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Election supervisor: Contest to watch

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER, (Week of December 1, 2011)
Photo: Supervisor of Elections Leslie Swan

The contest between incumbent Leslie Swan and challenger Sandi Harpring for Indian River County supervisor of elections really started one year ago when Kay Clem resigned from her post and both women applied for the job.

Of all the countywide races, this one promises to be potentially the most interesting.

Both Swan and Harpring are beachside residents married to successful attorneys. Both have ties to Vero Beach going back three decades or more. Both are poised, intelligent and politically skilled women.

Both are working mothers who have had to strike that delicate balance between career and family.

Both are surrounded by large circles of die-hard supporters and both have the ability, through social, professional and political connections, to amass huge campaign chests. As of the last quarterly financial report tallying contributions as of Sept. 30, Swan had raised more than $33,000 – nearly $8,000 of which came from her and her immediate family members – and Harpring more than $24,000, about $2,000 of which came from herself or close family members.

Both really want the job and are willing to fight hard for votes.

Swan's appointment to fill Clem's shoes brought with it political negatives and positives. The big positive is the name recognition and launching pad that all incumbents have. That, "look, I'm already doing the job" factor.

Swan has worked on 15 elections over the past seven years and as the health problems which eventually led to Clem's departure worsened Swan took on more and more responsibility as Clem's assistant.

But Swan has not had a honeymoon period in her new job. As county department budgets shrunk, Swan cut her staffing and expenses to make her numbers.

“The Supervisor of Elections is one of the only constitutional officers who has wide swings in their expenditures based on the amount of election activity from year to year” Swan said.

“I have found that leading by example is the best way to manage the office.  I work tirelessly and I have personally cut my salary and benefits by 20 percent,” she added, noting that the staffing in the office has been reduced from 11 full-time employees to six.

Despite her best efforts, Swan has had to go to the podium and ask for more money for massive public awareness campaigns about redistricting and the consolidation of polling places. Plus, she's getting ready for the presidential primary plus national, state, county and municipal elections in 2012.

That experience netted Swan letters of support written to former Gov. Charlie Crist last year from local public officials such as School Board Member Carol Johnson, a known powerhouse in Indian River County politics and political campaigns for decades.

"Ms. Swan maintains the highest professional demeanor while making citizens and candidates alike feel she is truly interested in their questions and concerns," Johnson wrote in a Nov. 20, 2010, letter on behalf of Swan. "More importantly, they are all treated with respect and fairness. She has the most ethical nonpolitical agenda that I have seen by anyone in her position previously and I have been in Indian River County since 1970."

Harpring, meanwhile, is running for office from outside the 2012 redistricting and election maelstrom and out of the spotlight. If victorious, she wouldn't have to take over until the party is over, so to speak. But she's still got a visible public position as a lead staffer for state Rep. Debbie Mayfield which gets her out and about amongst constituents.

With a background in legal work and government constituent services, Harpring said she's ready and well qualified.

"I bring over two decades of public and private sector experience to the elections office.  My experience gives me unique and detailed knowledge of government processes and structure," she said.

"Additionally, my qualifications provide me with a solid appreciation for tax dollars and how they are used in government.  I can be trusted to make tough decisions and provide the best possible service at a minimum cost to the taxpayer. I will safeguard our taxpayer dollars and stop the culture of unchecked spending in government."

Based upon their campaign statements, Harpring and Swan agree about the role the supervisor of elections should play in the community – ensure every voter the right to vote, follow the law, implement policy, remain as apolitical as possible, educate voters and increase opportunities for voter registration.

Swan and Harpring seem to be tugging at similar purse strings for campaign dollars. Both tap into the legal community and into Vero's establishment of professionals, business owners and Republican Party stalwarts.

Some notables on Swan's contribution list are former City Manager Jim Gabbard and three former Vero Beach mayors – Warren Winchester, Caroline Ginn and Mary Beth McDonald – as well as Councilwoman Tracy Carroll, former County Commission candidate Honey Minuse and Chester and Kay Clem.

On Harpring's side are defense attorneys Bobby Guttridge and Michael Kessler, local Republican Party leader Rose Spytek, Quail Valley's Kevin Given, architect Tony Donadio, Bill and Mary Ann Becker of the citrus industry and Jackie Solari, wife of County Commission Chairman Bob Solari.

To those helping her mount a primary challenge, Harpring said she deeply appreciates the vote of confidence.

"I am very fortunate that people all across Indian River County have signed on to help my campaign," she said. "My supporters, from all walks of life, know that my desire to serve as Supervisor of Elections is not self serving. Business owners, public and private sector employees, and others all know of my strong record of service in our community."        

As with all other elected posts, getting and keeping the job requires a great deal of time and effort cultivating support and garnering votes. Historically, when primaries draw near, the heft of government business getting done often slows to give candidates time to get out and campaign.

Not so, however with the supervisor of elections position. The most intense time of campaigning is, unfortunately, also the busiest time on the job – a tight-rope walk at best for any incumbent seeking to be returned to that office.

“I will work diligently to conduct all elections in compliance with the election laws of Florida and ensure that every eligible voter has the opportunity to cast a ballot,” Swan states on her campaign website. “I am not a politician. I am an election professional dedicated to serving the public."