Gulfport didn’t have elections last year because none of the incumbents had challengers. This year, it’s different. Five people — including three challengers — are running for two seats on city council. We asked them why more people don’t run for office, or even vote.
Here’s what they, and a few others not in the race, told us. This year’s election is March 14.
Gulfport’s Ward II
Christine Brown, a current councilmember for Ward II and math teacher at Boca Ciega High School, agrees that lack of time is the main reason more people don’t run for office. She adds that Gulfport has a vibrant community of volunteers who find their contributions fulfilling and productive, and she believes people are generally happy with life in Gulfport.
Her greatest reward is the satisfaction of giving back, she says, helping her neighbors solve problems and working with others in town government. The biggest downside: “The wheels of government really do move slow! I always want see the project finished right away, but there are a great many moving parts that need to happen behind the scenes.”
Brown notes that the November elections — when the focus is on state and national contests — draw more voters than the local elections in March. But with national elections at the top of the ballot, some voters may ignore the local contests “down ballot.”
Small-business owner and former Marine Greg Simek is making his first bid for office. He’s well aware of the time commitment, which he believes deters many people from running. Upping the salaries of councilmembers would provide more incentive, especially among those who, like him, have full-time jobs and families, he says. Term limits, Simek notes, might bring in new faces and fresh ideas, while also encouraging people to run if they aren’t going up against long-term incumbents. He’s heard about public abuse of candidates and councilmembers, and has already experienced some himself. Simek sent out an informational email to voters and says he received several “really nasty” replies accusing him of being a hard-core left-winger (he’s not, he says). It surprised him, and he suspects such things may be more common for actual incumbents.
Gulfport native Christopher Butler-Jones says more people don’t run for office because they don’t know what the qualifications are (being a Gulfport voter) and are concerned about random abuse from the public. In the past, councilmembers have been threatened and even needed police protection, he explains. There’s also the belief by many that nothing will change anyway, “but it’s true that nothing will change if you don’t put in the effort.”
Butler-Jones adds that it’s not always easy for voters to understand the workings of the government. Many don’t realize, he says, that while there are elections coming up for Wards II and IV, everyone in the city — including those in other wards — can vote for any candidate. With more transparency and a better flow of information from city government, he says, more people would be inclined to vote and run for office.
Gulfport’s Ward IV
City Councilmember Michael Fridovich struck a common chord in saying that satisfaction with life in Gulfport cuts down on voter turnout in city elections.
“This is true everywhere. As long as the garbage is picked up, nobody’s building a factory next to your house, and the quality of life isn’t going down, people are inclined to leave things alone,” he said.
Stressing that this attitude is true nationwide in municipal elections, Fridovich adds that being a city councilmember is “more than sitting on the dais twice a month. There’s travel throughout the county, and if you’re out for dinner in Gulfport, inevitably someone will stop and ask you a question or complain.” No big deal, he says, but it’s something that gives some potential candidates pause.
Candidate Ian O’Hara checked all the boxes in our multiple-choice survey on why more people don’t run for office: lack of time, abuse from the public/stress, belief that nothing will change anyway, or that more can be done “as an outsider,” poor financial compensation, and not feeling qualified. It’s not a singular issue, but “all of them combined,” he says, adding that the pressure of running a campaign “can be problematic.”
As for why more people don’t vote, O’Hara notes that “indifference and apathy run deep,” and people often don’t take the time to learn about candidates or issues.
Barbara Banno, owner of Stella’s and a city council member from 2011 to 2013, says she loved serving and being part of making a difference in the community. She’d still enjoy it, but the job today has gotten bigger and more time-consuming in recent years, she says. The only real down side, she noted, can be verbal abuse — nothing extreme, but certainly unpleasant.
Social media, she suspects, makes abuse worse today since people can hide behind their screens and rant.
Jonathan Micocci, a Gulfport Realtor, withdrew from the Ward II race on Jan. 4, citing a lack of time and the belief that four candidates for one seat were too much.
“I entered the race because I thought I had ideas and a problem-solving process that could be assets on the council,” he said. Micocci reversed his decision largely because work became so demanding he couldn’t devote time enough to campaign and didn’t want supporters “to sacrifice time and money for a cause that did not have a great chance of success… There were four of us vying for one job, and 26% of the vote could have won it. How would the wishes of the remaining 74% be represented?”
Learn more about Gulfport’s municipal election candidates at The Gabber’s Candidate Forum at the Catherine Hickman Theater on Feb. 2.