meanwhile, Whitmore has slammed Bearden for a failed business and especially for advocating for government investment in bitcoin, a cryptocurrency which has tanked this year.

The district-level race has also proven caustic, with Rahn raking Servia for perceived criticisms of Gov. DeSantis.

Servia heavily criticized a pop-up vaccine clinic in Lakewood Ranch that ultimately drew national derision for the Governor. Servia said her complaints were related to Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh, who helped arrange the clinic and initially put herself on a VIP list to receive a scarce shot, but they landed her on Fox News calling out a clinic opened in a wealthy White neighborhood.

Servia sent cease-and-desist letters over ads related to that exchange and said she supports DeSantis’ re-election. She also dredged up information from divorce files from Rahn’s first marriage to say he tried to avoid paying alimony. The ad actually prompted Rahn’s ex-wife to weigh in and endorse Rahn while stressing his commitment as a father.

The personal and vitriolic tenor of the campaign follows two years of divisive politics on the Manatee County Commission. After the 2020 election ushered in a conservative majority, Whitmore and Servia found themselves frequently on the wrong side of votes on major decisions from changing county administrators to passing a local abortion clinic ban. Republican Attorney General Ashley Moody ultimately deemed the latter move illegal.

It’s been a significant change in standing for incumbents. Whitmore first won a seat on the Manatee County Commission in 2006 and Chaired the board in 2011. Servia, a certified planner, won election to the board in 2018.

Bearden, a retired Marine sniper, is the local president of the Full Gospel Business Gatekeepers Organization. Rahn, a county Planning Commissioner and mortgage broker, previously served as president of the Manatee-Sarasota Building Industry Association.

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