A couple of weeks ago, Flagler County Clerk of Court Gail Wadsworth was on WNZF’s “Free For All Friday,” and she said she was planning to retire in December 2016, when she will be 71 years old, and would not seek re-election. She plans to support Tom Bexley, her second in command, to be the next clerk of court, and then she said something that raised an eyebrow or two in the studio: “I’m going to be his campaign manager.”
Typically, an elected official doesn’t manage someone else’s campaign while in office. In fact, it seems like trouble. So, I decided to go and ask Wadsworth and Bexley about it and get some clarification.
Gail and Tom
Wadsworth is a short woman with short, curly gray hair and round facial features. She’s been in her position since 2001 and comes from a family that has done great things in the county’s history. She also is charismatic and speaks softly in a way that makes you feel like you’re the only person in the room, as if she had been saving these words just for you.
Bexley is a tall man of medium build, with neatly parted dark brown hair. He has beady eyes, an angular nose and broad smile. He reminds me of Christopher Reeves as Clark Kent. When I visited him in Wadsworth’s office, he wore pale blue slacks, a white dress shirt and blue-and-yellow-striped socks with brown wingtips.
So, what exactly does Bexley do? His position title was changed a year or two ago from deputy clerk to chief operations officer, so that it would be easier for business people to relate to — all with the 2016 election in mind.
Why retire in 2016?
Wadsworth’s thought process began about six years ago. She saw a tendency for elected constitutional officers to stay in office too long. They get too old, and then “they’re not doing the work. … They’re just a figurehead.” And then, they lose the next election, and “what happens to the management team? They’re gone.” As a result, the institutional memory of the office is also gone. Wadsworth was impacted by some tongue-in-cheek advice from former County Commissioner John Seay: “It will take you a term to figure out, and a term to mess it up.” But that first part rang true for Wadsworth — it will take you a term to figure it out — and she didn’t want to leave the clerk’s office in the hands of someone without experience.
What’s so important about the clerk’s office?
The clerk’s job is important. The office processes mounds of paperwork (at least it used to before it went paperless, which is another complication) for the courts, but also monitors the budget and expenses for the county administration, verifying that every dollar spent matches the budget.
There are many more duties, and it’s only getting more complicated. In 2001, when Wadsworth was first elected, there were 962 statutory and constitutional duties of a clerk. Now, there are 1,268, she said. The population of the county has increased from about 48,000 to about 100,000 in the same timeframe. In the foreclosure mess a few years ago, Wadsworth said, her office’s workload skyrocketed from about 30 foreclosure filings a month to more than 200. Understaffed, she ended up processing some of the filings herself, working late, working weekends. She needed to find someone who would have that kind of dedication but also that kind of knowledge to take her place when she retired.
So, Wadsworth said, “I went looking for someone to be my successor — talked and talked and talked.” She had a hard time finding someone because people with the skills to be a county clerk usually can make much more money in the private sector. But Bexley was interested, and she hired him; he has been groomed ever since to take over for her when she retires.
“I really believe, especially in this office that’s got a dozen or more hats, you can’t just walk away,” Wadsworth said. “You have to train a successor.”
Distractions of a campaign?
So, Wadsworth found her man in Bexley, and he’s been in training ever since, leading up to next year’s election. And, more than a year before the qualifying period even opens, Bexley has already filed to run for the clerk’s seat. As I sat in Wadsworth’s office, I asked her about the idea of being campaign manager at the same time as being clerk, and she appeared to be a bit more hesitant than she was on the radio a couple of weeks earlier.
“It’s called a figurehead,” she said. “He’ll have lots of people outside of this office working on the campaign. What am I?” she asked Bexley. “Your biggest supporter? I think I’m the figurehead.”
Bexley had just gotten off the phone. In fact, it was one of three or four times in our hour-long conversation when he received phone calls of this nature: “Thanks! Yes, I’ve prefiled, so things are becoming exciting.” The campaign was apparently well under way.
I asked Bexley the same question: Why Wadsworth as campaign manager? Couldn’t that be seen as a distraction from her duties as an elected officer?
He thought about it for a moment, and then said, “We can’t help who we are. … I assure you we keep the campaign completely separate. It’s not fair to the people she pays and who pay us” — meaning the clerk’s employees and the taxpayers in the county, respectively.
This campaign-related conversation was happening in the middle of the workday, when he had been taking his campaign-related congratulatory phone calls, and so, the irony was thick. Bexley spotted it, too, and said with a laugh, “So, right now, we’re breaking the rules.”
It was a funny moment, but also indicative of the possibility that this kind of campaigning could continue in the future in that office, at all times of the week. To be fair, it was also an unusually buoyant moment because the campaign had just been officially launched, so it should be expected that some calls would come in.
Wadsworth pointed out that, for her campaigns in the past, “meetings on my behalf were held outside of this office.”
The question resurfaced: So, is Wadsworth the official campaign manager?
Now, Bexley dove in. He said: “Absolutely, and I’m proud to have her as such. Will she do the ins and outs every day? Probably not. She’s got a full-time job. We have others who can help. But I think it speaks volumes for somebody to have the admiration and support of their boss when they run for office. I don’t think it looks or feels any better than that. I think she’s putting an exclamation point on it by volunteering to be the campaign manager.”
Wadsworth beamed. She said, “Awesome statement, Mr. Bexley.”
Over the past five or six years, Wadsworth and Bexley — and the courts manager, Rick Blaine, who is also involved in the campaign and was present at this interview — have developed a close relationship.
“We’re a lot closer than just boss-staff person,” Bexley said of Wadsworth. “We’re friends. We hang out on weekends and things. When I have problem that I choose not to talk to my mother or father about, I go to Gail.”
‘Best of both worlds’
In a tight-knit group like that, is there such a thing as too much loyalty? Who is there to tell you if you’re going in the wrong direction?
The loyalty isn’t a problem, Wadsworth said. “I would say that everybody in here has always enjoyed that we think outside the box. And we have some really constructive arguments, and they’re fun. But everybody in here has a different task, if you will. It’s the leader’s job to bring them together when there’s something new out there on the horizon. … Though we have a team, we have a team that does really well together. Nobody’s really restricted anybody on this team from saying, ‘I think you’re wrong.’”
Bexley added: “I think you’re getting the best of both worlds. In an office like this, you hear everybody saying, ‘We’ve got to vote the incumbents out.’ But let’s be practical. You’ve got to have some level of continuity in government.” If the county elects him, Bexley said, “You’re getting the benefit of changing the incumbency to a new, fresh face, but you’re keeping some level of continuity. If you bring a new man or woman into this office, from scratch, God help them. It takes two years to have any confidence in what you’re doing.”
When an incumbent retires, there are sure to be challengers, and Bexley said he fully expects there to be a primary as well as a runoff in the general election in 2016. But, with Wadsworth’s help — exactly how much help is yet to be seen — Bexley will be ready. By one measure, at least, he has been preparing for this campaign for the past six years.