The decision by the county’s Republican Executive Committee last month to endorse a convicted criminal, Damien H. Gilliams, in the supposedly nonpartisan Sebastian City Council race wasn’t the group’s first wrongheaded move.
Last year, the REC voted to publicly censure then-School Board Chairman Brian Barefoot – a lifelong Republican and former Indian River Shores mayor – because he dared support a school mask mandate in defiance of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order.
The ill-advised attack on Barefoot, who commands respect in both business and academic circles, prompted more than 30 REC members to resign.
Expect the group’s inexplicable endorsement of Gilliams to do even more damage to the local REC’s credibility.
In May 2021, a jury found Gilliams guilty on three counts of violating Florida’s Sunshine Law and one count of perjury, all in connection with a clandestine meeting he held with Vice Mayor Charles Mauti and council member Pamela Parris at Sebastian City Hall.
Circuit Judge Michael Linn sentenced Gilliams to 300 days in jail and imposed a $1,500 fine, but the former councilman has appealed his conviction.
Despite a court-imposed, no-contact order that requires him to remain at least 100 feet away from some Sebastian officials – including the city manager and city clerk – Gilliams is back on the ballot.
And he has the REC’s backing.
Gilliams was among 14 Republican state and local candidates endorsed in an REC flyer mailed earlier this month.
““I don’t know why it was done, but it’s very inappropriate,”,” longtime County Commissioner and REC member Joe Flescher said of the decision to include Gilliams in the flyer. “I don’t think it reflects the will of a majority of the REC’s membership, just a small group that has seen its influence grow.
“It’s very discouraging.”
Vero Beach Mayor Robbie Brackett, who is among the candidates endorsed in the flyer and a heavy favorite to win election to the Florida House District 34 seat next month, went a step further.
“I’m disgusted,” he said, adding that he was unaware candidates for Sebastian City Council seats would be endorsed when he gave his consent to be included in the REC flyer.
Bracket and Flescher weren’t alone. Several other longtime local Republicans, who asked that their names not be published, also were puzzled by the REC’s decision to support Gilliams.
One prominent Republican said the REC has lost its relevance locally since being “taken over by a fringe group of renegades.”
Indeed, many county Republicans say the tactics and tone of the REC have changed noticeably over the past two years, since the arrival of new members from the “We The People Indian River County” group.
“We lost 30-plus traditional Republicans after the Barefoot censure,” another now-former REC member said, “and they’ve been replaced by 30 new members from the fringe.”
Even REC Chairman Jay Kramer tried to distance himself from the flyer.
Kramer said last week the REC had received “a lot of phone calls, especially about Gilliams,” and he would have preferred to not publish the voter guide, which was rushed.
What’s more, not all local Republican candidates were included in the flyer.
In fact, there was no mention of the Vero Beach City Council race, which includes Taylor Dingle, founder and president of the county’s Young Republicans club.
Also missing from the REC flyer is Shawn Frost, the county’s Republican state committeeman who is seeking election to the county’s Soil & Water Conservation District board.
“There’s a lot wrong with that mailer,” Frost said, adding he expressed concerns about some names and warned the REC board that the news media “would jump all over this.”
He said local Republicans who’ve seen the Gilliams endorsement are calling and asking: “What were they thinking?