There is Valleri Crabtree at the Rotary Club of Celebration. There she at Place for Grace in St. Cloud. There’s Crabtree at the Leadership Osceola reception, and the Osceola Council on Aging, and the Polk County Democratic Executive Committee, and the Poinciana Villages Community Meeting, and at a Fashion Square Mall festival, and at her congressional campaign booth at the Osceola County Fair.
And where is Dr. Dena Minning?
In the Democratic primary race for Florida’s Congressional District 9, considered a safe district for Democrats, two clear front-runners are waging very traditional campaigns, state Sen. Darren Soto and longtime political activist Susannah Randolph. They have their paid staffs, robust fundraising, growing lists of impressive endorsements, and close ties to their own wings of the Democratic Party establishment. And they have their sights set on each other.
But among the other Democrats running behind them in CD 9 are Crabtree and Minning, who are aggressively trying to grab big parts of this race with opposite campaign strategies. They’re positioning themselves for what could be a case study in how long shots might best become X-factors.
Crabtree, a businesswoman and college professor, is running an old-fashioned shoe-leather campaign.
She has no professional staff and almost no money. Yet, the former chair of the Osceola County Democratic Executive Committee says she averages a dozen appearances at public events a week. And she has been doing so almost nonstop since she became the first Democrat to enter the race in January 2015. If one-on-one face time counts for anything beyond money, Crabtree could have overflowing coffers.
“We’ve run a completely grassroots, meet-people, build-relationships, show-people-we-care, learn, hands-on, talking-to-our-future-constituents campaign,” Crabtree said.
Minning, a medical doctor who makes her living as a pharmaceutical research entrepreneur, is running a stealth campaign.
There are few (if any) reports of her spotted in the district, which includes much of south Orange County, all of Osceola County and parts of Polk County. She has never spoken to any Florida media, and her last news release with any news was the one that announced her candidacy back in July. Most of the other candidates say they have never met her.
Minning, the live-in, significant other to District 9’s incumbent Democratic U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, has all the other candidates on notice. She has managed to raise $150,000, and at the end of 2015, had a competitive $129,000 in the bank, about 60 percent of what either Soto or Randolph had on hand. Grayson is running for the U.S. Senate, and not for re-election.
To date, her campaign has rebuffed all requests for interviews even with staff, who asks for patience until the time is right.
“Thanks for your outreach. Dr. Dena is not conducting any interviews at this time, but looks forward to doing so in the future,” her staff member Shawn Shahzad stated in an email responding to a request Friday for an interview with her or anyone in her campaign
Several fundraising efforts have funded her campaign in Washington D.C., Massachusetts, New York, Missouri, and California. Online campaigns are targeting people in the pharmaceutical research and medical communities. Not including the money that she, Grayson, family members and Grayson’s political action committee have contributed to her campaign, she has raised only about $11,000 in Florida, most of it from outside CD 9.
For now, Minning’s presence in CD 9 has largely been limited. There is a post office box in the Hunter’s Creek community in south Orange County, as well as a rarely updated campaign website, and sporadic, brief emails and tweets, with the last on Jan. 23 — a picture of Grayson hugging her shoulders.
If Minning is a digital public presence in CD 9, Crabtree is a live one, and constant, walking parade routes, hanging out all day in festivals and attending any civic event she can.
It’s to the point, she said, where people in restaurants or events will tell her they saw her previously at an event. They’re not contributing money to her campaign, at least not in any significant numbers. She’s gotten 138 contributions totaling about $15,000 and has contributed $12,000 of her own money.
But Crabtree said she is attracting plenty of volunteers and promises of votes.
“Is it having an impact? Yes, we count the success of our campaign not by the number of dollars that we raise, even though of course it’s important to have money, but by the relationships we build and the number of people we have talked to,” she said.
Crabtree describes herself as a moderate Democrat. She doesn’t take PAC money or solicit endorsements, though, truthfully, Soto and Randolph are locking all of those up whether she wants them or not. She has no reason to believe she could beat Soto or Randolph, or perhaps to compete with Minning and her connections, except for all the hands she has shaken.
“I am very confident because I believe people see something in me that cares about them, and cares about what’s going on here, and is willing to take the time to listen, and learn and get involved,” she said. “I didn’t just start getting involved when I started running for office.
“I’ve been involved in things for years and years.”