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Swan, Harpring vie for top elections post

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS, (Week of January 19, 2012)
Photo of incumbent Leslie Swan and challenger Sandi Harpring

It is hard to position yourself as the hardworking fiscally conservative alternative in an Indian River County race when your incumbent opponent claims the exact same credentials, but that's what Sandi Harpring aimed to do when Republican Women Aware hosted a lunch-time faceoff between her and Supervisor of Elections Leslie Swan last week.

In many ways, Swan and Harpring, who is challenging Swan for the elections supervisor job, are the same person.

Both are college-educated Republicans with lots of volunteer service and solid resumes showing experience in business and government. Both promote themselves as dedicated public servants, fiscal watchdogs and proponents of increased efficiency. Both are long-time county residents and Vero Beach High School grads. Both are married to attorneys and have three children.

But there are differences.

Harpring has the edge in pure political experience.

As senior executive assistant to state Rep. Debbie Mayfield, she works in politics full time and has served in leadership roles in several political organizations, putting in three terms as secretary of the Republican Executive Committee and two terms as president of Republican Women Aware.

According to her campaign literature, Harpring has “helped guide conservative candidates like Governor Mitt Romney, Representative Debbie Mayfield and Senator Joe Negron in election-related activities.”

Swan, as the incumbent, has the advantage in specific technical expertise and experience in the elections office. According to her campaign literature, she “has been involved in the planning and implementation of 15 elections in Indian River County during the past 7 years.”

Swan worked her way up to the position of assistant supervisor of elections under previous supervisor, Kay Clem, and was appointed to the top elections job by Rick Scott in March 2011 when Clem stepped down.

She has cut the budget, reduced staff, consolidated polling places and increased the use of technology to engage voters.

“We tweeted the wait times at polling places during the last election,” Swan said.

She negotiated a municipal elections contract with Indian River County’s five municipalities, formalizing cost-sharing arrangements that had been merely traditional, installed a back-up storage server for elections data at no cost and instituted the use of URL codes on elections material for smart phones.

Swan has also raised more money than Harpring, taking in $49,625.08 from 207 donors in the third and fourth quarters of 2011.

Harpring, who began fund-raising 90 days before Swan, took in $36,743.20 from 219 donors between April 1 and Dec. 31.

Forty or so women and a handful of men showed up at the Vero Beach Yacht Club last week to listen as each candidate gave a 15-minute presentation, highlighting her background and qualifications for office.

Speaking before her home club, Harpring appeared more relaxed and confident than Swan. She provided the main moment of direct conflict when she criticized Swan, face-to-face, for initially requesting a budget increase for the current fiscal year.

Harpring acknowledged that Swan eventually cut the budget, in part by reducing her own salary and benefits, but said Swan should have been more straightforward with taxpayers and presented the lower budget figures to begin with.

She also sought to turn Swan’s in-office experience, which could be seen as her greatest strength, against her.

“Taxpayers deserve someone who will bring fresh leadership and take an objective look at the office from top to bottom,” Harpring said.

However, Harpring’s criticism of Swan’s initial budget request ignored the oscillating requirements of the elections office. In fiscal 2011, Swan had to manage three elections and expenses caused by the decennial redistricting process, compared to a single election in the prior year, so her request for more money was not necessarily excessive or unreasonable, even in tough economic times.

Swan raised $17,160 on the island, 35 percent of her total, while Harping took in $9,775 from island donors, about 27 percent of her total.

One eye-catching thing about Harpring’s fund raising is she got nearly 10 percent of her campaign cash at the very end of the reporting period from six out-of-county attorneys and consultants who chipped in the maximum of $500 each on Dec. 30.

Meanwhile, on the same day, Swan wrote a check to her own fund for $3,000, matching Harpring’s late out-of-town donations.