Election night proved to be somewhat historic for the Bradenton City Council with Councilman-elect Bill Sanders defeating an incumbent for the first time in 11 years.
It was only the third time in 22 years that a challenger had ousted a city council incumbent. Current Councilman Harold Byrd Jr. did it in 2007, when he beat the Rev. James Golden.
And seven years before that, in 2000, outraged voters essentially fired the mayor and the entire council — save for current Councilman Gene Gallo — for spending $20 million to relocate and rebuild city hall at its current riverfront location.
Councilman Bemis Smith will hand over the reins of Ward 4, a seat he has held since 2002, when Sanders is sworn into office on Jan. 2. Smith was convincingly defeated on election night by a 62-to-38 percent margin. Sanders, who had no public name recognition before the campaign, won every precinct in the ward.
“I have to assume my positions in being contrary and standing up for the noise ordinance and those things are not what the people of the city of Bradenton wanted,” Smith said Wednesday. “For an incumbent to lose to an unknown person by that magnitude, the only explanation is that people don’t like what I’ve stood for lately.”
Sanders said he believes there was a lot of lingering anger over the city’s decision to trade Glazier-Gates Park to a developer in 2015 for the The Preserve at Riverwalk apartment complex.
“Some of this started when the city did that,” Sanders said. “That really angered people in this ward, but it’s more than that. Streets in this ward don’t get any attention and the sidewalks are all broken up. The infrastructure is poor and I know there is a sequence to do things, but it always seems like we are never in the sequence. Every time we are promised something, it doesn’t happen.”
The eastward expansion of Riverwalk is something everyone supports, but not everyone is on the same page as the city, which wants to break the Rivewalk into segments in order to bypass the point near the Caddy’s restaurant. The city briefly discussed the possibility of constructing a boardwalk to make Riverwalk a true straight line extension, but that isn’t necessarily being considered during the design phase.
“I asked (Economic Development Director) Carl Callahan why and he said it was too expensive,” Sanders said. “I asked him how much it would cost and he didn’t know. Why wouldn’t we at least look at it, figure out the cost and see what we can do to help pay for it? There are people in this community who have a lot of money and would love to see a bridge named after them.”
Sander said to not even try is doing residents a disservice.
“That issue is not dead for me,” Sanders said. “I’ve done it elsewhere with private money. This is what is done in America. For us to do that without even looking at it is not responsible. We have people who are smart enough to do it so if we want a Riverwalk extension, which I support, then let’s make it a Riverwalk where people walk and say, ‘Wow.’ Something better than what’s being proposed.”
Sanders is eight weeks away from taking office. He said he has been flooded with phone calls to see where he stands on issues like development.
“I’m pro-business and I’m not going to stop development,” Sanders said. “But there is a difference in leadership when it comes to getting things done. We just can’t throw things up on the wall and see what sticks because we do have a traffic problem around here.”
Sanders grew up on a farm in southern Indiana where hard work “made me a better person. I always say I can drink beer with the boys or sip wine with the elite. That’s my roots. I was a small town city administrator so that gave me a knowledge of city services. I went to college on a track scholarship and was a great athlete before I got into a car accident that ended my career. All of the hard times in my life made me a better person.”
Sanders said he would have liked to shake Smith’s hand on election night and maybe have a beer with him no matter the outcome. When he tried to shake his hand at the Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Office as the results were posted Tuesday, Smith told him, “I wouldn’t p--- on you if you were on fire” — an exchange Smith confirmed on Wednesday.
Witnesses thought it was going to get physical and Smith was asked to leave, which is what Smith said he was trying to do at the time, but when he turned around Sanders was in his face.
Smith said he wasn’t being a bad sport, but he was frustrated at what he described as Sanders’ campaign tactic of making outlandish and untrue accusations. Sanders is sticking to his claims, but he acknowledged Tuesday night that he was told by his consultants that that is what he had to do to win.
“So that’s what I did.”
Smith said he would not use those kinds of tactics just to win, but admitted election night stunned him as far as the margin of Sanders’ victory.
“People apparently want what he’s selling,” Smith said. “The people have spoken and repudiated what I stand for. But I’m not going to congratulate him when he questions my moral compass and called me everything but a human being. But he won and apparently that’s what you have to do to win races, but I’m not going to congratulate him for telling lies and making up stories about me.”
Smith said he’s likely out of Bradenton politics for good.
“It’s not like this election was a squeaker,” Smith said. “Essentially with the loss I took on this one, the voters don’t like what I’m offering.”