Here are the Top 11 most important political stories in Southwest Florida in 2022

Storm-force winds and political chaos made landfall in paradise in 2022. That’s not to say every news story was about the destruction — intentional or natural — of the region’s institutions. But at a time when the voice of Southwest Florida grows to new volumes, the politics around who controls the message and tone has elevated alongside it.

In a year when the biggest political impact came from an act of nature unconcerned with mortal politics, a disruption in status quos literally hung in the air. Political leaders, many of whom spent this fall as focused on rebuilding their own lives as with hitting the campaign trail, have fresh standing and new power to wield as Southwest Florida moves into 2023 with the wind aggressively in its sails.

Here were the biggest political news stories in Southwest Florida this year.

1. Landfall

Some storms impact Florida with a touch of force, but then their names become lost to time but for the few who feel the most devastating impacts. Then there are those so hostile, damaging and deadly, their names become historic. Andrew. Charley. Katrina. Michael.

And now, Ian.

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Hurricane Ian packed a wallop for Florida’s CAT Fund.

A Category 4 hurricane when it made landfall on Sept. 28 at Cayo Costa in Lee County, storm-force winds blew at 140 miles per hour, but the size of the system would prove more problematic. With an eye large enough to hold three Charleys, the reach of Ian would extend across the state. DeSoto County was left almost completely without power for weeks. Neighborhoods as far inland as greater Orlando flooded. Even Florida’s east coast would be battered after Ian crossed back out to sea but continued to hammer the coast, an opening salvo to Hurricane Nicole’s arrival weeks later.

Then there was Lee County, where popular destinations like Fort Myers Beach’s Town Square were leveled to rubble. The death toll for the storm reached 125 people, with nearly half those killed in Lee County alone. National media raised concerns whether local emergency officials ordered evacuations soon enough. Regardless, many veterans of wind events stayed put, unprepared for storm surge that flooded countless homes.

Months after, with dead foliage and piles of debris on many curbs as reminders, the storm won’t fade from memory soon. Estimates predict Ian among the costliest storms in U.S. history, rivaled only by Katrina. Regardless, the toll on the landscape and shift in the culture will linger for years.

2. Passidomo in charge

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It may not be the race that grabbed the most headlines, but when Sen. Kathleen Passidomo formally won election as Senate President, the Naples Republican became one of the most important figures in Florida politics for the next two years.

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Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, speaks during Organizational Session at the Capitol in Tallahassee. Image via Colin Hackley.

Her rise came after Florida Senate Republicans enjoyed a hugely successful cycle, winning all frontline races in November. But notably, the winning slate of candidates included a substantial number of politicians recruited or backed by the Governor instead of Senate leadership, including Sens. Jay Collins, Blaise Ingoglia, Cory Simon and, in Passidomo’s backyard, Jonathan Martin.

Still, the result is that the Senate Presidency sits in the hands of a Collier County Republican for the first time in history. In the wake of Hurricane Ian, which flooded Passidomo’s own home, the power may never have been more welcome in the region. Will it create lasting impact? The last Southwest Floridian to preside over a chamber, Bill Galvano, pushed for the Heartland Parkway through the region, but saw those efforts scuttled as soon as he left office. Those plans may just surface again, as will other regional matters now that Passidomo reigns on the fourth floor.

3. Precipice of power

Rep. Vern Buchanan won re-election to a ninth term in Congress, but much of his personal attention goes toward a bigger race with a smaller pool of voters. Following the surprise departure of California U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes from Congress, Buchanan became the instant frontrunner to become lead Republican on the House Ways & Means Committee.

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Vern Buchanan is close to being named Ways and Means Chair, but it’s not in the bag, yet.

He raised money for Republican candidates across the country, including all four Republicans who picked up U.S. House seats in Florida. That helped the GOP win a narrow majority. Now, Buchanan is hard at work convincing GOP Steering Committee members he should chair the most powerful committee in Congress.

But he faces competition in U.S. Reps. Jason Smith of Missouri and Adrian Smith of Nebraska. Moreover, elections have been delayed possibly until January as prospective Speaker Kevin McCarthy rallies votes to become the presiding officer in the House. That means while Buchanan has more seniority than any other Republican on Ways and Means, he hasn’t quite secured the gavel yet. The stakes are high for Florida, which now has the second-largest GOP delegation behind only Texas.

4. Deep red Manatee

While Manatee County has long been a Republican county, the past two election cycles saw the region take a hard right turn. It started in 2020, when George Kruse, James Satcher and Kevin Van Ostenbridge joined Vanessa Baugh in a new majority, one that promptly fired the County Administrator. This year, Amanda Ballard, Jason Bearden and Mike Rahn all won seats, each one by unseating an incumbent.

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After a bitter Primary, Jason Bearden takes out the incumbent. Image via Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Ballard’s victory over Democrat Reggie Bellamy means the board will be all Republican for the first time since the county went to district elections in the 1980s. Of note, elections this year took place on a new map designed by political consultant Anthony Pedicini, who now has managed the campaigns of all seven members of the Commission.

The biggest shock, though, came in the sound defeat of long-time Commissioner Carol Whitmore by Bearden. She lost a Republican Primary in a countywide election for an at-large seat, a race where the reapportionment pen held no influence.

5. Ziegler bows out

One arguable casualty of redistricting elsewhere was Christian Ziegler, a former Sarasota County Commissioner who stood in opposition to the last two redistricting processes in the county and was rewarded by being drawn into a Democrat-leaning seat. As a result, he opted not to seek re-election. Instead, he decided this cycle to focus on ensuring wife Bridget Ziegler’s re-election to the Sarasota County School Board (more on that later).

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Christian Ziegler throws his hat in the crowded ring for Florida GOP Chair.

As it turns out, Christian Ziegler’s county commission seat stayed in Republican hands anyway when Mark Smith defeated Democrat Fredd Atkins amid a powerful Republican wave in Florida. But the specter of a tough fight reshaped the race back in qualifying week.

Leaving county government hardly means Ziegler’s time in the public eye has sunset. The digital-savvy political consultant remains the state committeeman for the Republican Party of Sarasota, and already announced his candidacy to succeed fellow Sarasotan Joe Gruters as chair of the Republican Party of Florida.

6. Firing the supes

It didn’t take long for new conservative supermajorities to make their presence felt in Southwest Florida school districts. Within minutes of seeing three new colleagues sworn in, Sarasota County School Board member Karen Rose made a motion to consider terminating Superintendent Brennan Asplen. The board since negotiated a resignation and severance package with the administrator, and rumors abound that Rose will take over the post soon.

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The Sarasota School Board ultimately negotiated Brennan Asplen’s resignation.

The parting of ways came after three Republicans endorsed by Gov. Ron DeSantis won seats on the board, flipping a Democratic majority. What drove the change in make-up has been heavily debated, but plenty of people want credit, from Moms for Liberty to the Proud Boys.

But it’s just one place in the state where a conservative takeover occurred in a red year for Florida, and just one place where professional district administrators paid an immediate price. In Collier County, Kamela Patton also found herself out of a job weeks after a new board was sworn in.

7. Joe Biden’s praise

Hurricane Ian forced President Biden to postpone a rally for Charlie Crist, the Democratic nominee for Governor, but that was hardly the biggest blow to Crist’s aspirations delivered indirectly by the storm. The race seemed all but over as Biden flew to the side of the Republican Gov. DeSantis to survey damage in Southwest Florida. While in the storm-struck region, pool reporters asked Biden what he thought of DeSantis’ recovery efforts.

I think he’s done a good job,” Biden said. “We have very different political philosophies, but we’ve worked hand in glove.”

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From left, Florida’s First Lady Casey DeSantis, Gov. Ron DeSantis, First Lady Jill Biden and President Joe Biden arrive at Fort Myers Beach, Fla., Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022, to survey the damage caused by Hurricane Ian. Image via AP.

It struck at Crist’s ambitions in a way unrivaled by 140-mph winds, drawing a spotlight to efforts like the rapid restoration of bridge access to Pine Island and later Sanibel. While Crist hoped to showcase divisive culture war issues forwarded under DeSantis’ first term, the conversation in the weeks leading to the General Election instead turned to nonpartisan issues like emergency relief and response. Any cynical hopes Ian might turn on DeSantis also washed away.

A month later, DeSantis won re-election by 19 percentage points.

8. The Hollow

Sometimes, national political figures get a place in Florida and retire from public life. Other times, they kick efforts into overdrive to take over political institutions. The latter seems the blueprint for former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, a General perhaps most famous for coining the chant “Lock Her Up.”

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Former Trump advisor Michael Flynn has organized the far right in the region.

Now a resident of Englewood, Flynn turned The Hollow in Venice into a standing gathering for the far-right. It was from this new station in Sarasota County that Flynn has associated with members of the Proud Boys and increased involvement with groups believing the QAnon conspiracy and advancing false beliefs Donald Trump won re-election in 2020.

From here, Flynn also greatly increased involvement in local Republican Party politics, joining the Sarasota County Republican Executive Committee. He endorsed a candidate to chair the county REC, and though she failed, candidates supported in Collier and Lee counties successfully took over those local parties. Working with individuals like Collier County State Committeeman Alfie Oakes and Lake County Republican Party Chair Anthony Sabatini, he’s quickly becoming a power player on the party fringes — and an enemy of the local GOP establishment.

9. The body cam knows

It always seemed a long-shot bid for Sarasota conservative activist Martin Hyde to beat U.S. Rep. Buchanan in a Republican Primary. But a traffic stop on Valentine’s Day would topple the race in grandiose fashion. Sarasota Police Officer Julia Beskin stopped the congressional candidate and wrote him up for speeding, failing to produce a registration, and texting while driving.

But body cam footage showed a belligerent Hyde accosting the officer, touting his candidacy for Congress and cordiality with police leadership. “I’ll just call the Chief. You know who I am, right?” Hyde said.

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Martin Hyde’s traffic stop put a quick end to his congressional hopes.

When media published the video, it turned a national spotlight on Hyde, sending him into isolation for a period. He seemingly dropped out of the race via an op-ed published on the front page of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, but then paid his qualification fee to run anyway. Hyde later tried to make light of the episode in a campaign ad, but personal strife continued to make headlines, and attention to the traffic stop never waned before his ultimate Primary defeat.

10. Surprise Senator

There weren’t supposed to be many surprises in Southwest Florida politics this cycle. But that changed early in qualification week when Sen. Ray Rodrigues, an Estero Republican, surprised everyone, including Senate leadership, with news he would not seek another term. The news came alongside word Gov. DeSantis had endorsed Jonathan Martin, chair of the Lee County Republican Party, for the job.

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Jonathan Martin made light work of his victory.

The Board of Governors ended up hiring Rodrigues as Chancellor of the State University System, a position he gave up his Senate seat to pursue before anyone anticipated former Chancellor Marshall Criser’s retirement. The backroom deal generated criticism, but that ultimately panned out as empty bluster without any significant challenger to Martin in a GOP Primary. Former Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen, who beat Martin for a House seat years ago, or Rep. Jenna Persons-Mulicka, who holds a Fort Myers seat now, decided to sit out after the Governor’s endorsement. And intra-party rival Tara Jenner, an REC activist critical of Martin in the party, announced a Senate run but failed to qualify (she later won vice chair of the local party though).

Two years after Rodrigues won a closely watched Primary against Fitzenhagen, he’s now retired, and Martin won election facing only write-in opposition.

11. New water flows

The Army Corps of Engineers took a major stride forward this summer in developing a new water management plan for Lake Okeechobee, one which should allow far fewer discharges into the Caloosahatchee River even in years with high rainfall. Col. James Booth, the new Commander of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District, has continued to take input from around the state, while members of Congress throughout Florida push for more specific changes to the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual.

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Federal Lake O restoration is on the backburner — for now.

U.S. Rep. Byron Donalds, a Naples Republican, expressed confidence the plan will be an improvement over one in place that allowed controversial discharges tainted with blue-green algae. At most, he expects 18 days of discharges a year, at worst. Events like the hurricanes that increased water levels mean some discharge is inevitable, as happened earlier this month. But local, state and federal officials representing the region remain engaged and see net benefits. Most important, few expect under the new LOSOM rules to have discharges like the ones in 2018 that exacerbated algal blooms.

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https://floridapolitics.com/archives/577455-here-were-the-top-11-most-important-political-stories-in-southwest-florida-in-2022/ Here are the Top 11 most important political stories in Southwest Florida in 2022

Callan Tansill

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