Cape Council candidates put campaigns on back burner after Ian
It has been an election season unlike no other in Cape Coral: Over the last month, there has been little campaigning to speak of as incumbents and challengers alike devoted efforts to dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Ian as well as helping friends and neighbors do the same.
Debates and candidate forums were cancelled. Most of the political signs were blown to the ground or blew away entirely with the storm.
With the Cape still in recovery, for candidates for the four Cape Coral City Council races up for grabs — mayor and Districts 1, 4 and 6 — the final few days will be a last opportunity to meet with residents, help where they can and, hopefully, get more votes than their opponent on Nov. 8.
Incumbent John Gunter faces a challenge from Tom Shadrach in the race for mayor.
They are facing each other for the first time as there was no primary for the mayor’s seat — Gunter and Shadrach were the only two candidates to qualify and so went straight to the General Election ballot.
Since Ian, Gunter has not had a lot of time to campaign. In fact, he says he has done almost no campaigning since the near Category 5 hurricane caused extensive damage to Cape Coral with devastating storm surge through its riverfront neighborhoods.
Gunter said he most likely won’t do any through the remaining stretch as early voting has already started and most people have made up their minds.
“My first responsibility is the recovery efforts,” said Gunter, who served as the District 1 council member prior to his appointment to mayor in January of 2021 following the death of Joe Coviello. “All the forums and events have been cancelled and I haven’t had time to focus on the campaign. The campaign is pretty much done with the way I see it; I have no time to do it anyway.”
Ian was Gunter’s second campaign-interrupted hurricane. In 2017, he and Councilmember Jennifer Nelson were running for city council in districts 1 and 4, respectively, only to have Hurricane Irma slam into Southwest Florida.
Irma wasn’t quite as bad and it came three weeks earlier, meaning the candidates could go back to campaigning once the city got itself back up and running.
Gunter, president of Gulf Coast Premier Homes, said that with everything that has happened in the wake of Hurricane Ian, it’s hard to know whether the storm has hindered or enhanced his chances this go-around, as many officials are judged by the way they are perceived to have handled emergencies.
“I think there could be a little of both,” he said. “There’s more criticism in the community but others can see great leadership. It can work both ways.”
Shadrach has everything set that he’s going to do down the stretch.
Retired from Boeing in St. Louis after 37 years and now owner of Rachman Industries, he said he is going to polling places, has some radio ads running and created a commercial months ago that he’s running on TV.
“I’m pretty happy with what my exposure is. Obviously, all the signs got blown away that everyone had up,” Shadrach said. “I saw my opponent had put some signs up which was interesting.”
Shadrach, who also couldn’t do a whole lot during the aftermath of the storm, said he doesn’t know whether the storm will work for or against him.
“I can see how the storm could get him some extra exposure as he’s the one out there talking,” Shadrach said. “But did he do a good job and what did people think? You don’t plan for a complete catastrophe, but we can learn.”
The only race without an incumbent has Bill Steinke and Carol Rae Culliton vying for the District 1 seat that encompasses the South Cape.
The two were the top two vote-getters in the primary in August which featured four candidates.
Steinke was the top vote-getter with sightly more than 45 percent of the vote. Culliton placed second with just shy of 25 percent.
Steinke, director of sales and business development at Aubuchon Homes, said he did almost nothing after the hurricane except to relay information to people where they could get assistance and set up two distribution centers and handed out gift cards.
“We realized that the people who needed it the most couldn’t come get it because not only did they lose their homes, they lost their cars,” Steinke said. “We went into the hardest-hit areas and brought them all the things they needed.”
As for campaigning, Steinke took down his signs and re-placed them after the storm. But that is about it.
He said he would continue his recovery efforts as needed and keep his ear to the ground for other issues that come up.
“As I am notified that I will assist wherever I need to assist. The campaigning at this point is just building the relationships we established during the primary and keeping in touch,” Steinke said. “The hurricane exposed some issues that need to be dealt with.”
Culliton has done mainly a social media campaign and sent out mailers. Once Ian hit, Culliton, president/founder Brotherhood of Heroes CEO and the president and founder of the Gunterberg Charitable Foundation, used her local and federal resources and posted them on her Facebook page with FEMA and emergency services.
“She also scheduled three food giveaways that will happen at the Brotherhood of Heroes, for which she is president and founder. There will be 320 boxes of food set up for a family of four to last a week,” said Mick Sheldrake, Culliton’s campaign manager.
Sheldrake said her focus has been on the residents of District 1 because it’s her way of helping her heal. She will be doing some flag waving at the Brotherhood building.
“She’s always been a person who has thought about other people. She’s been here 12 years and she’s only thought about this community,” Sheldrake said.
Incumbent Jennifer Nelson faces a challenge from Patty Cummings.
They were the top two vote-getters in the August primary that featured three candidates for the District 4 seat.
Nelson was the top vote-getter with nearly 45 percent of the vote, Cummings came in second with just over 28 percent.
Nelson said as a sitting council member, she has an obligation to work for the city in times of need, which is what she has been doing sine Hurricane Ian.
A 14-year resident of the city, Nelson said she has used her knowledge as a non-profit consultant to bring in those non-profits and get people the resources they need to get through these times.
“I’ve been focusing on rebuilding and bringing resources into the city like non-profits to mobilize and help people with their needs,” Nelson said. “I applaud our city leaders for all their leadership during and after the storm.”
Nelson has done some charitable events in recent days, holding a meet-and-greet fundraiser to benefit the Collaboratory Hurricane Ian Fund. She said she would continue to help residents get through and speak with them about their problems.
“I plan to have a social media presence and be out and about meeting with residents, talking with different folks,” Nelson said. “I still plan to work with the non-profits offering resources and it’s a great way to connect with people.”
Meanwhile, Cummings has had to deal with more than a campaign and a hurricane. It was bad enough the storm pretty much destroyed their home (on her birthday). It became even worse when Cummings’s fiance became critically ill on Oct. 19.
Cummings, owner of Astro-Durance bungee studio who ran for council in 2020 in District 7, had to deal with her own losses along with those of her neighbors, who fared just as bad.
“We were busy trying to take care of our and our friends’ losses, trying to find resources. We want to stay strong and remember this is all temporary. It’s not permanent. We have a chance to rebuild stronger,” Cummings said.
Cummings is going to the three early voting locations in the city, talking with people everywhere she goes, and has gotten her supporters to help spread the word. But ultimately, she wants to see people’s needs met.
“We need to know we made it and passed the test and we are alive and are the fortunate ones,” Cummings said. “The campaign is in God’s hands. This is where we have to work together and not worry about getting elected.”
Incumbent Keith Long faces a challenge from Wayne Hecht.
They are facing each other for the first time as there was no primary in District 6 as Long and Hecht were the only two candidates to qualify.
As did the other incumbents, Long said he has pretty much put his campaign on hold to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Ian.
“My time and effort continue to be with the recovery effort. That was my obligation. My oath was to serve the community,” said Long, an attorney who was appointed to the seat from a field of 14 applicants in September of 2021 following the health-related resignation of Rick Williams. “That comes before the campaign.”
Long, the lone candidate who is a lifelong resident of Cape Coral as well as the youngest candidate, said there is an advantage to being in his position as it allows him to continue hurricane efforts. However, he added he is under a microscope and criticized for things outside of his control.
His supporters are out working on the campaign and marketing his candidacy, without the benefit of outside events that have been important to campaigns in the past.
“A lot of the campaign events were cancelled. Really, it’s about doing everything internally as far as public events,” Long said. “Attending events has taken a back seat due to my obligation to help the city.”
Wayne Hecht, director of operations for Tiger Capital Group and a nine-year resident, received some damage to his home and has spent time dealing with his and his neighbors’ situations. Like many others, it was about helping people out.
“I was focused on doing that at the time. I even went up north to get gas for generators and water for my neighbors,” Hecht said. “As far as campaigning, it is what it is. I would have loved to debate, but that didn’t happen and it doesn’t help me because I’m not the incumbent.”
Hecht has gone out with the people and went to the Republican Club meeting to speak there.
There are no signs, as his blew away.
“It’s going to be about attending events throughout Cape Coral. There’s Halloween events and meeting people at the libraries where the voters are,” Hecht said. “People I’ve talked to have been disappointed in how this storm was handled.”
Cape Coral City Council races are non-partisan and all seats are elected at large meaning all voters registered in the city may cast a ballot in each race.
The Supervisor of Elections Office has strongly urged voters who have not yet cast a ballot to take part in early voting. Damage wrought by Hurricane Ian has drastically impacted the number of polling sites in Lee County which will be limited to the 12 now being used for early voting.
Given that Lee County usually opens nearly 100 precincts for Election Day voting, voters may face long lines on Nov. 8.