by Jeff VanderMeer
If you were to write a guide to Tallahassee local politics, you might have to divide it into categories like “Responsible Adults,” “Whiny Children,” and “WTF Was That.” In what has been the most acrimonious and negative campaign cycle in the city’s history, there have been a lot of whiny children and too many WTF’s. (No disrespect meant to children in general–many of whom would do a better job of governance than some of our current incumbents.)
On the one side, filed under Whiny Children and WTF, you have Grow Tallahassee and their PAC, whose officer Bugra Demirel had a genocide-denying and bullying meltdown on twitter sparked by an article I wrote–while former Grow Tallahassee president Justin Ghazvini regularly posts the crudest, least nuanced, completely untrue appeals to voters’ baser instincts, like the one above.
Perhaps more to the point, Steve Ghazvini, much earlier, called centrist mayoral candidate Kristin Dozier “a communist.” This messaging closely mirrors that of recent negative campaigning on the right, from media outlets and individuals. It’s a strange approach on behalf of a slate of supposedly Democratic candidates and the ripple effect is to spread Whiny Child all over the internet.
Grow Tallahassee also likes to grouse about the progressive news outlet Our Tallahassee–a sentence that seems like a satirical observation that’ll be a local sitcom some day–and derives some of its energy from railing against such oh-so outre and fact-based things like OT creating an article out of their candidate Dianne Williams-Cox’s own words about developers. But there’s a vast difference between OT posting spreadsheets of Grow Tallahassee PAC money and a timeline of FSU booster donations to Williams-Cox and….whatever this is. (Even some conservative sources admit privately that OT has done good reporting.)
Then there’s the 4Tallahassee group, backed by the Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce. Resembling some kind of clown show in website form, 4Tallahassee is a joke backed by lots of money, with inept communications and didactic, cumbersome editorials, and just bone-jarringly obvious messaging.
But what’s fascinating about 4Tallahassee is how they so perfectly embody the rapid dive to the bottom that’s occurred during this election cycle. Literally overnight, 4Tallahassee went from stodgy and badly written admonitions about how politics should adhere to civility and facts, to posts likening reform candidates in Tallahassee to the January 6 insurrectionists–and environmentalists to potential murderers. In being so utterly obvious in their machinations, and so extremist, they’ve more or less canceled out their credibility, which is nice to see just from the standpoint of what they deserve for utter incompetence.
Counterpoint or More Whiny Child?
One counterpoint on the right, whether you agreed with them or not, was Tallahassee Reports, which had become almost staid in the methodical approach to reporting it employed the past few years, when not editorializing about social issues (no one cares about your views on gay teens). TR used to focus on city manager Goad’s poor performance and corrupt commissioners like Scott Maddox. You might even have called them a Responsible Adult, with on the left Our Tallahassee, only a year old, now the over-anxious, sometimes immature, but overachieving teenage counterpart on the left.
However, the past few weeks, Tallahassee Reports has entered realms other than Responsible Adult in serving up melodramatic fare again using the worst propaganda in the culture wars. In doing so, Stewart and Tallahassee Reports have become aligned with rich monied elites who used to often be the subject of skewering at TR. This new tone has been quickly weaponized by Grow Tallahassee in paid advertising–and at least one offensive text that seems to have spontaneously written and sent itself, apparently originating from an address owned by the Grow Tallahassee treasurer.
In the case of the campaign text, Tallahassee Reports not vigorously denouncing the use of its (petty inaccurate) article in a gutter politics context is a real strike against the site’s credibility . But, more generally, as Grow Tallahassee continues to pounce on and gleefully repost TR articles as facebook ads for their candidates, it makes me question if TR isn’t in fact turning into a Whiny Child.
A similar sense of sudden immaturity and “hey this is all just a game, so no holds barred” now emanates as well from the Florida Politics site–and in particular founder Peter Schorsch, who has published what can only be described as “WTF Was That” several times, in editorials with vastly different uses of syntax, vocabulary, and rhetorical sophistication. Here’s one that sounds a lot more like professional commissioner Jeremy Matlow hater Jared Willis channeling some Decadent-era writer. Here’s one that sounds like it was written by a ninth grader for a Civics module as an example of Propaganda and Disinformation. (The latter piece was then promptly turned into a facebook ad by Mayor Dailey, which rightly is getting ridiculed in the comments.)
Elected Officials Ghost the People of Tallahassee
But surely the elected officials of this city and county have higher standards, right? Surely they will be the Responsible Adults and perform one of the unspoken functions of their office: which is to promote community standards and to make it clear what is not acceptable–what, in fact, tears at the fabric of the covenant we should have with each other as Tallahasseans.
Well, not exactly. No matter who sent the offensive text, the inability of a single elected official who might benefit from that text to say a single word about it signaled a new low, according to several I talked to in the political world. With city and county government becoming ever less transparent, to the point that Jeremy Matlow had to file a lawsuit to try to get more of it covered by our Sunshine laws, if we also lose the way that our elected officials can by example show us good and responsible conduct… well, that’s also a loss of transparency.
Because one way that the media knows how to cover something is by whether our public officials deem it important enough to talk about. With local media cash-strapped and reporter-poor, reactive journalism is the current standard.
Earlier–premonition of futility–I had texted the mayor, commissioner Dianne Williams-Cox, and several other Grow Tallahassee candidates about the genocide denial and received not a word back. I didn’t expect much, but I was shocked to get nothing back at all. Williams-Cox’s sole reply was to tell an Armenian-American concerned about the issue not to email her on her commissioner email account.
This wasn’t an isolated issue. Several people in the community have come forward to share their own alleged experiences with bullying by the Grow Tallahassee treasurer, bolstered by social media screenshots, but the only sound coming from the direction of these elected officials on GT’s slate were either deflections about the PAC money coming to their campaigns from extreme right-wing sources or projection back onto reform candidates relying on individual contributions, who have in many cases been outspent by GT’s slate 4 to 1.
While it’s true Mayor Dailey has less power than mayors in many other cities, he absolutely has the power of substantive communication, not to mention the symbolic power of giving speeches and ribbon-cutting. Despite this, over the past year, our mayor went out of his way to defend a police chief speaking at an anti-LGBT+ group’s conference but recently had nothing to say about our police training with an accused war criminal. Just to give one example of priorities.
Is it True? The Fish Rots from the Head?
So perhaps the old saying “the fish rots from the head” is true, and what’s happening now has its roots in a general continued slide from Responsible Adult to Whiny Child over the past few years. Certainly, upon reflection, the behavior of state attorney Jack Campbell at the Tallahassee Greater Chamber of Commerce conference last year and the over-heated rhetoric thrown around about city commissioner Jeremy Matlow does not make one think of terms of like “best practices” or “professionalism.” Mayor Dailey also has a habit of shouting at constituents behind closed doors and bullying women in the community. This account is not the only one.
Given all of this, maybe the continuing silence on gutter tactics in local politics shouldn’t be a surprise.
Perhaps it also boils down to not being able to disavow that which aligns with your actual campaign strategy. That many of these incumbents at the city commission and county commission are engaged in calls, texts, and mailers that have no basis in fact in the slightest, that engage in race-baiting and/or completely spurious claims about their opponents, serves their purpose. Which is to get elected or re-elected while not having to answer any hard questions on the record or putting forward anything resembling a new or good idea for governance.
Worse, some of these candidates, like city commission candidate David Bellamy, clearly supported Donald Trump and gave money to politicians like Gaetz, but now that they’re running for office have to pretend to be Democrats. This kind of rot is more than Whiny Child. It’s actual deception and lying. And it’s all tactics intended to reduce voter turn-out, because with robust voter turn-out, candidates who stand for nothing cannot win.
So, again, where are the grown-ass adults in the room? So far, it’s not these candidates, that’s for sure…
(Full disclosure: I helped found Our Tallahassee, but left the organization in December of 2021.)