What it’s like inside the political bubble

Villagers know them now as familiar faces at rec centers, club meetings and golf courses. But in their pre-retirement lives, they were the faces on campaign fliers, in TV commercials and at debates. 

Tuesday’s elections have dominated the airwaves and social media as Florida’s governor and Senate races come down to the wire, both basically tied in the latest polls. As the election season approached a fever pitch, more than a dozen Villages residents who have experienced campaigns from the inside opened up about the triumphs and frustrations of the political life.

Before moving to The Villages, they were state representatives, mayors, members of school boards and city councils, campaign staffers and party officials — some on the ballot, some behind the scenes.  

They know what it’s like to get dragged through the mud. To have family members ridiculed and even threatened. To scramble day and night to raise money. To feel the pressure mount in the closing days of a political campaign. To lose.  

They also know what it’s like to come out on top. To make sacrifices for the good of others by answering the tug of civic duty. To be tested in ways average citizens don’t experience. To gain hard-won insights about their communities — and themselves. 

Some say they are done with the political life. Others still hear the call.

Jane and Bob Gallucci

Village Rio Grande

Jane served three terms on the Pinellas County school board

Jane Gallucci ran for a school board position after being ignored. She worked as a guidance counselor in a newly opened elementary school in Pinellas County. The school opened with a flaw in its air filtration system, she says, and students and teachers kept getting sick. When a student left a jacket in Gallucci’s office over the summer, she returned to find the jacket covered in green fuzzy mold.

Her concerns about the air were brushed off. Frustrated, Jane spoke to her husband, Bob, about finding a way to fix the issue herself. His advice: “Put your money where your mouth is and run for the school board,’” Jane said. “So I did.”

Running for office meant essentially shuttering the Kinko’s dealership the Galluccis ran so they could focus on her campaign. They would also spend about $25,000 of their own money over the course of her political career. “The campaign is all encompassing,” Bob said.

Jane was shocked when she won. “In those races, you don’t have money for polling,” she said, “so you really don’t have a clue.”

Jane served on the school board for 12 years. She was involved in several controversial decisions, and both she and Bob got heated feedback.

“(When) someone gives you a $25 donation, they think they own you,” Bob said.

Some people went to great lengths to tell her how much they disliked her views. Once, while Jane was out of town on business, a man called the house repeatedly. He was trying to reach her, and when he didn’t get her, he threatened both her and Bob.

“Even today, I don’t pick up the phone,” Bob said.

When Jane ran for re-election, her opponents didn’t pull any punches. She saw targeted attacks against her and her family. Detractors left hurtful, derogatory, anonymous comments on local blogs, including one run by a large newspaper. “It’s nasty business, and you can understand why people say they don’t want to get involved with politics, because it’s gotten worse,” Jane said. “You really have to compartmentalize, because it’ll eat you up. You have to stop reading it. You have to have a strong support system.”

The comments often focused on topics like what she wore, her husband’s business, and their two sons. “It got bad when they went after my kids,” Jane said.

But seeing the district’s students grow up and start their lives was her reward. “I got to see phenomenal kids, kids turn themselves around, volunteers helping the kids,” Jane said.

Bob is proud of what Jane accomplished.

“Someone’s got to help the kids,” Bob said. “It’s really a thankless job, but she hung in there.”

Bob Nyce

Village El Cortez

Served in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives

Bob Nyce entered politics after he was insulted by his state representative. Nyce was a Republican in a heavily Democratic part of Pennsylvania.

“He told me he didn’t have any time for me,” Nyce said. “So I decided to run against him.”

Nyce went door to door when he campaigned, but he also went to fairs to reach as many people as he could and called voters after dinner. “People were astounded the candidate would call and talk to them,” Nyce said.

To help his campaign, Nyce focused on a general sense of being there in person for the voters. He ran in a rural district, where a mountain made it more difficult to reach some people, and the incumbent didn’t try to talk to those voters at all, Nyce said.

“That personal contact is what won the election for me,” Nyce said. “No one thought I could win.”

The hardest part was asking people to donate to his campaign. “I’m an independent guy,” Nyce said. “I never asked anyone for anything.”

The campaign needed more than just financial contributions, though. Nyce also needed volunteers to help him reach voters, to help him distribute fliers and help him on Election Day. “It takes a lot of gumption to ask your friends to stand outside a polling place on Election Day and hand out brochures,” Nyce said.

Charles Wright

Village of Hemingway

Political organizer in South Florida

For Charles Wright, being an African-American man in the South was inherently political. Wright became active in politics in the early ’60s, during the civil rights movement.

“We become, out of necessity, activists and politicians,” Wright said. “You have to seek solutions for survival.”

Wright realized people were going to be elected no matter what happened, and those people may or may not have his community’s best interests in mind. He started working in politics to ensure he and his community had a say in what was going on.

“You have to be mindful that no matter what you do at the grassroots level, if you don’t have people in office, policy won’t be enacted,” Wright said.

Wright never wanted to be the person in office, but he had a talent for speaking well and persuasively, so he used those talents to help others get elected, both as a volunteer and as a paid consultant and helped manage campaigns in South Florida.

One of the big challenges for Wright was managing the candidates themselves. Wright helped plan the logistical parts of a campaign — including making sure the candidate got to where he needed to be at the time he needed to be there. Punctuality is the most basic way a candidate can prove themselves, he said.

“It’s all part of a good candidate: How well can they follow through on what they’re going to do,” Wright said. “If (they) can’t deliver on this little thing, how can (they) deliver on something like health care or climate change?”

Joe Sidoti

Village of Fenney

City Council member in Coon Rapids, Minnesota

Joe Sidoti won three terms as a city council member in Coon Rapids, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis.

One of the goals he wanted to accomplish in office was changing the town’s name, which has benign origins but unfortunate racial overtones. No one in town used the town’s name in their address — they all preferred to use Minneapolis instead — and few of the town’s businesses reflected the town’s name, either.    

Despite this, Sidoti faced significant pushback against his effort to improve the town’s image, and the town’s name remains the same.

Sidoti hasn’t gotten involved in politics since he came to The Villages, but he’s considered it. He feels he has a lot to learn, though. The area around The Villages is a lot more rural than where he came from.

Additionally, politics took a lot of time and energy — both of which could be spent doing other activities, like playing a sport or being part of a social group.

“It’s kind of nice being on the outside looking in,” he said.

Dan Schrank

Village La Reynalda

Republican Party chairman in Rye, New York

Dan Schrank ran five local campaigns as the chairman of the Republican Party in Rye, New York. He also ran his own campaign when he ran for the state assembly.

He found fundraising the most difficult part. “If you don’t have money, it’s very difficult to run a campaign,” Schrank said.

He also didn’t like making attack ads against his opponents. Instead, Schrank ran ads — both for other peoples’ campaigns and his own — that  focused on the positive aspects of the candidate he was supporting.

“When you’re active (in politics), you see things you might not like,” Schrank said. “I got involved to change things.”

Schrank’s opponents weren’t always the people in a different political party, though. There was a lot of infighting within his own party as people vied for power. “It’s not an easy way to run a business,” he said.

Larry Gilbert

Village of La Belle

Mayor of Lewiston, Maine

Larry Gilbert served his hometown of Lewiston, Maine for decades before he ran for mayor. Gilbert spent 25 years in the town’s police department, where he introduced community-based policing. He also spent eight years as the U.S. marshal for the District of Maine, and was associate director of the Maine Community Policing Institute.

“I wanted to continue to serve my community,” he said.

The mayor’s race was nonpartisan. Gilbert, a lifelong Democrat, was elected with the help of both Democrats and Republicans. During his term in office, he used his office to support other members of the community. He also worked with asylum seekers and refugees who settled in Lewiston.

“We don’t realize how fortunate we are, that we don’t have to flee our country for our safety,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert also worked with current U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, while he was in office.

“I never imposed my politics on her, but if she asked my opinion, I would give it to her,” Gilbert said.

Paul Tesanovich

Village of Pine Ridge

Served in the Michigan House of Representatives

Bipartisanship also was a big part of Paul Tesanovich’s political experience. He represented Michigan’s 110th district in the state House from 1994 through 2000.

He won in a special election and came into office during an unusual time in Michigan’s history. The House of Representatives was split evenly down the middle of the aisle. During that legislative session, the House had co-speakers, one from each party. The parties needed to work together to get anything done.

The tie didn’t last — during the next election, Republicans took the majority, and politics returned to normal. One of the lessons Tesanovich learned during his first session, though, was how to argue politics without making it personal.

“When you treat people with respect, you keep any disagreement to the issue,” Tesanovich said. “That way, even if you don’t convince them, you don’t lose the opportunity to convince them next time.”

Tesanovich also learned how to propose ideas so other people not only supported them but thought the idea originated with them. He represented a very small, somewhat remote area, and if he wanted to get anything done he needed to have the support of fellow legislators who had more pull than he did. “Who gets the credit doesn’t matter,” Tesanovich said.

Letty Hernes

Village of Hillsborough

Town supervisor of Putnam Valley, New York

Letty Hernes had a rough time when she entered politics. Hernes decided to run for town supervisor in Putnam Valley, New York. To campaign, she reached out to people and put ads in the town’s Penny Saver.

“It was a lot of hard work, going door to door,” Hernes said. “People would give you two or three minutes of their time.”

During those few minutes, Hernes had to sell them on her experience as an attorney in New York City, her education and her goals. “It wasn’t like you had an opinion about abortion or immigration,” Hernes said. “Our town had a small budget, and we had to figure out how to keep the parks and rec department open.”

Another issue was the police department: Hernes thought the department was corrupt and wanted to outsource law enforcement to the county sheriffs. The opinion wasn’t popular with the police department. Hernes installed security cameras to prevent any potential setups that might discredit her. She won her election, but the role was stressful. She ran town meetings, set the agendas and created the budget.

“The first day I was in office, everyone in town called to tell me they voted for me ... and that they had a problem they needed me to solve,” Hernes said.

The stress took a toll on Hernes’ relationships. She was away from most of her family and friends, and her then-partner left. Hernes was elected to a two-year term, but after a year in the position she left.

Dan McCarthy

Village of Pennecamp

Political organizer in Maryland

When Dan McCarthy got into politics, he couldn’t be an active face in the campaigns. He was a spokesman for the Maryland State Police, and he legally couldn’t have a visible role. Instead he did a lot of behind-the-scenes work. He knocked on doors, asked people if the campaign could put signs in their yard, and he recruited volunteers. After he left the Maryland State Police, he also wrote position papers for campaigns.

“Everyone’s interests are different, depending on what you’re campaigning for,” McCarthy said. “When you’re running for city council, you’re talking about trash collection and schools, the quality of life. When you’re running for governor, the discussion turns to taxes.”

Politics have changed a lot, in McCarthy’s view, and it’s not just the amount of money in politics. The internet made a significant difference in how people approach politics. Today, people can get up-to-date information about what’s going on as it’s happening. Social media lets candidates connect to voters in ways that weren’t possible before.

McCarthy says politics has become a much more sensitive topic for many. “You can’t have a dinner party and talk politics,” McCarthy said. “I don’t think it’s healthy. I don’t think it’s a good thing. This year, Thanksgiving might be hell for a lot of folks.”

David Rines

Village of Dunedin

Executive director of the New Hampshire Republican Party

David Rines was a political science major when he graduated college. He worked on campaigns from 1975 to 1984, and in 1980, he was the executive director of the New Hampshire Republican Party. A lot of his job was organization and fundraising. Rines, of the Village of Dunedin, also organized polling, which gave campaigns a better idea of which voters to target.

Rines focused on six key races in a state Senate race. Before the election, the Senate was split 12-12 between Republicans and Democrats. Under Rines’ leadership, his party won five of those six key races and gave the GOP a 14-10 advantage.

In 1976, Rines was the campaign scheduler for Gov. Meldrim Thomson Jr.’s first successful re-election campaign.

Despite his experience, Rines left politics for better-paying work in economic development. Campaigns had spending limits, which meant most of the money raised in any race went to marketing and printing materials. “I was married with two small children,” Rines said. “I had to pay the bills.”

Rines has been out of politics for more than 30 years, and he’s not going back. “I have to be either all in or stay out,” Rines said. “It’s all consuming for me.”

Robert Buhlmann

Village of Pinellas

Republican Party chairman and political candidate in Rockland County, New York

Robert Buhlmann did get back into politics after he retired. Buhlmann ran three times, for three different positions in the early ’70s. He was the chairman of the local Republican Party in Suffern, New York, which was a Democratic stronghold.

He didn’t win his campaigns, but he met Ronald Reagan before he became president. Buhlmann dropped out of politics after his campaigns were finished, but he got involved again when he came to The Villages. Donna Kempa is the supervisor for Community Development District 6, and Buhlmann plays softball with her husband. He volunteered to help Kempa’s campaign by giving out brochures at mailboxes.

Buhlmann said reaching voters can be hard, even in The Villages. “Sometimes when you go door to door, people don’t like it,” Buhlmann said.

Cindy Grossman

Village of Caroline

Political volunteer/organizer in The Villages

Cindy Grossman started working on political campaigns while she was in college.

“I believe it’s a part of democracy,” Grossman said. “Not just contributing funds, which are badly needed, but putting in legwork.”

She still volunteers with political campaigns. Grossman organized a recent golf cart parade, where Villagers in approximately 250 golf carts came out to show their support for Democratic candidates.

Over the phone, Grossman uses her experiences to connect with others as she phone banks for candidates. She uses her experience with health care to talk about candidates’ proposed policies. By talking to others about her own personal experience, Grossman finds it easier to have conversations with people about complex issues.

“We talk about politics like football, my side versus your side,” Grossman said. “Politics isn’t about my side versus your side. It’s about one side has a good solution to a very pressing problem.”

Jerry Van Luven

Village of Poinciana

Political volunteer in South Florida

Jerry Van Luven volunteered off and on through her life, but she found more time to be political in her retirement. Van Luven is a former teacher who started working in politics in South Florida in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

She never felt the call to go into politics, but she believed in the causes and wanted to help out how she could. Van Luven phone banks for campaigns and she puts together material for people who are going door to door. “(I’m) happy to support people who have that passion,” Van Luven said.

Hugh Gibson

Village of Tall Trees

Mayor of Lady Lake; Florida House of Representatives

Hugh Gibson also became more political in his retirement. He worked with political figures during his career as a fire chief in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, but Gibson didn’t become a politician himself until after he retired. Gibson worked as a town commissioner and then mayor for Lady Lake, and went on to serve four terms in the Florida Legislature.

He didn’t have much experience with public speaking before he went into politics, but Gibson learned to be better. During his last term in the Legislature, Gibson had a debate with his opponent. “We were both congenial to each other,” Gibson said. “We didn’t get nasty.”

One of the accomplishments he’s proudest of was using his position to cut the red tape that would have otherwise kept The Villages Regional Hospital from being built when it was. Before then, residents had to go to Leesburg or Ocala if they needed medical attention.

“The community needed it desperately,” Gibson said.

Amber Hair is a staff writer with The Villages Daily Sun. She can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5284, or amber.hair@thevillagesmedia.com.