Boca mayor stays in county race despite challenge from onetime ally

The south county race for Palm Beach County Commission promises to be divisive as it pits Boca Raton Mayor Susan Haynie — embroiled in controversy surrounding her past ties to a developer — against a longtime political ally.

Boca Councilman Robert Weinroth, a Democrat, is running against Haynie, a Republican, for the District 4 seat held by term-limited Republican Steven Abrams.

Haynie’s struggling campaign has raised just $18,900, more than half of which was collected in the two weeks before The Palm Beach Post’s Nov. 5 story detailing Haynie’s undisclosed financial ties to controversial developer James Batmasian.

The money is hardly enough to establish Haynie as a front runner, or keep challengers like Weinroth away.

And Weinroth comes with a built-in nest egg of $104,000, money he raised to run for reelection to the Boca Raton City Council. He withdrew from that race Wednesday, freeing him to shift that money to his County Commission campaign.

Some of his campaign cash comes from the same donors who often give to Haynie, mimicking past races in which Haynie and Weinroth drew from the same donor pool.

Andre Fladell, a political operative who has been involved in Palm Beach County elections for nearly four decades and has supported both candidates, sees the potential for a struggle.

“Many of the same activists and campaign fundraisers support Haynie and Weinroth,” he said. “It will create some real personal conflicts.”

Elected officials and political power brokers say the race is likely to cause new rifts in the south county district, which rarely has split along partisan issues when it comes to its County Commission campaigns.

Local operatives say Haynie had been considering dropping out of the county race and she still might. She is mayor through March 2020, although some candidates already are lining up to run for the seat.

Just three people, all Republicans, have held the south county seat since the 1988 expansion of the County Commission from five seats to seven. But the coast-hugging district has a tiny Democratic edge — less than one percentage point. A Democrat has an added advantage with party voters fueled in the 2018 midterm by disapproval of President Donald Trump and the GOP.

Haynie plans to formally kick off her campaign at the end of January, said campaign consultant Rick Asnani. She and Weinroth remain “friendly,” Asnani said.

More than a month after The Post’s story, a firm founded by Haynie and her husband, Neil, quit working for a company controlled by Batmasian, a move aimed at quashing the controversy raised by a job that she says paid the family no more than $15,000 in a single year.

But at least two investigative bodies — the Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics and the Florida Commission on Ethics — are probing Haynie’s ties to Batmasian, and the dozen votes she has taken on projects benefiting Batmasian, revealed by The Post.

Weinroth, 65, wrote to city leaders, but not Haynie, Wednesday, explaining his decision and expressing his view that Haynie’s campaign was struggling.

“Over the past months, as a result of a series of articles appearing in The Palm Beach Post and elsewhere, it has become apparent our mayor’s campaign to fill the seat being vacated by term-limited County Commissioner Steven Abrams has faltered.

“Under the cloud of complaints filed by a member of our community with both the county and state commissions on ethics, it has been difficult for her to gain the traction necessary to mount an effective campaign to win Mr. Abrams soon to be open seat.”

Weinroth announced he would drop his months-long bid for reelection to the Boca Raton City Council to instead pursue the county seat.

Weinroth’s seat is one of two on the ballot in the March city election. Until Monday, he had drawn just one challenger: Monica Mayotte, a longtime Boca Raton resident and past contributor to local blog BocaWatch, founded by Haynie’s political foe, Al Zucaro.

Zucaro lost to Haynie in the 2017 mayoral election. He filed complaints at the state and county level against her relating to her ties to Batmasian, the largest commercial landowner in the city.

Another candidate filed for Weinroth’s seat Tuesday — Dr. Paul Preste.

And shortly after Weinroth withdrew, two more candidates came forward on Wednesday, the last day to qualify.

Former Councilman Mike Mullaugh and one-time candidate Armand Grossman, who withdrew in 2015 from a race eight days after qualifying because of attack ads, both filed.

Just two candidates have qualified for the second seat on the ballot: incumbent Jeremy Rodgers and political novice Kim Do.

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