It’s not fair, really, that good people must be punished for the sometimes-thuggish behavior tolerated by a small number of candidates for local public office and their cult-like fringe following.
But given the contentious and often-hostile tone of our political discourse these days, the organizers of Main Street Vero Beach’s popular Downtown Friday celebrations saw no other choice.
Starting next month, they’ll no longer allow political candidates or groups to rent booths at their events – a sad-but-necessary response to an alarming increase in complaints about antagonistic and confrontational conduct at the downtown gatherings.
You’d think Vero Beach, where not too long ago we took great pride in embracing the small-town charm and neighborly feel that made our community worthy of its “Mayberry by the Sea” reputation, might be immune from the nasty political polarization that has infected so much of America.
Apparently, we’re not.
The political booth ban doesn’t take effect until after the Aug. 23 primary elections, which means the bad actors have one last chance on July 29 to harass, demean and attempt to intimidate their opponents and their opponents’ backers.
“We wanted to give everyone two weeks’ notice,” Main Street Vero Beach Executive Director Susan Gromis said of the decision made this month by the non-profit organization’s board of directors.
Gromis concedes that prohibiting all political booths is unfair to the candidates and groups that have abided by the rules and behave appropriately. But she said the board didn’t want to put in jeopardy Main Street Vero Beach’s status with the Internal Revenue Service as a tax-exempt, charitable and apolitical organization.
“It’s not fair, but if we remove the rule breakers and allow the other candidates, it might give the appearance of favoritism, even though we’re not in any way political,” Gromis said. “Someone could challenge us and accuse us of supporting or opposing particular candidates, so it’s easier to not allow any of them.”
Gromis said the Downtown events – scheduled for the final Friday of each month – attract as many as 75 booths during the busier winter season and up to 65 during the slower summer months. About 15 of them are occupied by local candidates and political groups.
This year, along with a gubernatorial election that is expected to produce strong turnouts across Florida, the local ballot will include contested races for County Commission, School Board, circuit judge and state representative.
Candidates and political groups, such as the Republican Executive Committee and Democrats of Indian River, each pay Main Street Vero Beach $100 to have booths at the monthly events.
“We’ll lose that money, but it won’t have a huge impact,” Gromis said. “Most of the feedback we’ve been getting recently is that Downtown Friday was becoming too political and less family friendly. People felt overwhelmed by the number of political signs and shirts.”
That’s not the worst of it.
Though there haven’t been any physical altercations at recent events, Gromis said more than a few attendees – especially parents who bring their children – have expressed to organizers that they were appalled by the in-your-face incivility of some candidates’ overzealous supporters.
Gromis cited a particularly disturbing incident that required police intervention.
One Friday night, a group of people dressed as pirates came out of a downtown bar and stopped at the Democrats of Indian River booth to harass members of the club, attacking the party’s abortion-rights position.
“There was a young girl standing there, probably 10 or 11 years old, and they were screaming at her,” Gromis recalled. “They were merciless, and she was traumatized. The police arrived and told the pirates to leave, which they did. But they came back later.
“Thankfully, it didn’t get violent, but people were scared.”
On other occasions, the event has been marred by the venomous verbal assaults, low-brow taunts and obnoxious behavior of candidates’ supporters and political bullies who seem to view their opponents as enemies.
Not satisfied with promoting their candidates, these shameless dolts – donning campaign shirts, hats and buttons – can be seen deliberately standing near their opponents’ booths and trying to disrupt the representatives’ interactions with people who stop by.
There also have been reports of these over-the-top supporters attempting to discourage people from approaching their opponents’ booths.
“I know we’ve become very polarized, but it’s shocking to hear how people talk to each other,” Gromis said. “Everything has become so adversarial.”
It should come as no surprise, then, that many of these people, including the candidates they support, no longer respect the rules, believing their cause justifies their boorish actions.
Gromis didn’t want to identify them, but she said two of the six remaining candidates for School Board seats blatantly disregarded the organizers’ rules prohibiting the posting of campaign signs along 14th Avenue – despite being told in advance to not do so.
“We didn’t want our venue blanketed with campaign signs,” Gromis said, explaining that organizers allowed signs to be posted only at the booths and at “bump outs” adjacent to 14th Avenue.
The rogue candidates didn’t care.
“This is not something we wanted to do, and not everybody is going to be happy about it,” Gromis said of banning the political booths from Downtown Friday. “I’m sure we’re going to have some people say this is the wrong decision.
“But based on what has happened at our venue during this election season, I believe in my heart this is the right thing to do,” she added. “We’ve had several incidents and too many people who broke the rules, even after being warned.
“We had to do something.”
Gromis doesn’t expect the Downtown Friday politicking to stop, though, especially with the likelihood of one School Board race – and the possibility of one County Commission race – going to a November runoff.
There’s also the governor’s race, which undoubtedly will spark fierce campaigning from local Republicans and Democrats at public gatherings, including Downtown Friday.
“Even before this happened, we had candidates who opted to not pay to have a booth, then sent out their supporters, who were wearing their campaign shirts or holding their signs, walking around and sometimes standing near their opponents’ booths,” Gromis said.
“We can’t monitor or restrict what people wear, other than to prohibit profanity or the illusion of profanity,” she added, “so I expect they’ll still be out there.”
In the meantime, Gromis said she and the board want to make the Downtown Friday events more about celebrating our community and less about campaigning for local elections.
One possibility she mentioned was to introduce more activities for children.
“We want people to come out and have fun,” Gromis said. “That’s what Downtown Friday is all about. It was never supposed to be about politics, but we were in the political season and I wanted to prove we could get through it without bloodshed.
“Well, we did – but not without controversy.”