A Contest for the Future of Alachua County

by James Thompson

In the August 30th Democratic primary for the Alachua County Commission races, the people get to decide who runs our community–Chamber of Commerce candidates supported by PAC money, or locally grown grassroots issue-based progressives. As sitting Commissioner Robert Hutchinson has acknowledged alongside his own race for re-election, the more difficult challenge is getting his colleague Mike Byerly to keep his seat against the charismatic Jacksonville transplant, Pastor Kevin Thorpe. If Thorpe wins, Plum Creek (now Weyerhaeuser) will resubmit its plans to undermine our Comprehensive Plan and build a city on the wetlands in Eastern Alachua County, and we will see a decline in the focus on social services and a County living wage. The primary is the sum of the election, since no Republican is running, and you must be registered as a Democrat to vote in it. You can do this and request a mail-in ballot at www.votealachua.com.   

A common reaction by progressives, especially in the Gainesville urban core that is celebrating its City Commission’s return to a progressive majority, has been that favored son and outspoken environmentalist Mike Byerly can’t be beat. But Byerly has never faced a better-funded or more politically ambitious challenger. In his first bid for office against Ken Cornell, Pastor Thorpe ran as a proclaimed social services advocate and environmental supporter with the help of prominent local Democrats, local residents in the pay of Plum Creek as consultants, local corporate media (Gainesville Sun sister publication The Guardian reported him as a green candidate), and also members of the faith community. Now, he holds fundraisers at the home of west county development maven Cotton Fletcher, the headquarters of the pro-development Tea Party Republicans that funded former Gainesville Mayor Ed Braddy’s storied rise to office. With the leaked and now public meeting records of the Chamber of Commerce, we also know that a Political Action Committee of up to $200,000 is being formed by big bankers and private corporations to help elect pro-Plum Creek candidates that are “friendly to business.”

The deck couldn’t be more stacked, nor the contrast between the candidates more clear. Thorpe has compared the proposed sprawling development of the East County to the process of removing cockroaches from your home (“You do know that any time you build anything you are disturbing in some way or another the environment? That’s why you shouldn’t get mad when you see roaches at your house; it was their house before it was yours”). He has also flipped his position on social services with the Reagan-like insistence that “Alachua County needs to have an honesty moment, either we’re going to continue to try and take care of people through social programs, or we’re going to move out of the way so that people can take care of themselves.”

In contrast Mike Byerly has been consistently doing all the things that correspond to his beliefs about conservation and rights: helping to pass anti-discrimination laws, protecting Planned Parenthood, fighting Plum Creek’s corporate public relations campaign with scientific research and education, helping to defend our County’s Comprehensive Plan, and organizing a conservationist coalition to that end (Stand By Our Plan, standbyourplan.org) that will far outlast his tenure in office. Thorpe’s campaign has already begun expensive robo-calling and will rely on big money mailers and media campaigns. Byerly’s strength is on the ground, but it takes a lot of volunteer time and day-to-day organizing to combat money in politics of a scale likely unseen before in our County.

Positions on the Comprehensive Plan, social services, access to resources, and discrimination and equity are held in common by a tenuous progressive majority on the County Commission–Hutch (also up for re-election), Byerly, and Cornell. A win by Kevin Thorpe will certainly ensure that Plum Creek re-hatches its land flipping scheme, devastating the hydrology, transportation infrastructure, and beauty of our County while forever altering a way of life we need to protect. If you look back over a half century of County Commissions, very few of them would have voted our way on Plum Creek, fought for a living wage, or held our community to standards of justice and equity that the current majority does. To take Mr. Thorpe’s candidacy and wide-ranging support across party lines as anything less than a return to a dangerous normalcy will mean a certain loss not just for Byerly, but for Alachua County.

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