Titans’ clash in Wellington focuses on two contested seats

In some ways, the fractious political landscape in Wellington has changed.

For the first time in several years, political and ideological rivals Jeremy Jacobs and Mark Bellissimo both contributed to the same two candidates.

But the two battling horse-industry giants are throwing money on opposing sides of the other two races in the March 15 council election. And with one seat open, whoever wins will be lined up to appoint a fifth council member, who could throw the balance of power either Jacobs’ or Bellissimo’s way.

Both sides pumped money into the coffers of attorneys John McGovern and Michael Napoleone, who were elected at the filing deadline because no one ran against them. That leaves two contested seats.

And that’s where the billionaire Jacobs family, which argues against growth in the equestrian preserve, is clashing with Bellissimo, who needs council approvals to continue to expand his Palm Beach International Equestrian Center and Equestrian Village.

Mayor Bob Margolis and Vice Mayor John Greene have Jacobs family support.

Councilwoman Anne Gerwig, who gave up her seat to challenge Margolis, and newcomer Michael Drahos, running against Greene, have Bellissimo’s backing.

The winners will have a far better chance of influencing McGovern, who was appointed to his seat in 2015 and has never gone before voters, and newcomer Napoleone, when the newly seated council picks Gerwig’s replacement.

In interviews, however, neither Charlie Jacobs, Jeremy’s son, nor Bellissimo said their decisions to contribute to McGovern and Napoleone centered on council control.

Both candidates are considered middle-of-the-road and neutral in the often us-against-them world of Wellington politics.

Jacobs gave $5,000 each to McGovern and Napoleone. Bellissimo gave them a combined $5,000.

The pair seem to understand what’s best for Wellington, said Charlie Jacobs, chief executive of the family’s Delaware North Boston holdings.

Bellissimo praised their backgrounds in the law, which, he said, gives them the ethical standards to make tough decisions without being influenced.

Follow the money

But that hasn’t stopped the dueling factions from pouring money into the other races.

The flow so far hasn’t come close to past elections, when the Jacobs family pumped more than $1 million over three election cycles into its preferred candidates, often through political committees.

Nearly half the $45,601 Margolis has raised came from two sources: the Jacobs family and businessman Neil Hirsch.

Jacobs’ contributions, totalling $15,000, include $1,000 contributions from Jacobs-family interests such as the Daytona Beach Kennel Club and Southland Racing, a track in West Memphis, Ark.

Hirsch, who owned the former Player’s Club restaurant that catered to Wellington equestrian lovers, has donated at least $6,000.

Greene has raised just $17,100 and more of his money came from Buffalo, N.Y., than Wellington.

Buffalo is the location of the Jacobs’ family’s Delaware North, a sports hospitality and gaming conglomerate that is considered one of the world’s largest privately held companies. Forbes magazine puts Jeremy Jacobs net worth at $3.9 billion. He is the owner of the Boston Bruins hockey team.

Family interests have given $10,000 to Greene.

In explaining his political vision, Charlie Jacobs pointed out that he has been coming to Wellington since the 1970s, and he believes the village’s charm is derived from its equestrian preserve — big lots, dirt roads and bridle trails to ride for miles.

He’s not against gradual, responsible growth, but said it’s starting to get out of control. The family, he said, will strongly back any candidate who shares that philosophy.

“We need to be responsible stewards for this village and not, frankly, continue to develop in these green spaces that were designed more for equine use,” Jacobs said.

Bellissimo’s backing

The Jacobs family has given nothing to Gerwig or Drahos, an attorney and Wellington native. But Bellissimo-related interests have poured $7,000 into their campaigns.

About 8 percent of Drahos’ total, $3,000, came from Bellissimo. Gerwig, who has raised more than any other candidate at $59,925, got $2,000 from Bellissimo.

Bellissimo’s vision contrasts sharply with the Jacobs’ approach. He believes he could do more if the village council would be more open to growth.

“My goal is to create the world’s greatest equestrian center in what I think is one of the world’s great towns,” he said. He wants to pour money into the equestrian center and the Equestrian Village to expand the facilities.

But his Equestrian Village draws crowds to its grounds at Pierson Road and South Shore Boulevard, about a mile west of the Jacobs family’s 200-acre Deeridge Farm.

As the Jacobses threw money at political races, including a record $600,000 to help three candidates in 2012, Bellissimo has grown frustrated. In 2014, he shifted his attention to Tryon, N.C., where he opened a $100 million equestrian event center and luxury resort on 1,400 acres.

Divisive referendum

Bellissimo also said he has contributed to political committees, contributions that have not been made public yet.

One committee, Taxpayers for Public Integrity, has paid for a mailer attacking Margolis and Greene.

And both Bellissimo and the Jacobs family appear poised to throw money at a referendum question that could block Bellissimo’s dreams of expansion.

Voters will be asked to consider three amendments to the city charter on March 15. The most controversial, proposed by Councilman Matt Willhite — who is backed by Jacobs and is running for the state House — would ban motels, hotels, condo-hotels and apartments in the village’s equestrian preserve.

Bellissimo argues that Wellington could use more hotels, particularly during his annual Winter Equestrian Festival. The festival draws enough people to fill 130,000 room nights, he said, but the village can’t accommodate anywhere near that.

A mailer backed by the No to 3 committee slams the amendment by attacking Jacobs. It says the proposal is “backed by a billionaire who only cares about his own property” and wants to “tear down one of the two primary equestrian venues, which would destroy our economy.”

Pushing the opposite tack is the Preserve and Protect Wellington committee, which has recorded a single, $150,000 contribution from the Jacobs’ Delaware North.

A committee mailer argues that the equestrian preserve “must be protected from exploitation and overdevelopment” and “if we lose the beauty and peace of the preserve, we lose our identity, damage our brand, endanger our economy and destroy our environment.”

Consultant Richard Giorgio, of Patriot Games, who has been shaping the message for Taxpayers for Public Integrity, said the mailers likely will keep coming because they work.

“It’s very effective, specifically in smaller races, like municipal elections,” he said. “It is the most effective tool.”

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