Cosentino eliminated in tight Democratic primary; Neunder wins in District 4
By Phil Colpas
Voters turned up in droves to participate in this year’s primary election Aug. 23, choosing longtime Siesta Key resident Mark Smith to represent the Republican party in November’s general election for the Sarasota Board of County Commission District 2 seat.
The highest percentage of registered voters in 30 years took part in the primary. According to Ron Turner, Sarasota County’s supervisor of elections, 36% of registered voters cast a ballot — the highest percentage since 1992.
During this primary season, three Siesta Key residents battled for a chance to vie for a seat on the county commission in the general election in November. After a sometimes contentious fight, one of them walked away victorious as Smith defeated Lourdes Ramirez in the Republican primary. Smith garnered 58% of the vote (4,770), while 42% of voters (3,491) cast their ballots for fellow resident Ramirez.
On the Democrat side, Siesta Key resident Mike Cosentino lost a tight primary race for the District 2 seat to longtime Sarasota activist Fredd Atkins, who also defeated Hagen Brody for a chance to face Smith for the county commission seat. Atkins had 35% (3,720 votes), Brody 34% (3,610), and Cosentino 31% (3,227).
District 2 includes the upper half of Siesta Key.
In the District 4 Republican primary, former Venice City Council member Joe Neunder landed a whopping 73.5% of the vote (9,699) against political newcomer Mark Hawkins (3,489). Neunder will face Democratic candidate Daniel Kuether, who was unopposed, in November.
District 4 represents the southern half of Siesta Key.
The incumbents in both districts did not run. Christian Ziegler (District 2) opted out and Alan Maio (District 4) reached his term limit.
Shortly after his victory, Siesta Sand asked Smith how he felt about the voters’ decision.
“It’s super!” he said. “I’m relieved and thrilled that the district recognized I was the most qualified candidate.”
Smith, an architect, stated that he wants to immediately tackle workforce housing. He said it’s one of the most common concerns he heard at the polls, related to the ever-increasing cost of living in Sarasota — specifically skyrocketing real estate and rental prices.
“Folks in the construction trade need places to live. They’re building our communities and they can’t afford to live here,” Smith said. “Voters understand that architects are problem solvers and have to be able to deal with engineers and contractors to get things done. As an architect, there’s never been a time building something where we’ve said, ‘We can’t make this happen.’ We have to facilitate among all these groups and find solutions. We need solutions, not just complaints.” Criticized for accepting developer support for his campaign, Smith said “The developer community supports me because I understand what they do. Not every developer is evil. But there are ways for us to review codes, to improve the approval processes and methodology. I can help with evaluations and work with county staff.”
Regarding public perception that the county commission has been granting too many variances and exceptions, Smith said “In all honesty, I’m not an expert right now. But I will be. Are we misusing it? Are we interpreting it improperly? As an architect, I listen. Then I design accordingly. Right now, I need to do a lot of listening. We can’t live in the past, but we have to be careful not to see it as a precedent if it was a mistake.”
Smith admitted the current county commission has a problem with approving projects without proper regard for their traffic impact, and that he can help find solutions. “We’ve all sat for an hour in traffic when it should take 10 minutes,” he said. “We have to figure out what we did (wrong) and how to correct it.”
Smith is a Florida-registered architect who has owned and operated his own business and lived on Siesta Key for 30 years. He said his professional experience of design, land use, construction and construction costs, permitting, building and zoning codes, etc., makes him uniquely qualified to be a county commissioner.
Smith moved to Sarasota as a child when his family relocated from Detroit in 1963. He graduated from Riverview High School in 1973, and received both his Bachelor of Science and Master in Architecture degrees from the Georgia Institute of Technology. Smith and his family moved back to Sarasota in 1990.
“My nearly three decades of living and working on Siesta Key, volunteering on the Siesta Key Village Association, Siesta Key Association, and Siesta Key Chamber Board of Directors over the last 22 years, demonstrates to the Siesta Key voters my commitment to and love for Siesta Key,” Smith said. “I don’t need this. I have a successful practice. I had to take a pay cut to do this. But I’m doing it for all the right reasons. We need strong, effective leadership on the Board of County Commissioners that represents the will and desire of Siesta Key to maintain and protect its character and beauty.”
Smith was president of the Siesta Key Village Association from 2004 to 2009, leading the organization through the design and construction of the Siesta Key Village Beautification Project. Smith is a past board member of the Siesta Key Association. He currently serves on the Siesta Key Presidents Council, the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Advisory Board, and as chair-elect of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors.
“My professional background and personal history of volunteering in the community make me the right candidate for commissioner,” Smith said. “I have a history of working with everyone on issues and finding solutions, not just complaining about problems.”
Smith previously ran an unsuccessful 2010 campaign against then-incumbent Nora Patterson, who was also a Siesta Key resident, in the Republican primary for District 4.
Cosentino and Ramirez did not respond to requests for comment. It’s the second defeat in a county commission primary for Cosentino, and the third for Ramirez.