In most national polls, voters cited the economy as the biggest factor in determining who got their vote. Locally, however, two races appeared to hinge on something a little less complex, something literally elemental: fluoride.
Last year Pinellas County Commissioners Nancy Bostock and Neil Brickfield, each a Republican incumbent, voted with the commission majority to remove the substance from the county water supply. The vote, which came at the insistence of Tea Partiers, raised hackles in the medical establishment and drew national attention.
Neither candidate won reelection.
Over the course of their campaigns, the two came under substantial media scrutiny for being half of what was dubbed the “Fluoride Four” — the four out of seven county commissioners who approved the anti-fluoride measure.
The Tampa Bay Times issued more than one scathing editorial chastising commissioners who supported the ban as being all too eager to appease extremists touting pseudo-science.
After delivering a brief concession speech, Bostock, who lost her District 3 seat to former State Senator Charlie Justice by roughly five points, said that characterization was way off.
“Ultimately, the media treatment was exceptional on this,” she said at the Pinellas GOP watch party at the Hilton Carillon on election night. “It turned into one single issue.”
She said the fluoride issue signifies a greater conflict, one having to do with individual autonomy as opposed to government-knows-best.
“I think the cause of limited government and more individual freedom resonates throughout our community,” she said.
As she left the ballroom stage, it was clear where both races were headed. Backs were patted, hands shaken, condolences issued.
Moments earlier, Brickfield had conceded his District 1 seat to former State Representative Janet Long, who cleared him by nearly 11 points.
“People clearly said that they want a government that provides fluoride,” he said. “I’ll never vote against fluoride again.”
Just down the road from the gloom-tinged GOP gathering, Pinellas Dems were partying down at Gunslingers Saloon. The place was packed. Booze was flowing. Glasses were breaking. It was getting pretty clear that this was their night.
Justice, who in 2010 tried unsuccessfully to unseat the 40-plus-year incumbent C.W. “Bill” Young in the then-US House District 11 race, said the fluoride question was big. But the debate also said something about the incumbents and their constituents.
“I think it was the one issue that symbolized a greater problem in the decision-making process of our commission,” he said. “Fluoride was a symptom of the disease” — the commission’s willingness to cater to extremists at the expense of the majority.
“We have to make sure that the decisions made at the county commission are right for the entire community,” he said, “and not just the extreme loud voice that happens to be in the chamber in a given day… Local government is about providing the basic services and responding to the people.”
Long, who lost her bid for reelection to the Florida House in the Tea Party wave of 2010, said things are a little different this time around.
“This is a lot more fun,” she said, comparing the night’s celebratory atmosphere to the doom that hung in the air for Democrats on election night 2010. “I think the people of Pinellas County have sent a very strong message. They do not want extreme politics on our county commission.”
She said she thinks people are spending more time getting educated on the issues these days.
Justice and Long said beyond fluoride, the commission has a lot of work to do — on issues like emergency management, public health, and, yes, transit.
“I think that you’re going to see a lot more intelligent conversation about the issue of transportation in our county,” Long said. “I don’t think that we can keep our heads in the sand and keep on building roads and looking at the same issues that we always have.”
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