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Commission candidates set for ‘The Biggie:’ Questioning by Toby Hill

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER, (Week of July 12, 2012)
Photo of Toby Hill

Candidates seeking county office will run a dizzying gauntlet of forums, interviews, parades, fundraisers, luncheons and neighborhood walks leading to the Aug. 14 primary.

The July 19 Indian River Tea Party Candidate Forum for the District 3 and 5 county commission seats is considered “the biggie” partially because it’s well-attended by the general public, and it’s one of the last major events before the primary.

The reason the forum draws a large crowd is because of moderator Toby Hill’s take-no-prisoners approach to questioning. He unapologetically holds candidates’ feet to the fire.

“We have the right as the electorate to know where these people stand on the issues and to have them respond openly and not just say the answer they want us to hear,” said Hill, an island resident, president of The Hill Group and founding Tea Party member.

“We’re going to make sure they answer the questions, and if they don’t, we politely point out and give them another opportunity to do so,” he said.

As long as candidates are forthcoming, Hill, at least in his capacity as moderator, doesn’t weigh in on the merits of their positions on issues. He just wants the public to hear the response.

“I try and be fair even if there’s someone there who I’ve already decided I won’t vote for because we (the Tea Party) are for American fundamentals, whether I disagree with you or not. We’re doing it so we can have good government.”

Normally, the Tea Party holds its forums at the Vero Beach High School Performing Arts Center, but board member Karl Zimmerman said that venue is closed for maintenance so the event has been moved to the Vero Beach Community Center on 14th Avenue in the old downtown.

He said the location is central and there is adequate parking nearby. He said the date and time have been nailed down – 6:30 p.m. – but that the Tea Party leaders have yet to meet to flesh out the program.

In addition to the planned program, Hill will take questions from audience members who write them on index cards that are passed around the room.

By the time candidates get to the forum, they should be used to being put on the spot in front of small groups, large groups and one on one.

“Sometimes there are three or four different things in one night and sometimes you don’t have anything for a day. Some days you have three places you’re supposed to be at the same time,” said retiring County Commissioner Gary Wheeler.

Wheeler, for the first time in decades, is not running for anything. But he knows the drill, maybe better than any other local politician. He’s served twice on the county commission and also as sheriff. Looking back on all the things he’s had to do to get to know the voters and let them get to know him, he said the candidate forums are a key ingredient to a campaign.

“First, it’s marketing. Other than that, it’s like building something,” Wheeler said. “I think of it as just like building an artwork or a house, to complete it you need many, many things. A campaign is like that.”

An event like last week’s Sebastian 4th of July parade, Wheeler said, is another thing candidates are expected to support. Most of the people running for county office walked or rode in the parade, with volunteers putting in sweat equity in the brutal July heat.

Some handed out candy or bottled water.

The two candidates for sheriff seemed to use the parade as a chest-beating match to show they had more vehicles and supporters.

Both Sheriff Deryl Loar and challenger Bill McMullen entered lengthy processions of people, signs and trucks. McMullen’s contingent included horses and a pot-bellied pig on a leash, a slight twist on the traditional “dog and pony show.”

Wheeler said most of the people lining the parade route were probably tourists, but the participants are all locals. “It’s more important to be seen by the participants than it is the spectators,” he said. “That’s why I went down to where the parade was forming that morning and handed out paper fans for Tim Zorc. It was hot and as people in the parade used the fans, they gave Tim some exposure.”

The four critical elements of a campaign, Wheeler said, are organization, money, volunteers and a solid platform of positions on the issues. As the season wears on, every contact a candidate makes is a chance not only to win a vote but to garner donations and volunteers, and to broadcast that platform.

Wheeler acknowledged the same people attend most of the forums and belong to the various politically active groups around town. “You might talk to 1,000 bodies, but it’s the same 200 people.”

Hill agreed, but he looks at it a little differently, noting that people who follow politics may have greater influence on the votes of family, friends and colleagues. “If it’s the same people, those are the people talking to everyone,” he said.

This political season, one candidate caused some major heartburn early on with several of the groups hosting forums.

A handful of representatives from those groups complained that McMullen, who hopes to unseat Loar, declined invitations to go head to head with Loar before their membership. The McMullen campaign reportedly told the groups that he had chosen one forum – the Republican Executive Committee – as his opportunity to appear with Loar.

The McMullen campaign subsequently had a change of heart on the matter and the candidate has turned up at other events to debate Loar.

The Tea Party does not host a forum for the so-called constitutional offices of sheriff, tax collector, property appraiser, supervisor of elections and clerk of the court, but if it did, anyone asking for the vote, Hill said, would be expected to show up.

“It’s pretty basic. Even if it’s pretty much the same group, but they need to participate because it’s part of our system of government,” Hill said. “If you want to run, then you need to stand in front of the public at almost every opportunity you have.”