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Citizen to candidate

A passion for the preservation of Pass-a-Grille leads Rachel Crepeau into a race that will test her nerves and her stamina. What's it like to step into the heat of a political campaign?

Fifteen minutes before the first speech of her life, Rachel Crepeau drove her white Oldsmobile Regency Ninety-Eight into the community center parking lot.

She glanced across the street to Pass-a-Grille Community Church, where she and Jack married 29 years ago. He would have been here, she knew.

There were four cars in the lot, none of them familiar, so she waited. She didn't want to walk through the doors without seeing a friendly face.

She lowered the Olds' air conditioner to 73 and fanned her face. The limelight was about to shine. She felt the heat.

She had volunteered in local campaigns, fought to preserve Pass-a-Grille's historic designation and picketed City Hall for a worker who had accused the city manager of sexual harassment. But her political involvement always had been in the name of others.

This night she would proclaim to a room of strangers why she wanted to step out from her private life as an innkeeper, mother of two grown children and a widow.

She had to pronounce publicly why she wanted to represent Pass-a-Grille and Vina Del Mar on the St. Pete Beach City Commission. This first speech wouldn't be pretty.

Rachel was entering a new world and she soon would find that, even in the neighborhoods of St. Pete Beach, politics is politics.

It was Feb. 25, two weeks before the election.

Rachel wore a black suit, her only suit. Her hair was neatly styled. Her makeup, natural. Her nails were freshly manicured for shaking hands with people. Beneath it all, her uneasiness churned.

In many ways, she was like the city she wanted to represent. Both were coming to grips with change.

The future is creeping in on the city's past. There are Cracker houses and towering condominiums, bed and breakfast inns and sprawling resorts, cozy dives and grand restaurants. They are competing interests.

The divide in Pass-a-Grille, a nationally registered historic district, is between those who want to preserve and those who want to develop.

"There are definitely two parties in St. Pete Beach, and it's not the Democrats and Republicans," says Linda Rockwell, Rachel's campaign treasurer.

Enter Rachel, a 14-year resident and businesswoman who wanted to keep Pass-a-Grille as it was and to fill her life with activity since the death of her husband a year before. She was a reserved woman who looked down when she laughed, but she laughed often.

It was Tony Mather who asked Rachel to run. They had met a decade ago while working on a historic preservation committee. Tony's wife fixed Rachel's hair.

"She was squeaky clean," Tony said, noting that a past free of controversy was important.

About the worst misstep Rachel could recall was speeding. Police have been known to follow her home and wag their finger at her for driving too fast.

Her businesses, the Quebec Apartments and the Sunset View Guesthouse, were successful. Her children were grown. She had the time, the energy, the desire. Why not?

Her opponent was Augie D'Alessio, 72, a retired New York City court official, community volunteer and political junkie. And much the opposite of Rachel, he spoke with ease and passion.

At commission meetings, Augie frequently gave his opinions in lengthy orations that were interrupted by timekeepers. If you mentioned the name Augie around the city, civic-minded folks would nod in recognition.

He knew almost everything happening in the city and had the paperwork to prove it. But some residents, including Rachel, believed Augie would be easier on developers and usher in a newness they wanted to keep out of their quiet neighborhood.

The afternoon of the debate, she spent three hours cramming on the issues and answering questions from Tony, an engineer who was managing his first campaign.

What did she think about increasing sewer rates?

Building a new City Hall?

Replacing the Pinellas Bayway bridge?

At 6:55 p.m., Rachel left the cocoon of her white Oldsmobile and walked inside the community center. She was alone, her only companions a black bag at her side and eyeglasses hanging from her neck.

Augie, wearing rose-colored glasses, set the room abuzz with his personality. He extended his hand to Rachel, and they hugged with one arm each, a greeting reserved for acquaintances. The stocky man loved kayaking and bicycling, but his passion for outdoor activities was nothing compared with his affinity for civic involvement.

Rachel, admittedly a touchy-feely person, didn't mind the contact. Though Augie claimed Rachel as a friend, she said they hardly knew each other except for chance meetings at community events.

The opponents moved to opposite ends of a metal table. The audience numbered about 20. Rachel, cherubic face with short, curly hair the color of sand, fiddled with her reading glasses. Augie thumbed through stacks of folders bursting with notes, official documents, letters about community issues. He brought a library.

Tony sat in the middle of the audience, in clear eyeshot, wearing a T-shirt: I'm voting for Rachel.

Pass-a-Grille Community Association president Lolly Kreider flipped a quarter 3 feet into the air to see who would speak first.

Rachel called heads.

Tails.

Augie gave a three-minute overview of his resume and how he moved from the great state of New York four years ago after his grandson started school at Eckerd College. He talked about his service on city committees and his education on the workings of City Hall.

Then the questions.

How involved have you been in city government?

Tony guessed it had been planted by one of Augie's supporters.

Rachel rarely attended commission meetings, preferring to review them on recorded audio or videotapes.

She leaned into the microphone. Red splotches, brought on by nerves, gushed on her neck and cheeks.

"I, uh, haven't been involved in the workings of the city in past years," she said. "I've spent the past years raising my children and running my business."

She could have added that she cared for her late husband through his two-year bout with cancer, but she didn't.

It was Augie's turn.

With a New York accent, Augie detailed his involvement: 40th anniversary committee, sister city committee, City Hall citizens advisory committee. He had made a name for himself with the Vina Del Mar Island Association and as an alternate on the Planning and Zoning Board, which had been criticized for approving variances benefiting developers.

"As far as appearing at City Commission meetings," he said, "in the last 4{ years, except for vacations, I think I've missed seven meetings.

"I'm retired. I don't have a business to run."

As questions came and went, Augie extracted information from his files and showed diagrams to the audience. He explained how he changed his mind on issues such as the Pinellas Bayway bridge. The about-face was not questioned.

Kreider slowly read another question.

What do you think of the charter amendments?

Though her face was expressionless, Rachel was stunned. There were 13 amendments on the ballot and she had barely read them. She regretted her lack of preparation later, but she didn't realize the issue would come up.

Augie flipped through his notes and offered a few concerns, especially about an amendment that would allow city department heads to moonlight at other jobs.

Rachel paused, then walked to the podium.

"I'll make this short," she said. "I'll have to look into that one."

She returned to her seat and shot a look at her campaign manager.

"I'm glad to get this over with," she said after the debate, walking out the door on her way home.

"It's unreal. When your opponent walks in with a stack of books this thick," she said, holding her hands a foot apart, "the cards are stacked against you."

Rachel and Jack Crepeau considered themselves establishment outsiders, but soon after moving back to St. Pete Beach in 1985 from Canada, they were embroiled in community politics.

They got angry when the Hurricane Seafood Restaurant, two blocks from their home, expanded and created parking problems. They feared corporate America was advancing on Pass-a-Grille.

They worked to get their candidates elected. They won some. They lost some.

Two years ago Jack's best friend, John Bailey, won a hard-fought campaign against Bob Sault for the District 4 seat. But after one term, Bailey stepped down.

He would back Rachel and give $100 to her campaign. He was divorcing Linda Rockwell, Rachel's treasurer.

Rachel became an official candidate on Jan. 29.

There would be meetings every other week for two years and residents calling at all hours. But being a city commissioner would give her life purpose.

She filed forms with the city clerk. She paid $88 in city and state fees. She submitted a petition with the signatures of 15 supporters. She had six weeks to campaign and raise money.

"I am running for this office," she wrote in a flier mailed to voters, "to give something back to our community and to preserve the character of our neighborhood for future generations."

Around Pass-a-Grille, word spread quickly that Rachel was running for election.

She spent the campaign's early days gathering about $2,000 in contributions by dropping by people's homes and businesses. Most people liked giving their money in person and finding out what Rachel stood for.

She wrote a campaign brochure, ordered yard signs and kept tabs on Augie's camp.

About a month before the election, Rachel's first outing as a candidate was a luncheon at the Pass-a-Grille Woman's Club, a group of community volunteers who sing at nursing homes and raise money to find homes for stray dogs and cats.

Instead of glad-handing, Rachel remained anchored at her table at the back of the room. She nibbled at the spaghetti and salad while several women harmonized on Baby Face. She took two bites of a chocolate eclair.

"Nerves," she said. "I just haven't been able to eat."

"I don't know you, but I want to know you," said Karalee German, walking up to Rachel's table. German is a small-business owner who lives in Vina Del Mar. "What can I do to help you win this election? I want to help you because I absolutely do not want Augie to win."

Another woman asked Rachel: "Have you done any public speaking?"

Rachel shook her head no: "I laugh and tell my friends, I don't need makeup because I turn red."

"Would you like some training?" the woman asked. "I can help."

Rachel was suspicious and never moved on the offer. She believed the woman supported Augie and would have discovered her weaknesses and passed them along.

"When you're doing an election, you keep things in a small group," Rachel said later. "You have to be guarded with things like that. I've lived here 14 years," she said, pausing, "and I've learned a few things."

Nine days before the election, Rachel entered enemy territory: Augie's Vina Del Mar neighborhood. It was a bold move and one aimed at winning voters on the east side of the district.

She was doing well in her own neck of the beach, Pass-a-Grille, where dozens of yards declared support for Rachel. One of her T-shirts hung from a flagpole.

Augie may have gotten his signs out first, but Rachel's supporters said she was leading the yard sign race by a 5-to-1 ratio.

In local elections without polling, signs are one of the few indicators of support, but at this point she couldn't overlook Vina Del Mar.

On a sunny Sunday afternoon, her campaign hosted an "all-American" wiener roast and sing-along at Vina Park.

Red, white and blue balloons dangled from street signs, trees and fences. Waving the flag was an important strategy.

"There are whispers that I'm not American," she said. "My last name is Canadian and I married a Canadian. I am American."

She heard it time and again, she said, from strangers and friends. Was she really a U.S. citizen? She feared it might become a campaign issue against Augie, who had been a sergeant major in the Marines.

That day, she received the recommendation of the St. Petersburg Times editorial board and, under a shaded picnic shelter, she laughed and danced to an accordion version of Ain't She Sweet.

Tony, her campaign manager, spun frankfurters on an outdoor grill, but he was preoccupied with the second and last debate.

It was three days away. It would be held at City Hall and broadcast live on Channel 15 into every cable subscriber's home.

He and Rachel would talk through the major issues, write down opinions and reconcile a stance for her. They would rehearse questions and answers. They would fill a notebook with talking points and opening and closing remarks.

Rachel had to pull off a stellar performance. Had to.

The first debate wasn't a disaster, Tony said, but he had to jump-start her confidence. He remembered telling her: "You are a legitimate candidate. This is a democracy. You have a right to say, "I have an opinion.' "

He would make sure Rachel gave her opinion loud and clear on Wednesday.

With the glare of City Hall's lights bearing down, Augie walked to the raised platform where the City Commission meets every other Tuesday for the final debate. He took out his document-filled folders, one by one.

The District 2 candidates, Robert Mariner and the incumbent Jim Myers, were impressed. "It's only two hours, Augie," Myers joked.

"Is that all?" Augie replied, laughing. "I'm ready for all night."

Two seats down, Rachel sat quietly. In her single black binder were her prepared remarks and notes on key issues, each issue marked with a divider.

Listen carefully, she told herself. Take your time. Don't get distracted by others' answers.

Rachel wore her black business suit, the same one she had worn at the first debate. She reserved it for special occasions, preferring T-shirts and shorts for everyday wear. The candidates took three minutes each for opening remarks. Rachel was first.

"My decision to seek my first elected office was not one I took lightly," she said, peering over her glasses while reading her speech. "I have become concerned that the intrusion of commercial businesses is changing the character in our residential community and it's disrupting the quiet, peaceful paradise that we all love."

Her speech was stiff, not conversational. But so were the others. All four candidates read their remarks.

The moderator with the League of Women Voters asked questions.

How do you feel about overdevelopment?

Building relationships with other commissioners?

And then this:

How would you feel about allowing a woman to serve on the City Commission?

Awkward silence.

If Rachel won, she wouldn't be the first woman to serve, but she would be the only woman on the current commission.

"I have no problem with that," Mariner said.

"I wholeheartedly support it," Augie said. "I believe a woman belongs up here. Maybe two. Maybe three."

"I will defend a woman's right anywhere I can," Myers answered.

When it was her turn, Rachel looked at the audience and smiled.

"Thank you. I'm pleased to be here this evening. I'm Rachel Crepeau."

The candidates and the audience echoed her laughter.

The debate was about over. It was time to leave a lasting impression. After three days of researching the issues, writing notes and preparing for questions, Rachel was ready.

In her parting remarks, Rachel used her inexperience to distinguish herself from the other candidates. She was a political novice, she said, one without fancy, unfaltering speeches or insider information.

"As you may have noticed this evening," she said, "I am not a seasoned politician. I am a citizen who loves and cares about our community. I do not pretend to know all the answers."

After the debate, Rachel shook hands with the other candidates. She hugged her daughter, Jeanne, and Linda Rockwell. She posed for pictures with smiling supporters and talked about the election, one week away.

She was in no hurry to escape.

Outside City Hall, she grabbed Linda again: "Oh thank God, thank God. I did all right."

For the next five days, Rachel stood on Pass-a-Grille street corners, mostly by herself. She held her blue and white signs _ I'm Voting For Rachel Crepeau _ and waved at rush-hour commuters for four hours a day outside the Yacht Club, the main entrance to Vina Del Mar and near the Don CeSar Resort.

She figured it was the best way to get her name and face out in the campaign's critical last days.

Augie tried a different approach. He hand-delivered fliers to 1,200 homes. "I did a lot of walking," he said. "You meet a lot of nice people that way."

During Rachel's corner campaigning, friends brought her coffee to stay warm in the mornings. Sunscreen kept her light complexion from burning in the afternoons. Supportive motorists kept her motivated all day.

"Hey, Rachel," yelled a police officer in a patrol car headed north.

"Hey, Carol," Rachel yelled back.

After voting on election day, March 9, Rachel assumed her position outside the polling place at the community center. State law required that she stand 50 feet from the building.

It was 7:10 a.m. Just about every voter would have to pass her before marking their ballots, and she wanted to look them in the face. Augie wouldn't be there. He had to go out of town. He filed his absentee ballot a week before.

Rachel stood on the sidewalk with her son, Jack, 23, a graduate student at the University of South Florida. Two of her signs were stuck in the ground.

A woman came out after voting and gave Rachel a quick hug. "Now," she said, laughing, "I want to be appointed to some silly committee."

A man stopped on the sidewalk as he looked down at a swastika etched in the concrete. "Rachel, when you get elected, you need to get this sidewalk fixed," he said.

Late in the day, Rachel asked for the time.

"Five till six," answered friend Joan Catanzarita, the first person to vote for Rachel.

"Oh, thank you, Lord," Rachel said, looking up to the sky.

Her campaign routine meant rising at 6 a.m., two hours earlier than usual, and nervous meals on the run. She patted her stomach. "I've lost 15 pounds," she said proudly.

When the polls closed at 7 p.m., Rachel, her daughter and Linda went inside and watched election workers remove the ballots from a large gray box, sort them and place them in a locked metal container.

The container went in the back of a blue Lincoln Town Car. The election workers were headed to City Hall, where the box would be given to a sheriff's deputy for the drive to Clearwater and, finally, the Pinellas County elections supervisor.

"Follow that car," Linda told Rachel as they jumped in Rachel's Oldsmobile. "Make sure it doesn't stop."

The ballot boxes made it to City Hall, and Rachel went home, where her friends and supporters celebrated and waited on the results.

About two dozen people spilled out the front door of the Quebec Inn, where she lived on the top floor. They sat on picnic tables, munching on chips and drinking sodas. Inside, they gathered around a spread of cold cuts, fresh vegetables and bread.

Accordion music floated through the air.

So did Rachel.

"I feel good," she said. "I feel I may win."

"I think she's so exhausted," said one of Rachel's tenants, Gerry Benoit. "But she is such a calm person. She makes us all feel like children and she's the housemother."

Tony hunkered down in a lawn chair. He didn't linger around the buffet table or socialize with the crowd. His face was unsmiling. He was preparing to lose, something he abhorred.

"My stomach's killing me," he said. "This is personal. It's Rachel."

Rachel shuffled around the house, serving cake. It was her daughter's 25th birthday. She wiped cake from her hands.

She stood on the porch and tapped her feet to the music. A breeze from the gulf drifted in.

Outside, a newspaper photographer got a call from the elections supervisor. He passed the results along to Linda Rockwell, who immediately ran to the porch and grabbed Rachel.

"I've got news for you, Rachel baby. You won," Linda said. "Sixty-four percent."

The count was 392 to 218.

No one would have predicted a winner early in the campaign, nor such a decisive outcome.

Rachel laughed, and the house erupted in a round of cheers, hugs and tears. "She doesn't need a swearing-in, she needs a coronation," said Tony, inhaling on a cigarette and exhaling three months of work and worry.

His first campaign was a success. Rachel Crepeau, his friend who had never spoken publicly until the campaign, was a bona fide politician.

"Hey, what are you going to do now?" he asked Rachel.

"I'm going to come to you and say, "Okay, what do I do now?' "

Augie ran into Rachel the next day at City Hall. He congratulated her, wished her luck and offered his cooperation.

She was sworn in the next week.

Months after the election, at a City Commission workshop and meeting, Rachel arrived early.

The issue nearest and dearest to her _ the preservation of Pass-a-Grille _ was the discussion topic.

She listened as city officials and community activists explained why some residents wanted to toughen building height restrictions in Pass-a-Grille and require architectural review of new homes and businesses built there. The process had begun months ago and was still months from completion.

Rachel, her newness on the commission showing, asked about a survey of Pass-a-Grille residents. Did most support the changes as she thought?

"Commissioner, you may not know this, but it's available," Mayor Ron McKenney said. "I went in six or seven months ago and asked for copies of all of those."

"It would be good for you to get a copy of that," Commissioner Ward Friszolowski chimed in.

"Right. Right. Right," said Rachel, the rookie.

"You can find out which of your neighbors will be speaking to you soon," McKenney said jokingly.

Rachel replied, "Oh, they have been speaking to me already."

St. Pete Beach's newest commissioner, innkeeper, mother of two grown children and a widow smiled and looked down at her agenda. The meeting would last another three hours, her term another two years.

An important note: The Times' editorial board ultimately endorsed Crepeau, but the reporting of this story was independent of that recommendation. Crepeau's victory or defeat didn't matter. Her experiences as a candidate did.

Rachel Crepeau

Age: 53

Occupation: Owner of the Quebec Apartments and the Sunset View Guesthouse

Residence: Pass-a-Grille

How long in St. Pete Beach: 14 years

Civic involvement: Pass-a-Grille's Merchants Association, Pass-a-Grille Preservation Committee and St. Pete Beach Citizens for a Bias-Free Workplace.

Campaign materials quote: "I am running for this office to give something back to our community and to preserve the character of our neighborhood for future generations."

Augie D'Alessio

Age: 72

Occupation: Retired New York City civil court official

Residence: Vina del Mar

How long in St. Pete Beach: Four and a half years

Civic involvement: St. Pete Beach 40th anniversary committee, City Hall citizens advisory committee and alternate on the Planning and Zoning Board.

Campaign materials quote: "I plan on an emphasis of community listening and appropriate action. I plan to involve myself in the causes (needs) of District 4 residents."

COSTS OF A CAMPAIGN

Rachel Crepeau raised $2,075 from 27 people, including herself. Here's how she spent some of the money.

Filing fees $88

Signs $663.13

Vina Del Mar Park rental $17.84

Picnic supplies $143.72

Fliers $61.40

Mailing list $30.22

Brochures $163.71

Mailing $258.36

Augie D'Alessio contributed $535 to his own campaign. Here's how he spent some of the money.

Filing fees $88

Fliers $50

Campaign signs $100

Ad in Paradise News $250

Source: City of St. Pete Beach

THE JOB

The St. Pete Beach City Commission consists of four commissioners and a mayor. The commissioners are elected from four separate geographical areas of the city. A person running for election must have lived in the area they want to represent for at least the previous year. The commission, which holds all of the legislative powers of the city, meets every other Tuesday. Commissioners receive $450 a month.

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