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Charlie's guerrilla boot camp
BY LISA ZAHNER - STAFF WRITER (Week of April 8, 2010)

Charlie Wilson is not content to run just his own campaign for Indian River County Commission. 

He plans to unveil all the weapons in his campaign arsenal for others to use in running against the incumbents who had a hand in his ouster from the Vero Beach City Council. 

What seemed last fall like political guerrilla theater following his surprise first-place finish in the City Council race is now morphing into guerrilla boot camp. 

Later this month, Wilson will hold workshops in his newly- opened campaign headquarters for candidates who share his desire to bring about change at Vero City Hall. 

“This is actually not personal,” Wilson said, even as he mentioned that Council members Sabe Abell and Tom White were among those who would not be welcome. 

“I am training people to replace them,” Wilson said. 

Entrenched forces, he said, “have been very effective at representing their point of view, whether it’s the Indian River Neighborhood Association or the people who have been in charge at the City of Vero Beach for years.” 

“We will not invite any candidates endorsed by the IRNA and we will not invite any candidates who do not understand the importance of selling Vero electric and getting out of the electric business,” he said. “We’re not going to train people who are philosophically opposed to us. One way I’m dedicated to making this change is by supplying well-educated, first-class candidates to run against them.” 

Wilson’s workshops will be for candidates and their family members, and those helping with their campaigns; also new potential candidates considering a run for office and anyone considered key in a campaign; political clubs and political party committees, to name a few. 

Finally, it’s for (he says, tongue-in-cheek) “previous candidates who do not believe that they already know everything there is to know.” 

Topics at the workshop will include demographics, fundraising, advertising, direct mail, campaign planning and strategy. Wilson said he will broach the subjects of negative campaigning and crisis management, as the workshop is meant to be practical, not theoretical. 

“At the end, they should be able to walk out of here with a complete campaign plan,” he said. “Novice candidates don’t know what to expect from a campaign and experience teaches you what to expect -- to know that all campaigns are controlled chaos and to expect that anything that can go wrong will. The idea is to learn how to deal with that.” 

Wilson has the political background. He was he raised in a very political family with dad heading up Florida Republicans (chairman, 1966-68) and a mother serving on the Martin County School Board and then as Associate Director of the Small Business Administration in Washington, D.C. 

Wilson worked for the Republican National Committee -- with the likes of a young Karl Rove -- for about five years running congressional campaigns and one gubernatorial race. 

Then he went out on his own as a political consultant, worked in television and later in radio, which is where most Indian River County residents first encountered him on the AM dial as news director for WTTB. Wilson says he is putting substantial cash behind his statements and convictions, and it’s his own cash on the line. 

“I sold my boat, and that, combined with some money I borrowed from my family, I have put $20,000 into my campaign,” said Wilson, who is running for the District 2 County Commission seat in the fall. “I am not taking any special interest money nor money from Indian River Neighborhood Association members or unions.” 

Though he’s missing the three-cabin cruiser dearly as it held many happy memories, Wilson said selling the boat has brought him some freedom -- freedom from being beholden to campaign contributors. 

Wilson said he wants to end the days of those providing the financial support for political campaigns freely “roaming the halls” of the County Administration Building. 

Just last week, Wilson politely turned down an offer to be interviewed for endorsement by the local firefighters’ union and he said he has graciously declined contributions from some local bankers, developers and mining interests. 

He is accepting donations from individual citizens who support his platform and his goals, but said he won’t take money from people, groups or companies who will expect an open door and a guaranteed friendly vote in return. 

Putting in a sizeable chunk of his own money to fuel the campaign, Wilson said, was the only surefire way to both appear to be independent and actually remain independent of special interests. 

The idea emanated from Wilson’s finance chief and long-time confidante, Ace Cappelen, who found Wilson the new campaign digs and brokered the deal for him to lease the space for six months for he campaign. 

“I’m supporting Charlie in his campaign because he’s a wonderful person and I think he’d make a great commissioner,” Cappelen said. 

As for Campaign Boot Camp, Cappelen, a battle-worn veteran of politics, is hopeful that the effort will make a difference. 

“I think it will change the way of campaigning,” he said. “I think listening to Charlie and having him as a mentor --and to see what he does and how he does it --will help a lot.” 

Cappelen will be one of the workshop speakers, probably on the topic of fundraising and campaign finance. He has a corner office in Wilson’s headquarters, which will not only offer space for meetings and workspace for volunteers and candidates, but serve as a campaign hub giving candidates a chance to pool resources to cover the costs of printing, mailing, phone banking and polling services. 

Wilson said he will coordinate with graphic designers and other professionals and will have a credit card merchant account available for candidates to accept contributions via the web or at an event. 

By joining forces and also working with and through Operation Clean Sweep, Wilson said campaigns can save up to 50 percent of what they would normally spend, leaving more funds to promote the candidate and his or her message. 

“There is nothing that will substitute for enthusiasm, so all in all, it’s the candidates who will make the difference,” Wilson said. “We don’t make the candidates, we just make them better.” 

From experience, Wilson knows elected officials often talk a good game, but the votes are telling. “People forget that a voting record is fair game,” Wilson said. “No one has been keeping voting records of local elected officials.” 

For example, Vero Councilman White -- whose seat is up in November -- bemoaned utility rate increases for many weeks, emphatically urging the city to do something about ratepayers’ suffering. But on March 29, White voted with Abell and Mayor Kevin Sawnic for a 10 percent increase in customers’ monthly water and sewer bills. 

From now until election day, Wilson, campaign staff and volunteers will be keeping track of how everyone votes. The votes will be published periodically on a website. 

“It’s going to be just like the Congressional Record,” he said.