The race to fill the open Palm Beach County Commission District 1 seat pits longtime Commissioner Karen Marcus against Palm Beach Gardens Council member Maria Marino and former Tequesta Council member Calvin Turnquest.
This election’s story is one of the Old Guard against the New Blood.
It’s "controlled growth" vs. "economic development."
And it’s term limits up against, well, term limits.
The county commission vacancy in Palm Beach County’s northern Republican stronghold has inspired a no-holds barred fight likely to shape the area’s political landscape for years.
Representing the Old Guard is Karen Marcus, the second-longest serving county commissioner of all time, back from an eight-year hiatus for a second run.
For the New Blood it’s Maria Marino, a professional golfer who served four years on the Palm Beach Gardens City Council and decided to run long before Marcus entered the race.
Critics accuse both candidates of going against voters’ wishes for term limits. A May lawsuit challenged Marcus’ eligibility to run again after serving 28 years as commissioner, and some Marcus backers questioned whether Marino pressed to water down term limits in Palm Beach Gardens.
For a district that is constantly trying to distance itself from "Browardization," where high-density living and traffic jams are a way of life, Marcus dismissed the term limits issue and said the election is about only one thing.
"This race is no longer about the issues. This campaign is now about the money that’s gone to buy this seat," she said, pointing to a steady stream of political mailers sent by Taxpayers for Term Limits, a group established in February.
Marino, who said she agrees with the group’s message but has nothing to do with them, said she is "tired of hearing that" from her opponent. Instead, she suggests Marcus honor the voters' wishes when they passed a charter change in 2002 limiting commissioners to two, four-year terms.
"Karen has been there, done that, has the T-shirt, was term-limited out. Be done with it," Marino said.
North County Republican voters will have their say between Marcus, Marino and a third Republican, former Tequesta Councilman Calvin Turnquest, on Aug. 18. Because a write-in candidate filed in the race, only Republicans can vote. The winner is almost certain to be the next county commissioner because his or her name will appear alone on the Nov. 3 general election ballot with only write-in candidate Rhonda Buice as an alternative.
Marino jumps in first
Marcus, 68, said supporters encouraged her in the past to run for the state Legislature, or even Congress. But she said she has unfinished business at home.
"My heart is in Palm Beach County," said Marcus, who was born in Key West and raised in North Palm Beach. "The reason to go back now is because I saw an opportunity with my experience and my historical institutional knowledge to help do some projects in the county that need to get done."
Marcus waited eight years to make her comeback, announcing her intention to run in January for the seat to be vacated by term-limited Hal Valeche.
Marino announced eight months earlier, with Turnquest joining in October. But Marcus said she isn’t running because of her opponents, but rather because of their lack of experience.
"I wouldn’t have to come in and get on-the-job training," Marcus said. "I could have stepped in and gotten to work right away."
Her decision ran into immediate resistance. Tequesta Republican Ann Vandersteel, who has ties to Taxpayers for Term Limits, sued Marcus in May to stop her from running but lost.
Marcus, who led the supercharged yearslong fight to move Scripps Florida from its proposed site on remote farmland on the outskirts of The Acreage to Jupiter’s Abacoa, was known as a commissioner who adroitly worked the political and administrative levers behind decisions worth millions, who fought to preserve undeveloped land particularly in north county but also worked comfortably with powerful interests.
She cited her tenure on the board as a plus, not the "career politician" moniker that campaign ads have lobbed against her.
"You have career cardiologists. You have career dermatologists. People trust somebody who’s got experience," Marcus said.
Little, if anything, has changed in the eight years since she left, she said. If elected, constituents could expect the same politician they had for nearly 30 years.
"We’re the envy of the county in my opinion and we want to stay that way," she said.
Among Marcus’ contributors are Jack and Barbara Nicklaus, who gave her $1,000 each.
Marcus took on Nicklaus’ Bear’s Club as a client in 2018, when it sought to change environmental limits on a gated golf course community in Jupiter. She lobbied county commissioners to unlock a conservation easement on a 15-acre parcel in exchange for 20 acres in split parcels and a $1 million payment. After public outcry, the Bear’s Club withdrew the proposal.
>>READ MORE: Jack Nicklaus’ Bear’s Club cites ‘uproar,’ withdraws land swap request
Marcus called the outcry a misunderstanding.
"I spent my entire career purchasing more land for preservation than anybody in this county has done, in the past and in the future," she said. "I would never do anything that would violate those principles. I don’t do things for money."
‘Nobody knows land use better’
Marcus championed two voter-approved bond issues in the 1990s to buy land: $100 million to buy environmentally sensitive land in 1991 and $150 million to buy land in the Ag Reserve and sensitive land elsewhere in 1999.
Environmental issues — such as curbing development in south county’s Agriculture Reserve and restoring the Loxahatchee River and Lake Worth Lagoon — are still her top issues, she said. After she left office, she founded a nonprofit, Sustainable Palm Beach County, which initially fought development of the Avenir property in Palm Beach Gardens.
"Nobody knows the budget better. Nobody knows land use better," said Sid Dinerstein, former county GOP chairman and a Marcus supporter. "Karen was responsible for the extraordinary environment we have in north county."
Her group was instrumental in Mayor Dave Kerner’s proposed $150 million bond issue to buy environmental land.
With Kerner pressing for the bond issue immediately after his appointment as mayor in November, commissioners considered placing it on the ballot. Soon after, when The Post described the growth of a homeless encampment in John Prince Park, Commissioner Mack Bernard proposed adding $150 million for housing projects.
And then came the pandemic. Faced with widespread shutdowns and job losses, commissioners punted talks of both proposals to at least 2022.
>>RELATED: County kills plan to ask voters for environmental, housing money
Marino seized on the proposal to criticize her rival.
"I don’t care what it’s for. How can you think of adding to the budget in a time when people don’t know if they’re going to have a job?" Marino said of Marcus’ involvement. "There’s a time and a place for everything. If you’re going to add a bond referendum to the taxes that people pay, make sure that it is something that is really clear, concise and transparent."
If elected, Marcus also hopes to grow the bioscience hub that she helped move from the original county-anointed Mecca Farms site to Abacoa. While she lauds the county’s coronavirus response, she sees it as an opportunity to partner with organizations such as Scripps Florida.
Of the $229,765 Marcus has raised, she has spent $170,647 as of July 24. Real estate developer Ray Graziotto and related entities contributed $7,000. Other contributions include $100 from former County Administrator Bob Weisman; $1,000 from former Commissioner Jeff Koons; $250 from North Palm Police Chief Rick Jenkins; $2,000 from Milton and Thelma Maltz, backers of the Maltz Jupiter Theater; and $2,000 from Chip Block, Jupiter Inlet Colony vice mayor and Sustainable Palm Beach County vice president, and his wife, Leanna Landsmann.
Marino positioned herself as a "consensus builder" who would keep a keen eye to find "duplications, redundancies and inefficiencies" in the county’s $5 billion budget.
"It doesn’t mean cutting programs. It’s seeing how they can be done more efficiently," Marino said. "You sometimes need new fresh eyes to look at something."
Marino takes credit for voting to lower the Palm Beach Gardens tax rate in recent years, although taxes still went up for most homeowners because of rising property values. She points to saving taxpayer money by switching to greener technologies, such as electric city vehicles, switching to LED lighting and supporting the installation of new air conditioning units.
"These changes will lower annual expenses," she said
The budget will be important as the county navigates the coronavirus pandemic, Marino said, as gas and tourist taxes are dwindling.
"My most important goal right now for our community is making sure we have economic growth here so we have jobs, so people can keep food on the table and keep a roof over their heads," she said. She aims to do that by helping attract high-paying jobs, as the county and Palm Beach Gardens teamed up to attract an expansion of United Technologies in 2015, and in the following years added hundreds of more jobs.
Marino, currently the vice mayor, will resign from her Palm Beach Gardens City Council seat on Oct. 2 to run, a decision she said she made with a "heavy heart."
She won her initial council race in March 2016 and re-election bid in March 2019, each time unopposed. A month after her second win, she announced her run for county commission.
Marino, endorsed by the political action committees of two leading business groups, the Economic Council of Palm Beach County and Palm Beach North Chamber of Commerce, among others, dismisses the "pro-development" label and substitutes one more palatable to both sides of the political aisle: "economic development."
Avenir decision creates tension
She points to the decision to allow construction of 3,900 homes on 4,700 acres, along with 2,700 acres of preserves, at the Avenir development, on land formerly known as the Vavrus Ranch.
"By partnering with the developers of Avenir, we were able to carve off acres on the property that is now going to be in conservation, in perpetuity," Marino said. Without Avenir, she added, the developers could have sold off large lots for homes with septic tanks and set aside no land for conservation.
The project had gone through several iterations before Marino joined the council, but she was part of the unanimous vote to approve Avenir’s master plan in May 2016.
The Avenir developers have contributed $5,000 to her commission campaign.
Marcus believed the site would have been better as water storage and tried to engineer a deal for the government to buy it. She was critical of the decision to let the developer come back to the council two years after the master plan was approved to pay $10 million to avoid building 250 homes for working-class families.
>>READ MORE: Avenir can pay $10 million instead of including workforce housing
Marino doesn’t think her four-year tenure in city politics is too little. The outgoing commissioner, Valeche, also spent four years on the Gardens City Council before winning a commission seat.
"Yes, it’s definitely smaller, but it’s the attitude and the way you do your job that’s important," she said.
Go-getter vs. proven force
When she’s not golfing, negotiating deals as a real estate broker, politicking or engaging in the many boards she sits on, Marino has been the executive director of the Jupiter Children’s Foundation since 2003. The children they serve, she said, she considers her own.
Marino is the kind of person who will put her hand up for almost everything, said Jupiter Mayor Todd Wodraska, just like the story she often recounts of how she got started in politics — by raising her hand during a conversation on a golf course, no less, about the city’s new term limits, and offering to run to replace outgoing politicians.
"She’s always somebody to step up and serve, whether it’s the League of Cities or representing Palm Beach Gardens at some county-level or state-level stuff," said Wodraska, an early backer of Marino. "She’s always willing to advocate on all those fronts. She’s always advocated for north county."
Wodraska initially endorsed Marino for that reason and because her colleagues picked her to become mayor just a year into office.
Wodraska said he doesn’t regret his endorsement, but admits it would have been a more difficult choice after Marcus announced since he is good friends with both Marcus and Marino.
"There’s no take-backs, but at the same token, Karen Marcus is a proven force. I’m not sure I would have signed that endorsement if I knew everybody in the race," he said.
Whoever wins, though, Wodraska is sure that his town’s interests will be considered.
"I’m going to be comfortable no matter the outcome," he said.
Marino has raised $266,839, nearly $40,000 more than Marcus, and has spent $185,825 as of July 24.
Aside from the Avenir contribution, she also has gotten almost $1,000 from the mayors of Palm Beach, Lake Park and Jupiter Inlet Colony, and her Gardens council colleague, Rachelle Litt; $2,000 from developer E. Llwyd Ecclestone Jr.'s trust and business; $3,000 from Ranger Construction and associated companies; and $2,000 from the political committees of the Palm Beach County Police Benevolent Association.
The term limits tiff
Marcus and Marino both shared that they would listen to constituents and they have good relationships with the district’s cities.
But when it came to actual campaigning, the race has gotten ugly.
Taxpayers for Term Limits was created in February, after Marcus announced her candidacy, at the urging of those around Annie Marie Delgado, a former Palm Beach Gardens councilwoman who now runs a pro-Trump political group.
But Delgado said "it’s not about Maria Marino at all."
"We want term limits across the board," Delgado said, pointing to Democratic members of Congress typically at the center of Republican disdain, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and New York Sen. Chuck Schumer.
The lawsuit filed two weeks before the qualifying period claimed that Ann Vandersteel — host of a conservative show on YouTube and an officer of Taxpayers for Term Limits — and District 1 Republicans like herself wanted to ensure the election would "result in a legally qualified candidate being elected." Vandersteel wanted Marcus off the ballot.
Ten days after the qualifying period ended, a judge ruled term limits that impacted Marcus and other county commissioners are not meant as lifetime bans.
>>RELATED: Man behind commission term limits push says Marcus is eligible to run
Despite the ruling, Taxpayers for Term Limits still believes Marcus should not run.
"To have her disrespect the will of the people speaks volumes," Delgado said.
Delgado said she isn’t sure how much has been spent on ads against Marcus. State election records show her political committee gave itself $30,000 and accepted $20,000 from a difficult-to-trace Tallahassee political committee called Economic Improvement Fund.
Taxpayers for Term Limits does not operate in favor of any particular candidate, Delgado said. But the board of her organization, Trump Team 2020 Florida, has endorsed Marino.
Marino said she knows Delgado and Vandersteel, but refutes any connection to her campaign.
"There was no collaboration. When they (the mailers) appear in my mailbox, that’s the first time I’ve seen them," Marino said.
Ad wars: Groundhog vs. puppet
These mailers lambaste Marcus for holding office for 28 years, criticize her government pension of $5,900 per month and label her a "career politician."
One mailer shows a groundhog holding a sign that reads "higher property taxes, higher sales tax, higher gas tax;" in the background, a billboard with Marcus’ face states "With career politician Karen Marcus, it’s Groundhog Day for taxpayers!"
Voters also may have received one of many robocalls from Taxpayers for Term Limits.
In at least one, recipients were told that Palm Beach County Mayor Dave Kerner "intervened (in the Marcus lawsuit) and is spending our tax money to help Karen Marcus." It also gives recipients the option to dial Kerner’s office directly to tell him to "butt out and stop helping Karen Marcus violate the law." Kerner is a Democrat.
Marino is the subject of Marcus’ attacks, too. In one campaign ad, an image of Marino is altered to make her look like a puppet, next to "Don’t let secret big money donor$ helping Maria Marino buy our north county commission seat."
Marino faces term-limit critics of her own. When she was mayor in 2017, Marino and her colleagues supported asking the voters whether to increase their terms by another three-year term, after voters had just overwhelmingly approved a limit of two, three-year terms.
Six years was not enough time to do their job effectively as council members, Marino said at an October 2017 meeting.
"I listened to a lot of people that said ‘I voted for term limits, but I’m sorry I voted for the length of time of the term limits,’" Marino said at the time. "If we are only here for six years, and you get another crop of people and five years from now we’re in the same situation, where the longest-standing council member has one year’s worth of service and the rest of us don’t know where to find the bathroom, it becomes a little difficult."
Voters rejected the measure in 2018.
In an interview, Marino said she is supportive of term limits at "every level of government" and that voters "overwhelmingly rejected the idea that politicians should spend decades in office." She added that she is confident voters will "make their desire to enforce term limits known at the polls."
Dinerstein, the former county GOP chair, had some harsh words.
"Maria is and was the enemy of term limits and the truth," he said.
But Dinerstein had once criticized Marcus, the candidate he is now backing, over term limits. In 2011, when the county’s term limits could have been impacted by a court case in Broward County, Dinerstein told The Post: "When 70 percent of the voters want term limits and you've been in office 24 years (Marcus actually had served 26), maybe it's time to just say 'thank you' and move on."
Today, he stands by the quote.
"I wanted all of them (county commissioners) to leave. Now she’s been gone for eight years," he said, adding that the county’s term limits are "not a life sentence."
The Third Republican
Calvin Turnquest is making a third attempt at public office outside of Tequesta village chambers step-by-step — literally.
The 51-year-old has been walking door-to-door in the summer heat across Jupiter Farms, Palm Beach Gardens and throughout District 1 to persuade Republican voters that he is the best candidate for the job.
There’s no time for relaxing in air conditioning, he said.
The mostly self-funded candidate — save for three contributions totalling $950 of his $11,950 — has disavowed PAC support and said it means he won’t be "beholden to any interest groups."
>>MORE: Black Republicans form new group, ready to be ‘hated’ to win Trump reelection
Turnquest, a real estate agent and medic at local hospitals, believes the county’s response to the coronavirus pandemic is a "knee-jerk reaction," and wished instead the board would establish a set of guidelines that cities could tailor-make to their residents.
"Don’t just shut us down all the way and hand-select which businesses can stay open," he said. He also believed the mask mandate was "overreaching" as he felt many residents were already wearing masks.
Turnquest, originally from the Bahamas, said there’s a number of issues at the forefront of his mind: how the county can partner with the school district and sheriff to improve school safety; maintaining north county’s quality of life; and, with the protests for racial justice and against police brutality, Turnquest said he would be a "unifying voice in the community, bridging race and age and socioeconomic gaps."
He considers himself a "strong proponent" of term limits, too.
"I won’t let them down," he said. "I’ll fight for their way of life."
Turnquest said he doesn’t think Marcus’ or Marino’s campaign coffers are a concern. In fact, he doesn’t pay their campaigns any mind.
"I am totally focused on what I have to do in order to secure this victory: do the hard work and earn every vote. I can’t afford to buy it," he said.
Data reporter Chris Persaud contributed to this story.