Michelle Oyola McGovern wins PBC Commission battle that hit $1M spending

The chief rivals' campaigns collectively spent nearly a quarter million in the last 12-day stretch reaching until Thursday.

Michelle Oyola McGovern defeated Rep. Matt Willhite in a Palm Beach County Commission Democratic Primary, denying Willhite a return to local politics.

The race spurred a battle royal believed to be one of the most expensive county-level races in Palm Beach history.

With all precincts reporting, McGovern secured 57% of the vote compared to 33% for Willhite. Another Democrat in the race, Sylvia Sharps, trailed at 11%.

If she gets past the Republican in the General Election — a likelihood — McGovern will be representing an agricultural swath on the Commission, geographically the largest of the county’s seven districts. It covers the area from the western suburbs of West Palm Beach to the sugar cane fields of Glades.

McGovern and Willhite had been neck-and-neck in the money race for the seat, trading the leading position a few times. As the last leg of the campaign ran out, the latest reports show the campaigns collectively spent nearly a quarter of a million dollars in the 12 days between Aug. 6 and Thursday: $225,523. That brings the total spent in this campaign to nearly $1.15 million. Earlier this month, The Palm Beach Post declared it one of the most expensive Commission races in history.

The campaign produced the rare sight of County Commission campaign ads airing on local TV.

Palm Beach County Commissioners earn a salary of $101,000 and a term of four years. The contest to fill this seat turned nasty according to the Post. The two candidates have traded accusations about where they are getting their funding.

McGovern, in particular, pointed out that the majority of Willhite’s donations — 70% — have come from the firefighters’ union that negotiates with the Commission for its contract. Willhite counters McGovern has taken a large chunk from developers who will be in front of the Commission asking for land development approvals.

The conflict Willhite will have if he gets elected was an issue in the Sun-Sentinel’s endorsement for McGovern. But the Palm Beach Post gave Willhite its endorsement, citing his more detailed grasp of issues facing this agricultural swath of Palm Beach County.

The seat came open because Commissioner Melissa McKinlay is term-limited for representing the district that is the largest geographically among the Commission’s seven districts. It stretches from the cane fields of the Glades to western suburbs of West Palm Beach, down to west Boynton Beach.

Willhite is a three-term Representative who first served on the Wellington Village Council, a body that McGovern’s husband now serves on. Meanwhile, McGovern, who works as a hospital administrator, was in her first bid for elected office, but no stranger to politics. She served as Nelson’s chief aide for 18 years, serving as a go-between for his office and the Palm Beach County community.

The campaign included dramatic turns such as when former Wellington Mayor Bob Margolis switched his endorsement for the Commission seat from Willhite to McGovern.

McGovern will face Republican Sara Baxter, a real estate agent, in November.

Anne Geggis

Anne Geggis is a South Florida journalist who began her career in Vermont and has worked at the Sun-Sentinel, the Daytona Beach News-Journal and the Gainesville Sun covering government issues, health and education. She was a member of the Sun-Sentinel team that won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Parkland high school shooting. You can reach her on Twitter @AnneBoca or by emailing [email protected].


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