VENICE – This year’s Venice City Council campaign season during COVID-19 pandemic is unlike any other.
And not just because the pandemic has limited debates and door-knocking opportunities.
It’s also the first time in nearly a decade there is no negative advertising.
Outside Political Action Committee involvement, often blamed for negative advertisements, appears to be non-existent in this year’s race for Seat No. 2 on the Venice City Council, with the exception of two $1,000 Realtor association PACs.
So far, not a single negative ad flyer or mailer has been published, as of press time. Early voting is already underway for the Nov. 3 election.
The Democratic Club Executive Committee of Sarasota County once again made a major donation — $1,000 — in a local race that’s supposed to be nonpartisan.
Candidates vying for Seat No. 2, currently held by Charles Newsom, are businessman and former council member Bill Willson, 72, and builder and environmental activist Brian Kelly, 40, who received the Democratic Party contribution.
Willson, a long-time Venice resident involved in just about every area service club at one time or another, welcomed a clean race.
“I’ve tried to be positive in the talks. And I would not be appreciative if someone would send a trash piece out calling someone names on my behalf,” Willson said.
Both PAC mailers and political party donations been a bone of contention over the past decade in Venice politics.
Willson said he sees no problem with endorsements, but political parties donating campaign funds goes against the intent of the City Charter, he said.
“It’s the No. 1 question I get asked, my party affiliation,” Willson said. “I tell people it’s a nonpartisan race and try to leave it at that.”
Jack Brill, chair of the Republican Party of Sarasota, said his party has no intention of making a cash contribution to Willson, but does continue to offer in-kind services.
“Obviously, Mr. Willson is in our voters guide and in information when we go door-knocking. He’s a great candidate with a lot of experience,” Brill said. “Especially this election season where there are a lot of young candidates.”
As for the Democratic Party donation, Brill was somewhat ambivalent.
“There really isn’t anything like a nonpartisan race any more,” he said. “The Democrats have been working a long time on the Venice City Council races.”
Willson, who’s ahead of Kelly 2-to-1 in fundraising, has raised $20,460 to Kelly’s $8,860, according to the latest financial reports.
Kelly said he was also appreciative that there’s been no mudslinging at the local level.
“I’m not going to be pushing out any negative ads, and will let the voters decide,” he said. “That’s how I want it … to be a fair election.”
As for the party donation in a nonpartisan race, he said the assistance was minor.
“They helped me get out some fliers, and I paid for the fliers, and then they sent me a check to cover that,” Kelly said. “It’s not a law (that they can’t contribute). The Democratic Party does resonate more with my (campaign).”
He pointed to $2,000 in contributions to Willson’s campaign from two Realtor industry PACs.
“I am for slowing development and Realtors would be pushing (against) that,” he said.
JoAnne DeVries, chair of the Sarasota County Democratic Party, did not return a call.
Both candidates received contributions from local and former politicians. Willson received a contribution from three-term former Mayor John Holic, and other notable politicians like Nancy Detert and current Venice Councilwoman Helen Moore, while Kelly received one from Venice Mayor Ron Feinsod and the local Sierra Club.
Seat No. 1 on the Venice City Council, held by Mitzie Fiedler, doesn’t have an opponent, so Fiedler will retain the seat for another three years.