Rick Nolte

Over the last few weeks, Gov. Ron DeSantis has endorsed 29 Republican candidates in non-partisan school board races across Florida’s 67 counties. On Monday night, he added one more endorsement, and it was for a candidate in Polk County: Rick Nolte, who is challenging incumbent Polk School Board member Sarah Fortney.

“Governor Ron DeSantis had one of his people call and they’ve endorsed me to be a School Board member” Nolte told several hundred people gathered at the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce for its Politics in the Park event Tuesday evening.

“I couldn’t believe it. I was really honored to be endorsed by President DeSantis,” he said in a nod to the Florida governor’s White House ambitions.

Nolte speaks at Tuesday night’s Politics in the Park event at the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce building on Lake Morton.

Republican voters around Polk County began getting text messages about the endorsement on Tuesday, according to Ren Nolte, Rick Nolte’s son and campaign manager.

The texts include a photo of Nolte and the words “Endorsed by Governor Ron DeSantis. Stand with Governor DeSantis on August 23rd and put our students first.”

A notation at the bottom of the graphic said it was paid for by Friends of Ron DeSantis, an organization that last weekend started sending mailers touting the governor’s School Board choices to voters in targeted counties.

Nolte is one of four candidates for Polk County School Board who filled out questionnaires circulated by DeSantis’ campaign and signed cards pledging support for the governor’s education priorities. The others were Terry Clark, Jill Sessions and Justin Sharpless. Nolte is the only one who has received the governor’s endorsement so far.

Why was Nolte singled out to get DeSantis’ only new endorsement? Rick and Ren Nolte said Tuesday night that they did not know, although Ren Nolte said he has communicated by email several times with the governor over the last few years.

Asked for comment, opponent Fortney touted her own experience and endorsements.

“I am grateful for the endorsements and support of our business community, notably Business Voice of the Lakeland Chamber, Polk County Realtors Association and the Polk County Builders Association,” she said. “The support of our local business community, our local education community and thousands of staff, students and families, allows me to remain laser focused on utilizing my nearly 40 years of combined classroom and board-level experience on making the necessary improvements to our school district.”

DeSantis announced his initial school board endorsements July 15 at an event held by Moms for Liberty as part of a state conference in Tampa that included strategy sessions for conservative candidates running for school boards.

“I think what’s happened over the last couple of years is parents now realize that these are really significant elections. Certain elections, the midterm, who’s running for governor or senator, those are important, don’t get me wrong. But (school boards) probably have a significant impact on families’ lives in a way that some of these other offices may not be able to do,” DeSantis said during an hour-long speech at the conference.

The nonpartisan Polk County School Board races have gained a lot of partisan attention this year as the local branches of both major political parties have endorsed candidates in the local races for the first time since a 1998 amendment to the Florida Constitution mandated the positions be nonpartisan.

The Republican Party of Polk County has endorsed Clark, Nolte, Sessions and Sharpless. The Democratic Party of Polk County has endorsed incumbent Fortney along with newcomers Sara Jones and Dell Quary.

The only School Board candidates without a party endorsement are incumbents Kay Fields, who is a registered Democrat but did not request an endorsement, and Lisa Miller, who is not affiliated with a party.

At Tuesday night’s Politics in the Park event at the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce, 241 attendees participated in a straw poll conducted by the Polk Supervisor of Elections Office. School Board candidates who received the most votes included the three incumbents — Fields, Fortney and Miller — and Sharpless, who is running for an open seat.

Several hundred people attended Politics in the Park, where candidates mingled with several hundred people along Lake Morton in front of the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce, which sponsored the event. Rains had cleared in time for Tuesday’s 6 p.m. event.

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Barry Friedman

Barry Friedman founded Lkldnow.com in 2015 as the culmination of a career in print and digital journalism. Since 1982, he has used the tools of reporting, editing and content curation to help people in Lakeland understand their community better.

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