Posted May 1, 2017

As early voting kicked off in the runoff election for two City Commission seats Monday, the Republican Party of Sarasota County hosted a rally in support of the lone registered Republican in the race in front of the Supervisor of Elections office.


Supporters of candidate Martin Hyde — and opponents of Jen Ahearn-Koch — lined U.S. 301 downtown as part of the “Block Sarasota From Becoming A Sanctuary City” rally. The protest came in response to comments Ahearn-Koch made during a March candidate forum in which she said the city should consider the option of being a sanctuary city.


After the Sarasota GOP posted a clip from the debate on its Facebook page last week, Ahearn-Koch said the video is lacking context. She said sanctuary city is a “vague and undefined term,” and said the meaning of the phrase would need to be clearly defined before she would consider taking any action as a city commissioner.


“I am for the process,” Ahearn-Koch said. “I am for making decisions that are made on research on data and best practices. If anybody wants to put anything else in my mouth, it’s just not true.”


Hyde, who posted a longer excerpt from the debate on his campaign’s Facebook page the day before the Sarasota GOP shared it, has used the topic to call into question Ahearn-Koch’s judgment. He pointed to President Donald Trump’s vow to withhold funding from cities that do not work with federal authorities on immigration enforcement — the subject of an order that a federal judge recently blocked — as a reason why the topic was not even worth exploring.


“There’s nothing to consider,” Hyde said. “As a City Commissioner, it’s not on the table.”


Hagen Brody, the other candidate in the race for two at-large seats on the City Commission, has suggested local law enforcement officials shouldn’t be involved with federal immigration enforcement.


“We’re not going out of our way to make a statement on a federal issue like that, but we’re also not going to divert our resources to supplement the federal government’s job,” Brody said.


Although the City Commission race is nominally a nonpartisan election, the local Republican Party has seized on the hot-button issue to attack Ahearn-Koch specifically. The party has changed its Facebook header to an image of Ahearn-Koch that says a vote for her is a “vote to make Sarasota a sanctuary city.”


Since originally posting the video — which has 37,000 views — on Thursday, the group has made more than 20 additional posts about Ahearn-Koch and sanctuary cities.


“We have an extreme candidate who is reckless and anti-American,” said Republican State Committeeman Christian Ziegler at today’s demonstration.


[Image: City residents DeeAnna Dowdle and Maureen Magner joined a counter-protest Monday.]
City residents DeeAnna Dowdle and Maureen Magner joined a counter-protest Monday.
Deeana Dowdle, who came to protest in opposition of the rally, said she supports immigrant rights and questioned the GOP’s tactics.


“I think these are just scare tactics,” said Dowdle, who also said Hyde and the Republican Party are just latching onto this issue because Ahearn-Koch finished with the most votes in the first election. “Now that he doesn’t have Susan Chapman to pick on, he’s picking on Jen.”


Last week, the Sarasota County Democratic Party endorsed Ahearn-Koch and Brody.


Early voting runs through Saturday, May 6, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m at 101 S. Washington Blvd. Click here for a rundown on the three City Commission candidates.


Deputy Managing Editor David Conway contributed to this report.


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