McGovern easily wins contentious Democratic primary fight for District 6 commission seat
Michelle McGovern, a top aide to former U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, coasted to a surprisingly easy Democratic primary win Tuesday in the County commission race, defeating Matt Willhite and Sylvia Sharps. She will face off against Sara Baxter in November, who ran unopposed in the Republican primary.
The winner will become the District Six County commissioner.
As of 9:30 p.m., 99% of the ballots were counted. McGovern had 57% of the vote or 7,921; Willhite, 33% or 4,542 and Sharps, 11% or 1,477.
Willhite had reported that his internal polling showed that he had close to a double-digit lead. But as soon as the early vote and mail-by-vote totals were posted shortly after the polls closed, it was clear that Willhite was in trouble.
The non-election day votes accounted for more than 60% of the ballots cast, and it was McGovern, not Willhite, with the double-digit percentage lead. Willhite was unable to chip away at the lead when the in-person vote totals were counted.
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McGovern and Willhite, a captain with Fire Rescue who has served in the Florida House of Representatives since 2016, spent more than $1 million between them in campaign ads and mailers, making the contest one of the most expensive and contentious primary races ever held in the county. They both ran ads on television stations in West Palm Beach attacking each other’s integrity.
Much of Willhite’s contributions came from individual firefighters and from the union that represents county firefighters. McGovern hammered away at a potential conflict of interest, questioning how Willhite could objectively review Fire Rescue budgets since so much of his campaign funds came from firefighters. She also questioned whether the firefighters’ union would revive an effort to create an independent taxing district to fund fire rescue operations.
Willhite denied there would be any conflict, noting that he would resign from Fire Rescue. He, in turn, criticized McGovern for raising money from developers and lawyers who regularly do business with the county.
According to the data maintained by the county Supervisor of Elections and the Secretary of State, Willhite spent nearly $700,000 on the campaign, McGovern, $403,000.
Willhite, who had won seven previous elections that included a stint on council in Wellington, said he was "disappointed" with the outcome but was also angered by the campaign waged by McGovern.
"She weaponized firefighters, calling them special interests in a flyer sent out yesterday," Willhite said. "She dishonored the profession. What's disheartening is that it worked and it appears that the message resonated with taxpayers. When you say that I'm going to raise taxes, it clearly had an impact."
Willhite said he will not support McGovern in the general election.
McGovern defended the way she ran her campaign, saying it was fair game to note that so much of Willhite's funds were coming from a single source. But she said with the election over, she was hopeful that she can work with Willhite and his supporters to gain their support.
"I have noting but respect for our Fire Rescue people," McGovern said. "They will not have any problems with me."
She said she was disappointed that Willhite had not called her to concede, noting: "If it went the other way, I would have reached out and made that phone call."
Mike Diamond is a journalist at the Palm Beach Post, part of the USA TODAY Florida Network. He covers county government and transportation. You can reach him firstname.lastname@example.org. Help support local journalism. Subscribe today.
This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Michelle McGovern wins Democratic primary for county commission seat