Sometimes people ask what I do for a living. When I say I write about politics, most immediately go into some diatribe about the president or Congress or such thing.
“No,” I stop them. “Not national politics. I write about local politics.”
I write about Citrus County politics. That’s my job. I don’t get mixed up in most things outside these county borders, though I once snuck on a van carrying news reporters when Vice President Dan Quayle was in Ocala, but that’s for another day. Plus, I’m sure I kept it local by asking Quayle about the Bush administration's plan for fixing roads in Citrus Springs.
I don’t just write about local politics, I’m really into it. I’m an elections geek, not tied to a specific candidate or cause, able to view the whole thing from atop the bubble, as it were. I pour over election statistics and reports and, of course, people feed me information all the time.
There aren’t too many like me in Citrus County. Actually, I can think of only one:
I was just getting warmed up as a political writer at the Chronicle when Gill ran for supervisor of elections to replace the legendary Wilma Anderson, who was retiring. I wasn’t a big Susan Gill fan at first. The late Sybil Barco, just an absolute gem of a person, had worked for Anderson for years and was running. This was 1996 and the political tides were shifting. She was a Democrat and Gill a Republican. I remember writing in a column that Gill didn’t have the experience to do such an important job correctly.
I have several times since then pointed out to her how much I was wrong. That’s because she has so many times shown us Citrus County folks just how right she is for this job.
We want a lot from politicians, but the most important is trust. Elected officials can make all the promises and assurances in the world, but if we don’t trust them it doesn’t make any difference.
Four years after Gill was elected came the 2000 “hanging chad” election. We forget this today, but Citrus avoided the whole punch ballot fiasco because we didn’t have punch ballots. Gill, in her first term, had convinced county commissioners to pay for these new fangled ballot scanner things. The things we’ve been using since then and that everyone has these days.
Gill was able to build public trust with that election and it’s only grown.
I once heard someone say, “I don’t want to be a nice guy. I just want to have a REPUTATION of being a nice guy.” Gill’s reputation for running fair and efficient elections, plus getting the results out in record speed after polls close, are known and accepted by just about everyone in Citrus County politics. Democrat, Republican, no party, other party — I never hear a bad word about Gill’s office or her treatment of candidates. Never.
Along with fairness, Gill stressed voter education. Her staff, particularly Patrick Thomas, who just left the elections office recently for the Key Training Center, showed up at every festival. They attended all the community candidate forums and Gill was a popular speaker.
One year Susan asked me to participate in a video she was producing at Fort Island Gulf Beach. It loosely had a “Survivor” theme, as much as you can go Survivor on voting practices. I say loosely because I’m pretty sure Susan wrote it. We acted out this thing at dusk with tiki torches, then met up at a restaurant later where Susan handed out Oscars to her actors.
She also was big on getting young folks interested in the elections. Gill was in the high schools, signing up new voters.
We were talking one day about involving high school students in the campaign process. From that we hatched a plan to have student-led forums for county commission, school board and superintendent where government and journalism classes showed up and grilled the candidates.
We became friends and debated election issues all the time. I’ve even forgiven her for moving the elections office from downtown Inverness to downtown Meadowcrest. By the way, name me another Citrus County politician who could have pulled that off without some public yelling.
Inverness once threatened to sue the county government if it moved the county commission offices to Lecanto, but no one said a peep when Gill left the quaint Coca-Cola building in Inverness, ending a decades long tradition of announcing election results in the county seat. They stood by because of their trust in Gill.
And now she’s retiring. Gill even set up an exit plan of sorts, throwing her full support behind Maureen “Mo” Baird, who has been at the elections office for so long she worked for Wilma Anderson. Baird won her first election outright in the primary, and it should be a smooth transition come January when she takes office.
Tuesday was Gill’s last election. A few of us were in the shiny new elections office when she announced at 7 p.m., “For the last time, the polls are now closed.” A little while later, the canvassing board started handing out the first set of results, which always come with an explanation. And I rarely hear the explanation because I’m looking at the results or taking pictures.
That’s what happened Tuesday.
“Of course, I heard none of what you just said,” I told her.
As we were talking, her staffer Bryce Hale snapped the photo that accompanies this column. I love this photo. It’s two old election types, getting to the meat of voter results, on yet another election night. We’ve had this conversation so many times. It saddens me we won’t have it again.
You see, we’re election geeks. There aren’t many like us. The results are not as important as the process because without a fair process, the results don’t matter.
Susan Gill made sure the election process worked well for Citrus County. She deserves our gratitude and well wishes for a deserved retirement.