Most of Matt Willhite’s donations for Palm Beach Commission campaign are from firefighters. Is that a problem?


Browsing through the list of contributions to Wellington Rep. Matt Willhite’s political committee, Floridians for Public Safety PC, a trend becomes clear that indicates his bid for the Palm Beach County Commission could enjoy less support than outwardly evident.

Willhite has raised roughly $585,000 since April, when he filed to run to replace outgoing Palm Beach Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, who must leave office this year due to term limits.

Of that haul, $479,500 came through his PC, and roughly 76% of that portion came from firefighters and firefighter groups, including $350,000 alone from the Professional Firefighters/Paramedics of Palm Beach County.

For Willhite, a U.S. Navy veteran and active-duty captain with Palm Beach County Fire Rescue, that level of support is something one could safely assume he hopes is a feature of his campaign. But in backing one of his two Democratic Primary opponents for the District 6 seat, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel painted his reliance and possible indebtedness to those in his profession as a potential negative.

In a Thursday editorial, the Sun-Sentinel staff endorsed Michelle Oyola McGovern, who spent 18 years working in the office of U.S. Sen Bill Nelson, over Willhite and grant writer Sylvia Sharps. Among their reasons: McGovern, who now leads government and community relations for Baptist Health of South Florida, listed housing affordability as her top priority in a candidate questionnaire.

Willhite, conversely, didn’t list housing affordability — which has reached crisis levels in South Florida — at all in his questionnaire answers. He did mention support for first responders, among other issues.

Couple that with Willhite’s “narrow” steam of donations and the fact that Palm Beach Fire Rescue is one of the county’s largest budget items, Sun-Sentinel staff wrote, and there is room for worry his main concerns aren’t congruous with the county’s and that there are potential conflicts of interest.

“Critics have argued for years that the department is top-heavy with managers and have raised questions about the generosity of pension benefits,” they wrote. “We are uneasy with the idea of an elected official voting on his own department’s budget, especially given those campaign contributions, and voters should be, too.”

Willhite disagrees. He told Florida Politics the firefighters who donate to him are members of the communities he serves and pointed to his three consecutive terms in the Statehouse as evidence he’s not lacking in voter support.

“All those people, they work every day at the fire station and then they go home to their families, teach baseball, are pastors or participate in parades — they’re everyday people outside their profession,” he said.

He then turned to his legislative record in Tallahassee, which he said is proof he is hardly a one-issue lawmaker.

Willhite scored several wins during the last Legislative Session, including passing bills addressing suicides among U.S. military veterans, extending the life of Florida’s Hurricane Loss Mitigation Program, closing a legal loophole that previously allowed requesters of public information records to obtain police vehicle GPS information and allowing unarmed security guards to receive their licenses by collecting online course credits.

“I filed 27 bills (during the 2022 Legislative Session), because we only get so many, and only seven of those were directly related to firefighters,” he said.

“What lawyer doesn’t file legislation related to their profession? What doctor doesn’t? What educator doesn’t? The person filing legislation is the subject matter expert of what individuals in that job field need, and filing legislation I know something about is important. These are the people who are answering 911 calls for the everyday person.”

Willhite took aim at McGovern and the PC, Team McGovern, she shares with husband John McGovern, a Wellington Village Councilman.

“Let’s take a look at what my opponent has raised in (real estate) development money — money that’s adding to that affordability crisis,” he said. “I’m representing people living in our county. She’s taking money from developers.”

About $33,000 of roughly $178,000 — 18.5% — raised through McGovern’s PC since April 2021 is from real estate.

Palm Beach Commission District 6 covers several western communities largely regarded as the agricultural part of the county, including Belle Glade, Pahokee, South Bay and Wellington.

Internal polling figures Willhite’s campaign released in May showed him holding a 7-point lead in the Primary and 47% name recognition with district voters.

The winner of the Democratic Primary on April 23 will face Republican Sara Baxter in the General Election.

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