Tension boil between Byron Donalds, Collier School Board candidate in public outbursts

Lichter Donalds
Kelly Lichter and a local charter school filed a federal lawsuit against the Congressman's wife.

Tension between U.S. Rep. Byron Donalds and a Collier County School Board candidate continues to play out in court. Now, video of heated exchanges between the Congressman and Kelly Lichter, and between Lichter’s husband and a member of Donalds’ staff, had generated new attention.

One video published by NBC-2 shows Donalds at Seed to Table in Naples erupting at Lichter on Aug. 23, the night both enjoyed successes in local Primary Elections.

A video lasting two minutes and 19 seconds mostly shows Donalds, with staffers Jesse Purdon and Larry Wilcoxson, speaking inaudibly with Lichter in a corner of the store.

The conversation references a lawsuit brought by Lichter and other board members of Mason Classical Academy against, among other entities, Erika Donalds, president and CEO of Optima Domi, and U.S. Rep. Donalds’ wife.

Then, Lichter walks away and can be heard shouting, “Have your wife tell the truth. She knows what she did.”

After a brief exchange, Donalds shouted, “You want to end it? Stop the lawsuits, Kelly. Stop that. How about that?”

“Tell your wife,” Lichter responded.

“Tell her what? She doesn’t want to do this anymore. I’m telling you,” he said.

“Tell the truth,” Lichter shouted back. “That’s not true. He knows the truth. I want your wife to tell the truth.”

There’s inaudible cross talk before Donalds said, “Don’t do it in court. Do it right now.”

Conflict between the Donalds and Lichter families, who at one point were all involved with Mason Classical Academy, has surfaced in public before. Lichter in 2020, while then-state Rep. Byron Donalds ran for Congress in a crowded GOP field for an open seat, filed an ethics complaint saying the lawmaker had lied in applications for licenses and appointments in the state.

Donalds said he learned of the latest federal lawsuit midday on Election Day. When he saw Lichter at Seed to Table, he said he wanted to talk to her about the matter face-to-face.

“As a husband, I’m going to defend my wife and my family,” Donalds said.

Of note, representatives from Donalds’ Office said they provided NBC-2 with an on-the-record statement about the matter, and an email sent from the office to the network reflects as much. But the outlet reported the Congressman did not respond to requests for comment.

Lichter paints a different picture from Donalds. She said she was at Seed to Table with her family and celebrating election results. She was among candidates supported by the grocer’s owner, Alfie Oakes.

In the Primary election, she advanced to a runoff for a Collier County School Board seat for District 3. The same night, Donalds won the Republican nomination as he seeks a second term in Congress. Lichter hoped to enjoy a celebratory atmosphere at the market.

“Instead, Byron is threatening me, saying he is going to crush me and to drop the lawsuits,” she said. “My response was to have his wife tell the truth. Let the courts handle this.”

The evening marked just one captivating conflict caught on video in recent weeks involving the two Collier County politicians. NBC-2 also showed footage of a reportedly rowdy meeting of the Collier County Republican Executive Committee (REC).

The REC has endorsed Lichter for the seat on the School Board, but Donalds spoke at the event to voice why he cannot support her.

“I objected to the REC being supportive of somebody who is filing frivolous lawsuits against my wife,” he said.

Erika Donalds recently told WINK News, regarding the lawsuit, “This is a frivolous lawsuit that is a waste of taxpayer dollars.”

Multiple pieces of video show Wilcoxson, Donalds’ staffer, standing up to confront Nick Lichter, the School Board candidate’s husband. An argument escalated to the point where Sheriff’s deputies present stood between the men. One camera view shows Donalds coming over to Wilcoxson, touching him near his shoulder and telling him to calm down.

Nick Lichter said the dispute arose after Donalds made a motion for the REC to withdraw its support of Kelly Lichter in the School Board race.

“I made a point of order requesting that Mrs. Lichter be allotted 3 minutes to also speak on the Congressman’s motion,” Nick Lichter said. “After which, I heard Mr. Wilcoxson yell from across the room to me saying, ‘Now you got something to say?’ I recall standing up and saying, ‘Yes I do!’

“Larry then aggressively charged towards me trying to bum rush through several brave Veterans who quickly came to my defense and prevented him from physically harming me. I am grateful to Sergeant (Michael) DePaolo, the Collier County Sheriff’s Office, and the brave Veterans at the VFW for protecting me.”

Wilcoxson later issued a lengthy statement on Facebook apologizing for the incident. He noted he was wearing a T-shirt promoting incumbent School Board Member Jen Mitchell, Kelly Lichter’s opponent. “I apologize for my part of the disruption and melee,” he wrote. “It’s only fair one can support whomever without the threats and disrespectful nature.”

Donalds said he apologized that evening at the REC for Wilcoxson’s behavior. “It should not have happened, and I told him it will not happen again,” Donalds said. But he also described Wilcoxson as practically a “big brother” to his wife, and said he has taken the “chaos” brought by the Lichters on the Donalds family personally.

Kelly Lichter, who was also at the meeting, describes the event as one more moment in a series of personal attacks. She considered the entire conflict “staged” and a setup to spur her husband to act out inappropriately. “But both times when confronted by Byron and Larry, Nick composed himself very professionally,” she said.

Donalds is the one who turned private matters into public incidents, she argued. “It’s unfortunate he is putting personal issues at the forefront,” she said, “but then again, Byron has always been about Byron.”

She defended taking legal action on behalf of Mason, and said she never personally or financially gained from advocacy for the school. Erika Donalds, a former Collier County School Board member, has become one of the most prominent school choice advocates in Florida and made management of charter schools a career.

Rep. Donalds believes the episodes verify that Lichter remains unfit for public office. “I thought she was unsuited to be on the School Board before this,” he said.

Both said that it’s students and children attending the charter schools with which they are associated who remain most affected by the litigation.

Jacob Ogles

Jacob Ogles has covered politics in Florida since 2000 for regional outlets including SRQ Magazine in Sarasota, The News-Press in Fort Myers and The Daily Commercial in Leesburg. His work has appeared nationally in The Advocate, Wired and other publications. Events like SRQ’s Where The Votes Are workshops made Ogles one of Southwest Florida’s most respected political analysts, and outlets like WWSB ABC 7 and WSRQ Sarasota have featured his insights. He can be reached at [email protected].


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