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"After candidate’s mysterious withdrawal, Lee Commissioner Greenwell faces competition in primary"

By Anne Geggis 

The Alva Library and Museum needed overflow parking to handle the buzzing crowd of 200 that milled around food trucks awaiting the kickoff of Grant Fichter’s run for the Lee County Commission this past January.

Fichter, a first-time candidate, was running in the Republican primary against incumbent Mike Greenwell, a former Boston Red Sox left-fielder and developer. Many in the crowd were eager to see a challenge to Greenwell, who has controversial plans to develop farmland he owns in a rural part of the county. Opponents worry the construction will spoil the bucolic nature of the area. 

“Everyone was so happy about just the opportunity to have a challenger with a lot of community support,“ said Holly Schwartz, a resident of Alva since 2012 who works in environmental policy.

But excitement turned to confusion when Fichter stepped up to the microphone and announced he was ending his campaign. It was his second official day as a candidate. He didn’t give an explanation. Gasps came from the audience.

Amanda Cochran of Alva had been working with Fichter for the past 18 months to oppose a development in a rural corner of Lee County both their families have called home for generations. She said she’d never seen Fichter like she saw him at his aborted kickoff.  

“He said, ‘My entire life has been turned upside down in the last 48 hours,’” she recalled him telling the crowd about his mysterious withdrawal. “He was more unnerved than I’ve ever seen him.”

Fichter, 48, a lifelong Alva resident and vice president of AIM Engineering and Surveying in Fort Myers, declined to explain his decision in detail to the Trident, except to say, “The competition doesn’t want competition.”

AIM had a contract up for consideration before the commission as recently as this past January: $210,000 to renovate the tennis courts and restrooms at Wheeler Road Community Park. Fichter denies, however, that threats against his company were part of his calculation.

Still, it’s the second time in this election cycle  a candidate has dropped out of the all-important Republican primary for a seat on the commission in the GOP-dominated county. 

In late June David Mulicka, husband of Republican state Rep. Jenna Persons-Mulicka, announced his candidacy for the  District 3 seat Commissioner Ray Sandelli is vacating. Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed Sandelli after his predecessor died in office, and Sandelli decided to step down after one full term. 

Days later, Bonita Springs businessman Brian Farrar, president of BCF Management Group, a general contracting business, announced he was running against Mulicka. After raising $124,000, Farrar abruptly dropped out of the race in December. 

Farrar, who’s appeared on the agenda of Lee County’s Local Planning Agency seeking approval for some of his company’s residential housing plans, says his decision was personal. He explained in a text to the Trident “it was not the time to continue the campaign,” but did not elaborate further.

Mulicka, meanwhile, has received the support of four state legislators, not counting his wife, and has received donations from numerous Tallahassee-based political committees. With more than $235,000 raised so far, Mulicka currently is running unopposed for what is only the second Lee County Commission seat in 12 years to come up for election without an incumbent in the race.

Twelve-year term limits passed in 2014 aren’t set to kick in until 2026. In the ten years since their passage, it’s become more common for a newcomer to join the commission because a sitting commissioner died than for any other reason, including an election.

A hard sell

For years, local activists worked to recruit candidates to run against incumbents with little success. 

“You couldn’t run against an incumbent,” said Patty Duncan, a member of the nonpartisan group Citizens for Government Accountability (which is a partner of Trident publisher Florida Center for Government Accountability). “The PACs would come in and ruin you with mudslinging. [Prospective candidates] always feared they would lose their job or something would be revealed about them they had no idea about.”

When Lee County Commissioner Frank Mann died in June 2022, it appeared there would finally be an open seat. But just 32 days before the primary, DeSantis instead appointed Greenwell, giving the former athlete the advantage of incumbency, which may have been a decisive factor in the election. Greenwell was elected with 72% of the vote after just a month on the job. It’s a move that still rankles John Albion, one of the two other Republicans who qualified to run for the vacant seat.

“No one believes that the governor did not have the right to do what he did, it was just a question as to why would you … at that point?” said Albion, a former Lee County commissioner. “I had 14 years of experience in that district and the person he appointed had zero.”

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment from theTrident.

Making the uphill climb

Despite the odds, Amanda Cochran has put her name in the ring to take Fichter’s place in opposing Greenwell in the Republican primary coming up Aug. 20.

“I didn’t go looking for this job — I was on the (Fichter) team,” said Cochran, a businesswoman whose husband is in real estate. “Now … I feel like we made up too much ground to stop.”

Kizzie Fowler, a mother of five and a 2021 graduate of Florida Gulf Coast University, has also filed to run for the same seat as a Democrat.

Cochran’s campaign kickoff. (Courtesy: Cochran Campaign)

Cochran said she believes the incumbent commissioner’s inherent conflict between representing his constituents’ interests and his plans to develop his land will be enough to convince voters to give Greenwell the boot. 

“I’ve uncovered all kinds of areas where residents are just feeling like they are underrepresented by this group [of county commissioners] — their interests are not being considered,” Cochran said. “After now becoming more involved and seeing all this going on, I feel a responsibility.”

She’s put $100,000 of her own money into her campaign account and raised $20,000 more from supporters, although an official campaign finance report hasn’t come due yet.

Fichter said he’s glad Cochran is taking up the mantle and representing those who don’t want to see this rustic corner of Lee County transformed.

“She’s very brave and determined,” he said.

Traits Cochran may need to finish the race. 

Anne Geggis is an award-winning journalist who has spent much of her career focused on government and health care reporting at news outlets across Florida, including the Sun Sentinel, the Gainesville Sun, the Daytona Beach News-Journal, and Florida Politics.

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