The Tom Manuel takeover of the 2006 Election

The election of 2006 was a dark election for St Johns County residents — it was the year that convicted felon Thomas G. Manuel played the voters here like a violin; and used his powers of manipulation, in concert with three pawns, one of whom would later say, on camera, “to take over the county”.

The power of three:

On a five-member board, it only takes three votes to control the outcome of any business they are responsible to conduct. Three people wielding the power of the county against the almost 150,000 citizens they govern. Frightening; if the wrong three people sit in those chairs.

Crackpot on the board:

No single election can guarantee that a bad apple won’t be elected; it happens. In St Johns County, riding an anti-incumbent wave in 2004 and holding himself out as the “red, white and blue” righter of wrongs, Ben Rich, who many said had a folksy appeal, while others just said he had a screw loose, was elected county commissioner — for one term.

Rich was given to long-winded lectures from his chair; he was abusive to residents who challenged his ideas, he was often on the losing end of 4-1 votes, and he could be counted on for unpredictable and outrageous comments. Like the time he told the audience that first responders to the active shooter at Columbine High School were cowards because they waited for backup in accordance with protocol, saying that, if he had been there, he would have “shot the cops and gone in”.

Bigger than life personality:

Although new to St Johns County, Tom Manuel settled into an affluent part of northwest St Johns County with his family; and, where he was short on local experience, he more than made up in charisma. Not unlike the Pied Piper of Hamelin, he made irresponsible political promises, and pandered to voters with strong, yet delusive, enticements.

He made political connections with every major organization that had business before the commission and somehow had them convinced that, if elected, he had the power to keep Ben Rich under control, and would pull off a third vote from District 2 that would give him the voting block he needed to “get things done”.

The “fix was in”:

The District 2 race in 2006 was designed to cement a win for “the Manuel candidate”. County Commissioner Ken Bryan, who lost in that race, running as a Democrat, later said in an interview that “no matter whether I’m elected, or not” the General Election in November would result in a way to “take over the county”.

Incumbent Karen Stern would be a problem for the Manuel agenda, and since Manuel couldn’t run against Bruce Maguire in District 4 and Karen Stern at the same time, he got behind a campaign to elect Ron Sanchez for District 2.

Sanchez was long on local name recognition but short on successful political elections, on this scale, so, Manuel, a former owner in an offshore casino, decided to hedge his bet.

The dark horse:

With little name recognition, only having lived in St Augustine for about two years, and running in a predominantly Republican county as a Democrat, Joseph “Ken” Bryan was a dark horse candidate — at best. Predictably, he lost.

But why was Bryan more than an “also ran”?

The reason is simple. When a Democrat entered the race for the partisan seat on the Board, the Primary Election was closed — in September, only Democrats could vote for Democrats and only Republicans could vote for Republicans. As the only Democrat to run, in the November General Election, Bryan was assured a slot on the ballot to face whoever survived the Republican Primary.

In other words, if Sanchez couldn’t beat Stern in the Primary, which, by the way, he almost didn’t, Manuel got a second chance to defeat her in November by throwing his political support behind Ken Bryan.

By a meager 51 votes, on September 5, 2006, Ron Sanchez defeated Karen Stern (7,768 to 7,709) in the Republican Primary Election for County Commissioner District 2. In the General Election that followed, November 7, 2006, Sanchez, running as a Republican, defeated Bryan, running as a Democrat; Sanchez garnering two-thirds of the votes cast.

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After Sanchez won the Primary, the time when you would have expected him to be campaigning against Ken Bryan, voters expressed confusion, and some trepidation, when Bryan and Sanchez appeared resolved to having already accomplished all they set out to do — unseat Karen Stern. Witnessing the interaction between the two alleged competitors, and a campaign that was really no campaign at all, for the nearly $70,000 a year job, many voters wondered what had just happened?

Less than 30 days after his defeat, Ken Bryan became a RINO; he changed his party affiliation to Republican on December 5, 2006, and then ran as a Republican in a different district only two years later.

From the day Manuel was elected, and even before, he had embedded himself with local radio personality Kerry McCarthy on her WFOY morning talk show, and appeared to have all the newspaper and ink he wanted from St Augustine Record editor Peter Ellis.

Even after Manuel was captured on video surveillance taking a bribe from an area real estate developer and FBI informant, in exchange for influence with Manuel, and the three votes he said he had in his pocket, Manuel’s influence over those who helped him accomplish his coup d’état still persisted.

The Record published a series of articles implying that the sheriff ran afoul of the law in the prosecution of Manuel and criticized Sheriff Shoar’s later confirmation, after Manuel was taken into custody in the public parking lot of a busy Jacksonville Beach restaurant, that Manuel had, in fact, been the target of an FBI sting operation.

Even though Manual pled guilty to the charges against him and was removed from office by Governor Crist, prior to his sentencing in a Jacksonville Federal Court, County Commissioner Ken Bryan, and his wife Lauren, penned a letter to the Judge; asking that Manuel be spared any prison time for his crimes.

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