Republicans with conflicting approaches are going head to head in the race for the at-large seat on the Volusia County Council, and it has been messy.
Doug Pettit of Ormond Beach and Jake Johansson of Port Orange both hope to make positive changes. Each candidate has pledged to improve water quality, to advocate for environmental protections, to resolve overdevelopment issues, and to reduce taxes.
Pettit was a Marine for 26 years, Johansson had a 35-year career in the Navy, and they both deeply value family and community. Voters could not be faulted for assuming there’s not much difference between the two. However, the two men couldn’t be more different.
Pettit has a wide variety of endorsements, including that of Stetson University environmental professor Wendy Anderson, and, notably, by Volusia County Chair Jeff Brower.
But Johansson objects to Brower’s level of involvement in the Tuesday, Nov. 8, election, stating that “the chairman is hell-bent on getting this group of four people in the council so he can get his way.”
Brower endorsed candidates in four of the six County Council races this year, calling his choices the Volusia Values ticket.
Brower has been particularly vocal in the digital sphere, making posts on Facebook and sending email campaigns about the at-large race. In one of them, Brower wrote that “It has been obvious for a couple of months that Jake co-opted Doug Pettit’s campaign platform.”
In another post, Brower wrote “I trust you will join me in defeating the despicable tactics of the politics of personal destruction employed by the campaigns of Johansson, Robins and Kent.” Brower has also made a point to attend rallies and give speeches on Pettit’s behalf.
“I don’t think the sitting chairman should be this deeply involved in campaigning. I think the chairman could have said, here are my candidates that I’d like you to consider. They align with my thought process, and good luck to these four. But he campaigns more than they do,” Johansson said.
Johansson is wary of having a County Council stacked with individuals who harbor the same politics, perspectives and ideologies. He said the best way to represent diverse constituents is to have a diverse group of leaders capable of compromise and communication.
Johansson’s approach has earned him the endorsement of the Republican Executive Committee of Volusia County, and he has raised an impressive amount of money for his campaign. Campaign finance reports filed as of Oct. 24 show Johansson had $183,149 in donations, compared to Pettit’s $37,514.
Individuals and development interests that share an address with Mori Hosseini’s ICI Homes have donated at least $20,000 to Johansson’s campaign, which has numerous other corporate donors. Pettit’s campaign finance reports, in contrast, show mostly individual contributions.
Pettit said he is more in-tune with the plight of the average citizen, and would therefore be better suited to represent them. More than that, he fundamentally disagrees with his opponents’ campaign tactics.
“Within the last four or five days, he has suddenly done some turning, and seems to be adopting more of my policies, which I’m flattered by. But these were things that he fought against for months and months. And I think what’s happened is, his people have done some polling, he’s got the kind of money that you can do that … I think they’ve seen that the platform that I’ve been running on is resonating with the voters,” Pettit said.
Johansson, however, said Pettit is the one with questionable campaign techniques. Johansson said he has been falsely accused, regarding his policies and his character.
“I didn’t think it would be that dirty,” Johansson said.
Johansson explained what Pettit describes as a shift in his campaign platform.
“When people start telling people that I will not look after our water supply, what’s the comeback to that? Of course, I’m going to look after your water supply,” Johansson said, adding “I vowed to campaign aboveboard, to not badmouth anybody. … I found during the campaign that not everybody feels that way.”
Johansson noted that, on palm cards ordered early in the campaign, he pledged to “prioritize and safeguard our environment,” which includes water quality. Just because his rhetoric has evolved, it doesn’t mean that his platform has, Johansson said.
Pettit and Johansson also differ on the significance of contributions from members of the development community. Johansson has them, and Pettit doesn’t.
“He [Johansson] says he will take money from anybody because he wants to have a good relationship with the developers.” Pettit said. “Well, you know, that’s sort of the textbook definition of pay-to-play, as far as I’m concerned.”
But Johansson said developer donations are not a problem.
“People think that I’m in the developers pockets, or the developers are financing me to gain favor. And I go back to my ethics and moral virtue and my character,” Johansson told The Beacon. “Whether you give me $1,000, or no dollars, or don’t vote for me, or don’t vote at all, I am still going to give you the same amount of attention and work hard to get you to where you need to be, if I can legally do it. Because that’s why I am a public servant. I’ve been a public servant my whole life. And that’s where my passion is.”
Johansson said his five-year tenure as Port Orange city manager has equipped him with the knowledge and realism necessary to make tangible change for residents. Johansson said Pettit — a former teacher, football coach and business owner — does not have the benefit of this kind of governmental experience, which could mean many of the campaign promises he’s making are flimsier than they seem.
“I know how the government works. I know what I can do. I know what I can’t do and I know what I need to work with council to get it done. I think the difference is that my opposition thinks that he can do things similar to the chairman unilaterally. And that’s not true,” Johansson said, adding, “I would say my opponent is promising things that he won’t be able to keep.”
This type of overpromising, in Johansson’s view, is why many people don’t trust the government.
The bottom line? While the candidates purport to support similar things, their tactics and qualifications are very different.
While Johansson is the one with the local Republican Party endorsement and support, Pettit more closely resembles the new “outsider” populist Republican who eschews moderation and the establishment Republican party.
The race reflects, in some ways, the race two years ago that also featured two very different Republicans and saw Brower defeat a well-funded County Council veteran, Deb Denys.
Johansson commented on what’s going on with the Republican Party nationally.
“As far as the party goes, I think it’s starting to become my way or the highway. Either you believe that the election was stolen, or you don’t. If you do, then you’re on this side, if you don’t, you’re on that side, or you’re called a rhino, or whatever the word is today. So people are losing sight of the big picture that says that we need to cooperate to graduate,” Johansson said, adding, “We just gotta understand that everybody is different. And it’s OK.”
But Pettit defends his style.
“I feel that we need bold steps. And we need bold initiatives and bold leadership,” Pettit said.
Promoting his anti-development, environment-protecting platform in a video on his website, Pettit promises to represent the ordinary people.
“Don’t be marginalized any further. Don’t be dismissed anymore by the status quo, or the developers’ slate,” Pettit said.