Gulfport candidates draw stark contrasts

Published February 23 2018

GULFPORT — One candidate is a plain-spoken, straightforward technology consultant who preaches "conservative fiscal responsibility" and votes Republican in national elections.

The other is a self-proclaimed "progressive liberal" who practices law, promises to "ruffle feathers" and embraces Gulfport’s unofficial motto — "Keep Gulfport Weird" — as his campaign slogan.

When voters in this waterfront community of 12,400 go to the polls on March 13, there should be no confusing the candidates.

Dan Liedtke, 48, the technology consultant, is an incumbent seeking a fourth two-year term. The challenger is the lawyer, Bruce A. Plesser, 65.

For all their differences of mind and style, the men have run low-key, low-budget campaigns with only an occasional sharp elbow.

At stake is the Ward 1 seat on the City Council, which covers the southwest quadrant of the city.

The race in Ward 3, which covers the northwest quadrant, drew only one candidate, software engineer Paul Ray, who was declared the winner. Incumbent Yolanda Roman did not seek re-election.

Although candidates must live in the district they seek to represent, voting in council races is citywide. Council members, who make $10,800 a year, set policy and the annual budget for the city, but day-to-day management belongs to a city manager appointed by the council.

On paper at least, Liedtke might appear to be the underdog in a town that leans Democratic and celebrates quirkiness.

But as the button-down Republican notes on Facebook, "I don’t live in a red or blue world … I live in the real world."

In the world of Gulfport politics, City Council races are nonpartisan, and Liedtke has led a charmed life.

In his first campaign, in 2012, he won by just nine votes, and in his third, in 2016, by just 63. (In 2014, he was unopposed.)

"A win is a win," Liedtke said. "All I need to do is win by one vote."

A Minnesota native, Liedtke was raised in South Dakota by a single mother. He graduated from Texas State University in 1996 and became a business and information technology consultant in both the public and private sectors.

In 2003, he moved to Gulfport, where he became a consultant for Memorial Healthcare System. He decided to enter politics in 2012, he said, because the council spent "too much time dealing with trivial things like what kinds of patio furniture should be allowed on your front lawn."

As a council member, Liedtke has been a reliable vote for holding down taxes, improving the city marina, and updating sewers and infrastructure. He was the only "no" when the council voted last month to spend $97,390 to establish a municipal mooring field for boaters in Boca Ciega Bay.

If Liedtke is barely campaigning, Plesser may have found a way to campaign even less.

His only campaign expenditure is the $108 he had to pay to enter the race. He has refused donations, he said, and campaigning consists of posting observations on social media and telling people he encounters in his daily routine that he is running.

His platform, he said, is "to be the voice on the council who will represent Gulfport." He is running because he thinks he can make a difference.

Plesser grew up in New York, graduated from Emory University in Atlanta and law school at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1978 and then began a 40-year career as a lawyer.

For 10 years, he was a prosecutor on Long Island. Then he went into private practice, first in New York and then Florida in 2005. He has represented clients in criminal, personal injury, employee rights and family law, according to his LinkedIn page.

During a candidate forum last month, Plesser brought up a blemish on his record — a conviction on a DUI arrest in 2008. He completed 150 hours of community service and paid $1,082 in fees and costs, according to court records.

Gulfport police "know everybody’s name," Plesser said, and "they’ve always been fair to me, even when I was arrested for a DUI."

One of Liedtke’s council colleagues — Roman, the outgoing member — said she has "worked well" with him, but likes the "different perspective (and) diversity of thought" that Plesser would bring.

"I do think, and this is my sole opinion, that no candidate should be in the office of City Council as ongoing for years and years," Roman said. "Personally, I would like to see turnover."

But Mayor Sam Henderson endorses Liedtke.

"Even though Plesser and I are on the same side politically, I think there are a lot more important things to politics than" political party, Henderson said.

"Plesser tends to criticize things (on social media) before he understands the issue," Henderson said. "He instead seems to go off the cuff before he fully understands … The city would suffer with him in office."

Tim Fanning and Jeffrey Waitkevich are student journalists at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

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