OKALOOSA ISLAND — Iowa has its caucus and Okaloosa Island has its straw poll.
Following a forum featuring five Republican candidates for the state House District 4 seat left behind by Matt Gaetz, a straw poll was conducted to, in theory, determine which candidate most impressed those who attended.
With 78 votes cast, Destin Mayor Mel Ponder was the winner in a landslide, taking 35 votes. That was almost double the 18 collected by runner-up Jonathan Tallman, a Niceville businessman and political newcomer.
Okaloosa County Commissioner Wayne Harris pulled in 11 votes, and two more newcomers, Laurie Bartlett and Armand Izzo finished with nine and four votes, respectively.
It would be hard to imagine, though, that too many who cast straw ballots had been convinced one way or the other during the forum itself.
Bartlett, Ponder, Tallman, Harris and Izzo actually did little to distinguish themselves from one another on questions from the audience.
For example, each candidate said he or she favored laws that would allow firearms to be carried openly. Bartlett did single herself out, though, by offering, “I think everyone should have dual holsters.”
The candidates also oppose Common Core and a universal vote by mail. When asked to address something called Agenda 21, most said they’d have to study up on the issue.
The first question of the forum, sponsored by the Condo Alliance of Okaloosa Island and the Panhandle Patriots, was predictable, given the location at the El Matador condominium and the person doing the asking.
Rebecca Sherry, a longtime opponent of building a bridge from Wright Parkway in Fort Walton Beach to the western end of Okaloosa Island, wanted to know how the candidates felt about her pet issue.
Each candidate gave the politically correct answer that they didn’t favor such a thing, although at least a few didn’t appear clear that the Wright Parkway span is not being considered as a way to replace the existing Brooks Bridge, but as a possible alternate route.
Harris notified the crowd “the Brooks Bridge replacement will happen. As for an alternative, I don’t think that’s even on the radar screen.”
Izzo declared himself a fighter for lower taxes and less government. He said he wants to make District 4 “the No. 1 military-friendly district in all the nation” and encourage job growth.
He said he would look to pass ethics legislation to end public corruption.
Tallman said he wants to take his business sense to Tallahassee and to serve as a watchdog for wasteful spending.
Asked about how she would work with others in the state House on behalf of District 4, Bartlett appeared to draw a line against working with Democrats.
“We’re looking at ideological differences. People on the left believe so strongly the way they do, it’s a true battle,” she said. “These people mean business. They want to take our country. We can’t take it lightly.”
Ponder offered a message of consolidation. He said that he envisions the towns and cities and counties of Northwest Florida all working together to accomplish bigger goals.
Harris said his experience in the military, business and local government make him a strong candidate for the state representative’s job.
In response to the question about working with others in the House, he said he would be willing to reach across the aisle to work with Democrats, but added the real need in Tallahassee right now is getting the Republican majority to work together.