Matt Willhite taps firefighter union cash to haul in $54K in March for Palm Beach Commission bid
TALLAHASSEE, FLA. 3/4/22-Rep. Matt Willhite, D-Wellington, speaks against HB1197 restricting the ability of unions to have their membership dues withdrawn from employee paychecks, Friday at the Capitol in Tallahassee. COLIN HACKLEY PHOTO

Just $12,000 separates Matt Willhite and first-place fundraiser Michelle Oyola McGovern in a Palm Beach Commission race.

With a $54,000 haul consisting mostly of firefighter union dollars, Rep. Matt Willhite edged closer last month to retaking first place in a four-way fundraising push for the Palm Beach County Commission seat representing District 6.

Willhite held $275,000 between his campaign account and political committee, Floridians for Public Safety, as of March 31. About $70,000 of that is money left over from previous fundraising pushes for the House seat he’s vacating in November.

Even though she raised less than Willhite did last month, Baptist Health Government and Community Relations Director Michelle Oyola McGovern, a fellow Democrat and longtime head staffer for former U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, still holds a $12,000 lead in the contest.

They face Primary opponent Sylvia Sharps, a county water utility grant writer and prior Palm Beach Commission candidate. Sharps trails a distant third in overall funds raised.

The winner of that contest will square off against real estate agent Sara Baxter, the sole Republican in the race, to determine who will replace Commissioner Melissa McKinlay on the county dais. McKinlay, who has endorsed McGovern as her preferred successor, must leave office in November due to term limits.

Of Willhite’s March gains, $50,000 came from one source: the Professional Firefighters/Paramedics of Palm Beach County, a local union to which he belongs.

Willhite is an active firefighter and paramedic, and he’s enjoyed healthy support from organizations backing his profession. Since he filed to run for the County Commission last April, that union alone has donated $67,000 to his political committee, accounting for 59% of its intake the past year.

Over that same period, several other firefighter organizations, including the Jacksonville Association of Firefighters, Miami Firefighters, Dade County Firefighters, Florida Professional Firefighters and the International Association of Firefighters contributed a combined $7,000, not counting any donations individual firefighters made.

Fifteen people last month gave Willhite checks ranging from $10 to $1,000.

The Belle Glade-based Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida gave $500.

Willhite spent $1,300 in March. All but $100 of it went to Democratic voter database NGP Van for “voter access.”

McGovern, meanwhile, amassed $34,000 between her campaign account and Team McGovern, a political committee she shares with her husband, Wellington Village Councilman John McGovern, who won re-election March 8. Since launching her campaign last April, she has raised more than $300,000. She still had $287,000 as of March 31.

Baxter took a distant third place in fundraising last month with just $2,400, roughly half of what she spent that period.

She held just shy of $16,000 as of March 31.

Most of the funds Baxter took in last month came through individual donations. Eight people gave her checks ranging from $25 to $1,000.

Conservative political committee Keep Florida Red gave Baxter $500.

One private business, Wellington-based Florida Interventional Pain Management, donated $50.

Baxter spent about $5,000 in March. Of that, $3,000 was a self-reimbursement.

Almost $1,200 went toward various campaign costs — Facebook advertising, email marketing, donation processing fees and event and food expenses for an event at Renegades Country Bar & Grill in West Palm Beach.

Another $550 went to Temple Terrace-based consultant Melissa Moore.

Sharps’ campaign has raised nearly $13,000 since its onset, including $1,300 collected in March.

She had about $8,500 left after spending $580 last month on booths at a pair of local events, advertisements and website costs.

All but $300 of her gains last month came from real estate development firm NDT.

Three people donated a combined $170. Lantana-based restaurant company JC’s Tall Glass gave another $100.

The Palm Beach County Commission in December approved a new map for the 2022 election. District 6 underwent minor changes, but boundaries remained largely similar to the current setup.

Candidates faced a Monday deadline to report all campaign finance activity through March 31.

Jesse Scheckner

Jesse Scheckner has covered South Florida with a focus on Miami-Dade County since 2012. His work has been recognized by the Hearst Foundation, Society of Professional Journalists, Florida Society of News Editors, Florida MMA Awards and Miami New Times. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner.


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