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Feisty challengers go after stoic Solari

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER, (Week of July 26, 2012)
Photo: Commissioner Bob Solari (left table, center) was pummeled by challengers Brian Heady and Nick Thomas at last week’s Tea Party candidate forum.

County Commissioner Bob Solari appeared to be having an out-of-body experience as he was being pummeled from the left and the right by challengers Brian Heady and Nick Thomas at last week’s Tea Party candidate forum.

Battling a sinus infection all week, Solari skipped a Democrat event where Heady and Thomas appeared two days earlier and was pretty much hung in effigy in his absence. He couldn’t miss an opportunity to appear before a friendly crowd, the Tea Party faithful, but still the mud-coated attacks flew across the stage.

No matter what the accusation, Solari pulled out a talking point or a platitude about liberty or fiscal conservatism. He looked straight ahead, stoically took the blows and stayed on message as Thomas self-imploded and Heady hammered away on issues ranging from beach sand to land boondoggles.

"The people who live and work in Indian River County know that I've worked hard for them these past four years," Solari placidly quipped back in response to his opponents’ myriad of complaints about tens of millions of dollars he’s voted to spend with alleged nebulous benefits for taxpayers.

Thomas called projects like development rights on ranches “bridges to nowhere.”

Heady said he's puzzled by the short-sightedness of "spending $15 million dumping sand and then laying off a lifeguard."

Despite the fact Solari is still the odds-on favorite to retain the District 5 seat, some might say that the spirited onslaught he’s facing from Heady and Thomas is Solari’s karmic comeuppance.

Last time around in 2008, he aggressively challenged former Vero Beach mayor and Central Beach resident Sandra Bowden and was joined by Vero Isles resident Honey Minuse in the quest to overtake the incumbent. He out-raised Bowden 2 to 1 and used the $84,000 to saturate the county with signs and advertising.

That year, Solari’s Republican primary was closed and 18,560 ballots were cast by Republicans. Minuse’s support from the Indian River Neighborhood Association was not quite enough to shut Solari out.

He got 40 percent of those Republican votes, with Minuse picking up 33 percent and Bowden rounding out the field with 27 percent.

Thomas pointed out that Solari “only got two out of five Republican votes last time,” and that won’t be enough to win in an open primary where Thomas said “All God’s children can vote.”

After that 2008 primary win, Solari faced Heady in the November general election.

Heady, then running as a non-partisan candidate, got 16,199 votes or 27 percent to Solari’s 43,341 votes or 73 percent. That was when Heady had never been elected to office, before he served on the Vero Beach City Council. Heady’s campaign war chest was less than $3,000 – all of which he loaned to himself.

Solari has out-raised Thomas 10 to 1 and Heady 13 to 1 for the primary, but the fiscal deficit hasn’t dampened either challengers’ enthusiasm or their vitriol for Solari.

A voracious reader who proudly considers himself an intellectual, Solari has become famous for his history lectures from the county commission dais, for dragging books about the Founding Fathers and obscure newspaper and magazine articles into mundane policy discussions.

The other commissioners gently chide him for the lessons in patriotism, but Thomas and Heady said they think the voters – especially the Democrat and non-partisan ones who make up the majority of Indian River County registered voters –  have had their fill of Solari’s Tea Party rhetoric.

“Bob talks about liberty because he doesn’t want to talk about his record,” Heady said.

Heady has also pointed out that an unknown number of registered Republicans are what conservatives call RINOs, Republicans in name only.

They fall under that party label not because they subscribe to the ideology but because they want to have a voice in local elections.

As a rule, most contentious races are all-but-decided in the August primaries. Whether Democrats, Independents and non-partisan voters who make up 51 percent of the electorate will sway the District 5 result depends largely on turnout. Democrats are not accustomed to having anything to vote for in August and, historically, have not had the grassroots organization to equal the GOP.

“When you look at the numbers, it’s really anybody’s race to win or lose,” Heady said last week.

It’s hard to say whether Solari still has a chance to get the votes of the nearly 100 Democrats who came out to the River House last Tuesday night to hear him debate Heady and Thomas and got a no-show – despite the fact Solari attended the Board of County Commission meeting Tuesday morning and a county budget hearing Wednesday morning. Heady speculated after the forum that Solari did not have much to lose by standing up the Democrats.

In his previous 14 runs for office, there have been two schools of thought about Heady – either voters think he’s a populist hero or they think he’s a little nutty.

Attorney and hometown boy Thomas could change this dynamic, painting Heady in a completely different light. Thomas ventures so far off the proverbial reservation that he makes Heady look mainstream.

Thomas paints himself as the ultimate rogue, saying he has “no interest” in being part of the Republican Party organization which Heady has reluctantly embraced. Thomas even jokingly called himself a Communist during last week’s Tea Party candidate forum.

While the three-way District 5 primary race has provided the most sound bites the past few weeks as candidates work the debate circuit, there is another contest going on for the District 3 seat being vacated by two-time commissioner and former Sheriff Gary Wheeler.

Homebuilder and Vero native Tim Zorc seems to be all but ignoring his Republican opponent, local businesswoman and blogger Bea Gardner, and going after non-partisan candidate Tony Donadio. It’s tough to tell whether this strategy of trying to marginalize Gardner will work or backfire.

Neither Zorc nor Donadio has run for public office before. Gardner is the most seasoned of the three, having made unsuccessful runs at Vero Beach City Council and Board of County Commission seats. Gardner has also worked on some high-profile campaigns, including Jim Gabbard’s failed bid for sheriff.

Zorc hails from a family that has worked behind the scenes in Vero politics for decades. He is touting his life-long Indian River County residence and his experience in dealing with county employees from without as a small business owner, as giving him the knowledge and insight into knowing how the county government does and should function.

Donadio offers up his professional experience as an architect, his service to the community’s various charitable and civic organizations and his character – his nice guy quality – as reasons to elevate him to the county commission.

Donadio, who changed his registration from Democrat to Republican too late to run in the primary, will face Gardner or Zorc in November, but Zorc’s strategy has left Gardner as the odd person out in much of the back-and-forth of debates on the issues.

Gardner, on the other hand, characterized herself as a small businessperson and an average voter and took issue with the entire incumbent county Commission on the dais more than with her opponents.

"I sometimes get the feeling that the members of the county commission don't necessarily get it," she said.