Palm Beach County Commissioner Jess Santamaria is learning the hard way that the ability to get elected is a far cry from the ability to be viewed as a leader. This week, he was passed over as his colleagues’ pick for vice chairman of the County Commission, and he will be term-limited out of office before his turn comes up to be chairman.
A super-majority of commissioners decided that Santamaria simply was not the right person to lead the board. But bypassing him was actually a worse fate, since commissioners typically take turns at being chair and vice chair. Santamaria’s rejection means he will have spent eight years on the commission without ever being chairman. His colleagues’ most recent rejection came as no surprise to veteran political observers. Why? Because most commissioners just don’t consider Santamaria to be a team player, and they are unwilling to tolerate his behavior.
How did Santamaria get himself into this position? Well, it’s a long, complicated story.
A life-long business guy with a master’s degree in business administration from the Wharton School, Santamaria ran for the County Commission in 2006 and seemed to be a good candidate with business savvy, except for some of the oddball ideas and conflicting positions that surfaced during his campaign. But BIZPAC and other business groups endorsed him in the 2006 general election anyway, hoping he would put his business background to wise use.
Not long after he was elected, cracks started appearing in his public persona. Santamaria seemed to develop a hero complex and slipped into arrogant behavior, piously acting like he was “cleaner” than everyone else in politics. He cultivated an annoying habit for suggesting political solutions that essentially required social engineering. At the same time, to his credit, he developed a reputation as a philanthropist who couldn’t be “bought.”
As time passed, Santamaria abandoned even the appearance of impartiality, especially by doing peculiar things like picking up a $240 lunch tab for protesters who were bused in to protest at a County Commission meeting. He paid the tab before he cast his vote.
By 2010, it was obvious to the business community that Santamaria was not living up to the potential we hoped for as an elected official. His voting record consistently earned him an “F” on BIZPAC’s annual report card, and his votes on business issues often showed glaring partiality, demonstrating his political belief that free-market solutions don’t work but wealth redistribution does.
For example, the Town Crier quoted Santamaria’s public statements that government should tell business people what kind of businesses they can and cannot open. Government, as one Crier story quoted him, “should say, ‘We have too many pizza parlors already. What we lack are more tailors.’”
And he developed a knack for name-calling, attacking at least one fellow commissioner as abusive, using what The Palm Beach Post called a “nasty gram.” He publicly called a political opponent “a lunatic” and a “scorned lover.” One newspaper quoted Santamaria as stating that Wellington’s “medical arts district is a fraud.” County Administrator Bob Weisman dressed down Santamaria – technically his boss – at a commission meeting for being “nasty” to him in public.
It all got so ugly that BIZPAC and most business groups refused to support Santamaria in 2010, even though advance polling clearly showed he would win.
With last week’s non-vote, the County Commission showed it, too, had run out of patience with Santamaria.
“His first promise was to be only a one-term commissioner. So much for his credibility,” political strategist Andre Fladell said. “I’ve been following the commission for over 30 years, and Santamaria is among the worst I’ve ever seen. The rejection by his peers to serve as vice chair confirms that others share my view.”
There is a lesson here for the learning, and my advice to Jess is this: If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging and go in another direction.
He has two more years to create a more positive legacy for himself, and to start demonstrating that he supports the vital role played by business in our county’s well-being.