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IRNA fetes Wheeler, mourns his loss from County Commission

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER, (Week of April 19, 2012)
Photo of Commissioner Gary Wheeler.

The exit of Commissioner Gary Wheeler from the political scene in November after nearly three decades in public office signifies a huge loss for the Indian River Neighborhood Association, so members appropriately started the grieving process with a tribute luncheon for Wheeler last week.

Despite the fact he attempted to keep the IRNA and its members at arm’s length, Wheeler has unapologetically been their man on the county commission for a tumultuous eight years of political and economic twists and turns. The real estate market crash of 2007, which nearly banished the association into the realm of the irrelevant, ironically also proved its leaders to be right about a few things.

While developers, builders, Realtors and government coffers rolled in the dough during boom years, the IRNA urged caution. Easy does it was the message, despite the irrational exuberance in the housing industry. What goes up must come down, they said. Build your economy on a more solid and sustainable foundation than real estate if you want it to weather the storm.

Developers, particularly on the mainland, didn’t heed that advice, so the county endured a severe downturn when both the stock market nosedived and the mortgage market collapsed.

Wheeler is no fair weather friend to the IRNA. He’s been there when people thought they were right, and, more importantly, when people thought they were nuts.

“He recognized the folly of unfettered growth,” said Chairman George Christopher, who called Wheeler a leader on many issues, “but particularly on growth management issues.”

Over the years, Christopher and his group were also right about a few other things – such as how elected officials would trip over themselves to vote for any harebrained scheme marketed to them as “economic development” after boom turned to bust. If the staff or some special interest group touted a law or a program or a grant as a job creator or something to bring new businesses to town, they voted for it.

Impact fees have been waived and Gov. Rick Scott has emasculated Florida’s Department of Community Affairs, tossing local comprehensive plans solidly back in the laps of city and county governments. The new Department of Economic Opportunity, as Orwellian as it may sound, doesn’t have many teeth any more to stop the bulldozers or the zoning boards from planning for the next boom.

Wheeler and the IRNA tried to shove charter government down the throats of Indian River County voters, but the measure failed. It would have required any major zoning changes to go to the voters, but it was rejected in a vote of confidence for representative government. Then so-called “Hometown Democracy,” a statewide ballot initiative to achieve many of the same goals as charter government, also failed in 2010.

Now, the IRNA needs someone like Wheeler more than ever to remind commissioners that everything they do – even if it seems to make perfect sense in a horrendous economy – has long-term repercussions and unintended consequences.

Jim Pagano, a Wheeler friend and political operative, was one of four speakers who roasted Wheeler at the luncheon. One or his comments pointed to the sometimes prickly working relationship Wheeler has had with other commissioners.

“I asked, ‘When Gary retires this fall, are you guys going to give him the keys to the county?’ and Bob Solari said, ‘No, we’re going to change the locks,’” Pagano recounted.

The IRNA has endorsed and funded Commissioner Peter O’Bryan’s campaigns twice. But O’Bryan is only one of five votes. He also doesn’t carry the political heft in the GOP that Wheeler does. Solid conservative credentials like Wheeler’s are required to build consensus in the county and O’Bryan is widely characterized as a “closet Democrat.”

The IRNA has quietly packed key boards and committees in preparation for the battle at hand, but that’s not enough. It’s clear the group needs a new horse to run for the county commission – and fast.

This year, three seats are up for grabs in November, but in reality these contests will be decided in August when the Republican primary is held. Nearly every county commission race here is a contest between Republican and Republican. Bob Solari is seeking a second term and Wesley Davis a third.

The association endorsed and funded candidates for both seats in 2008 and both candidates – Honey Minuse and Susan Boyd of Fellsmere – lost. Davis beat Boyd by only 10 points despite raising four times the money. This time, Davis has not raised the $82,000 he did in 2008. First-quarter reports show he only has  raised $2,800 to date.

Solari unseated former Vero Beach Mayor Sandra Bowden with IRNA help because Minuse was in the primary, dividing the money and support coming from the barrier island and from Vero’s old guard.

Solari got 40 percent of the vote, while Minuse got 33 percent and Bowden was left with 27 percent. Solari also is not raising the $84,000 he did in 2008, but he’s doing better than Davis.  By the end of March, he had $22,000 from supporters, compared to $38,000 at this same point in 2008.

Solari and Davis both attended the Wheeler roast last week. The two didn’t look entirely comfortable in the room full of IRNA supporters, but they were, of course, cordially pressing the flesh as candidates do everywhere they go.

Solari and Davis weren’t exactly courting the membership – partially because they still remember the sting of the 2008 election challenges from the IRNA and also because, presumably, neither wants to get hitched to the group’s causes.

Solari is a free-market, limited government guy who also thinks of himself as being rather green in an environmental sense for a Republican.

The Davis camp’s core of support comes directly from the types of people the IRNA likes to keep a close eye on – developers, builders, ranchers and citrus folks with lots of vacant land to sell and generally the good old’ boys. Both Solari and Davis reportedly are hoping next few weeks go by without a serious challenger – especially one with IRNA backing – coming out of the woodwork.

Vero Beach Councilman Jay Kramer has publicly denied yet privately fueled rumors that he’s plotting a bid for Solari’s seat. Kramer and his wife Alla made the rounds at the luncheon, but it appears the IRNA is not biting on the politically damaged former Vero Beach mayor.

IRNA Executive Director Brian Carman flatly denied that the group is recruiting Kramer to be its man. “As far as Jay Kramer is concerned, there are rumors all over the place and we had heard that one as well. There is no truth to it at all,” he said.

Then, there’s the open seat, District 3.

Tim Zorc is a developer and he’s in business with IRNA arch-enemy Charlie Wilson, so it doesn’t look like he will get the nod from the IRNA anytime soon.

He raised only $525 in his first few weeks as a candidate, not exactly a strong showing out of the gate.

That leaves Zorc vulnerable to rivals, who have already begun to emerge.

Long-time county resident and self-appointed political blogger Bea Gardner picked the day of Wheeler’s tribute luncheon to launch her campaign for the District 3 seat, but not one mention of it was made during the luncheon by IRNA leadership or by Wheeler.

Sometimes, silence speaks volumes. The Indian River Tea Party is also rumored to be mulling over whether it should run its first official candidate for this rare, up-for-grabs seat.

The IRNA traditionally does not endorse candidates until after qualifying closes in May. After that, the blessing of the group and its PAC bring in substantial campaign funds and a bloc of several thousand absentee votes.

Should no one come forward that Wheeler feels would do a good job, it will be tough for him to relinquish his seat.

Indian River Shores Town Attorney Chester Clem, a close friend of Wheeler and a seasoned politician in his own right, left the door open for a Wheeler comeback.

Among the anecdotes he told about Wheeler were some travel stories illustrating Wheeler’s tendency toward restlessness.

He joked about how Wheeler drives his recreational vehicle two days to get up north and then immediately turns around and drives back to Vero Beach, to his wife Donna’s chagrin.

He told about how Wheeler flew into the Grand Canyon but never actually stopped to look at it before flying back out.

Same thing with a trip to the Dominican Republic, Clem said. He and Wheeler got there just to say they’d been, then refueled and took off for another destination.

“So don’t be surprised if you see Gary come right back,” Clem said.