ST. PETERSBURG — Linda Lerner opted not to throw a party Tuesday night, instead spending the evening with her husband, son, daughter-in-law and neighbor at her Seminole home, eating gumbo and avoiding early election predictions until all was set in stone.
It has become an election night tradition for Lerner, 71, who secured her legacy as the longest-serving school board member in Pinellas County history by capturing her seventh term. Because the school board is nonpartisan, seats are decided with the primary election.
“I could barely eat anything I was so nervous, but I’ve been dancing around the house I’m so excited,” said Lerner, who has 24 years at the dais. “I was nervous because this had become a very partisan race and there are far more Republicans in my district than Democrats, so I figured if I lost I was already at home. But I have many, many supporters that came through for me so I need to throw them a party.”
Despite her long history with the seven-member school board, Lerner, a stalwart Democrat, faced one of her toughest competitors yet in Maureen Ahern, a former newspaper journalist and wife of Republican state Rep. Larry Ahern. Ahern, 54, is an active member of the South Pinellas 912 Patriots, a tea party group, and received sizeable donations from prominent Republican organizations.
While the three incumbents whose seats were decided Tuesday all won another term, the race for District 4 will go on to a run-off election in the Nov. 4 general election.
Retired chiropractor and former Palm Harbor Fire Commissioner Ken Peluso, 57, finished first in the race, but failed to get the 50 percent plus one needed to win the seat outright. Instead, he will face retired fifth-grade teacher and former mayor of Tarpon Springs Beverly Billiris, 66, who finished second, in the general election. Retired math teacher John Nygren, 70, finished third.
The North Pinellas District 4 seat became open after Robin Wikle announced her midterm retirement after six years on the board. Peluso lost the 2008 school board election to Wikle by a half-percentage point.
Terry Krassner, 62, former principal of Westgate Elementary School, notched a second term as the at-large District 2 school board member, defeating software engineer and active parent volunteer Chris Tauchnitz, 46.
Peggy O’Shea, 64, won her third school board term as an at-large candidate for District 3. O’Shea, former chairwoman of the Early Learning Coalition of Pinellas, was recently diagnosed with cancer and was unable to attend many of her campaign appearances due to treatments. Still, she was able to edge out University of South Florida St. Petersburg professor Kip Curtis, 47, despite his multiple endorsements from local politicians and business owners. O’Shea only raised $8,995 in campaign contributions, while Curtis raised $17,438.
School Board member Rene Flowers will have to keep campaigning until the Nov. 4 general election to learn if she will retain her seat, as she faces write-in candidate Irene Olive-Cates. Flowers was elected to the District 7 seat in 2012 to complete Lew Williams’ term after he died in office.
Flowers previously was vice chairwoman of the St. Petersburg City Council from 1999 to 2006, and its chairwoman from 2000-02. Flowers was president of the Florida League of Cities from 2006-07. A graduate of Eckerd College, she has a history of community and civic involvement, including stints with the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, the city of St. Petersburg Affordable Housing Advisory Committee, Community Development Block Grant Committee, YMCA of Greater Tampa Bay, the National Council of Negro Women and the MLK Day of Service Committee.
Cates is the founder of the nonprofit St. Petersburg-based organization Cates Enterprises Movement Change, Cates said schools should find more innovative, hands-on ways to teach students to become “producers instead of consumers,” whether through planting gardens and learning about healthy lifestyles or teaching about community issues and needs. Cates is a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts and said she would like to plant gardens in every school. She is a board member for the Sustainable Urban Agriculture Coalition and president of the St. Pete Business League.