Sarasota is accustomed to national attention for its beautiful beaches and other features that attract tourists and retirees in droves.
Last week, the Washington Post put Sarasota back in the national spotlight, but this time it wasn’t the type of attention touted in tourist brochures. The newspaper presented Sarasota as an example of a community engulfed in bitter and corrosive political conflict.
Visit Sarasota County is unlikely to make the Post article the centerpiece of its next tourism campaign. Article Title: “As Community Shifts Right, Political Divide Tears Sarasota, Florida”
The extent of the region’s political strife is debatable, but it’s certainly true that the county has come, in some ways, to exemplify the nation’s polarized political climate and the evolution of the GOP under leaders such as the former President Donald Trump and Governor Ron DeSantis. .
The Post summarized the issues that have been highlighted at length in the Herald-Tribune and other local media, from intense battles over school policies such as masking to propose incentives for Rumblea tech company favored by conservatives, and the growing number of prominent conservative figures who call the county home.
The article also focused on Bridget Ziegler and her husband Christian Ziegler, a pair of political lightning rods.
Bridget Ziegler has led the charge of conservative Sarasota County School Board policies. She agrees with DeSantis, who both talk about preventing the “indoctrination” of children and have looked at how schools address issues of race and gender.
Sarasota County Commissioner and Florida GOP Vice Chairman Christian Ziegler is one of the most outspoken and partisan local government officials in recent memory.
The Zieglers represent the changing face of GOP politics in Sarasota County.
The county has long been Republican-leaning, thanks in large part to the more heavily Republican communities south of Clark Road, such as Osprey, Nokomis, North Port, Venice, and Englewood.
Republicans controlled most county offices for decades. Some were more conservative, but the county was also a paradise for moderate republicans who supported abortion rights and often resisted conservative school policies. The Zieglers are not moderates.
The Post article describes the community dispute as “a fight centered on whether this traditional Republican county will remain moderate or embrace the brash politics championed by DeSantis as he contemplates a possible presidential campaign.”
However, the shift away from moderate GOP politics has been happening for years in Sarasota County. It’s a national trend that has accelerated during Trump’s presidency.
The GOP has changed under Trump, and that development has proven attractive to many Republicans in Sarasota County, contributing to a shift in the type of Republican leaders elected and the issues they support.
Sarasota’s top Republicans have already largely embraced the political brand championed by Trump and DeSantis. Conservatives now populate many elected offices in the county. The moderates have mostly left – replaced by MAGA stalwarts such as State Senator Joe Gruters, U.S. Representative Greg Steube, the Zieglers and others – or moved with the party.
Meanwhile, the county still has a large population of Democrats and left-leaning voters, especially in the city of Sarasota and surrounding neighborhoods. The Post article highlights three such people, including longtime local activist and former county commissioner Cathy Antunes, who have resisted the new GOP leadership and are critical of the Zieglers.
With both Zieglers re-elected this year, having a national publication cast them as divisive agents could help those trying to unseat them.
The school board represents one of the last frontiers for the Sarasota GOP when it comes to a conservative takeover of county institutions. The party has yet to secure a conservative majority on the five-member school board, despite years of trying.
School board president Jane Goodwin was among the last moderate Republican leaders the county was known for. She left the GOP and became a Democrat in 2020.
School board member Shirley Brown is a former Democratic State House member. School board member Tom Edwards was heavily backed by the Democratic Party during his 2020 campaign.
Much of the recent community conflict revolves around divisions between conservative members of the community and a left-leaning school board majority that rejected their demands.
This makes the upcoming school board elections particularly noteworthy.
Follow Herald-Tribune political editor Zac Anderson on Twitter at @zacjanderson. He can be contacted at [email protected]