Biden won big in Weston. Here’s how a pro-Trump candidate became mayor

Aaron Leibowitz

Democratic President-elect Joe Biden won every precinct and 58% of votes in Weston, an affluent suburb and the westernmost city in Broward County. He beat President Donald Trump in the city by 18 points, part of a 30-point victory overall in Florida’s bluest county.

So why did Weston’s local races tell a totally different story?

Three candidates who were endorsed by the Broward GOP — including Margaret “Peggy” Brown, a city commissioner who spoke at a pro-Trump rally about her desire to “make Weston red” and who denounced a local Black Lives Matter group while seeking the nonpartisan mayor’s seat — all won their races.

They were sworn in Monday as former Mayor Daniel Stermer and Commissioner Thomas Kallman vacated their posts due to term limits. Chris Eddy and Henry Mead, both of whom campaigned with Brown, also won their commission races. Together, the three new officials now make up a majority on the five-member commission.

In order to become mayor, Brown had to defeat outgoing Democratic state Rep. Richard Stark, a seemingly strong candidate in a city where 37% of registered voters are Democrats and 24% are Republicans. (Another 37% are independents.) Stark spent eight years representing Florida’s 104th District, which includes Weston.

And yet Brown won 42% of the votes to Stark’s 37%. A third candidate, former city commissioner Jim Norton, took 21%. Brown became the city’s fourth mayor and first female mayor since its incorporation in 1996.

In her campaign material, Brown, who was first elected to the city commission in 2016, focused mostly on local issues — namely, preserving the quality of life in a master-planned community whose western border touches the Everglades. The city’s residents are 82% white and more than half Hispanic, including a large population of Venezuelan Americans, and the median household income is over $100,000.

Brown said she would “exercise caution” regarding zoning changes and new development with an emphasis on maintaining property values. She said the city should lower its millage rate. And she touted support for the police.

Margaret ‘Peggy’ Brown
Margaret ‘Peggy’ Brown

That message seems to have resonated with many Weston residents, including the city’s local GOP group. Nancy Cooke, the group’s president, told the Miami Herald the group supported Brown, Eddy and Mead “in hopes that the previous, mostly liberal commission would become more conservative in planning for our beautiful city.”

“Our main concern,” Cooke said, “is that we don’t want to see the redeveloping of Weston with more density.”

Campaign became referendum on cultural issues

But for some residents, Brown’s campaign was about more than just local matters like development and taxes. It also became a referendum on racism and the “culture war” issues that have defined much of the Trump presidency, and that took center stage in cities across the country after the police killing of George Floyd in May.

That was reflected in a local Facebook group, Weston UNITED, whose members pivoted this summer from primarily discussing housing issues to opposing Black Lives Matter, according to the Miami New Times. Some members expressed disdain for teenagers who had formed a Weston BLM group and organized a peaceful protest.

The teens, some of whom attend public Cypress Bay High School in Weston, successfully pushed for a series of city commission meetings in which officials discussed police reform and heard residents’ experiences of racism. Brown said she believed the meetings were unnecessary.

“I think that having these meetings is a disproportionate response to what is going on in our community,” Brown said at a June meeting, challenging residents to “show me the statistics” to prove the Broward Sheriff’s Office had been mistreating Weston residents.

Brown painted the Black Lives Matter movement as violent and suggested its arguments amounted to “a false truth,” though it wasn’t clear exactly what she believed to be false. The movement has broadly opposed police killings of Black people and, after Floyd’s death, advocated for reduced funding for police departments.

After residents spoke, including Black students who shared stories of being called the n-word by their classmates, Brown said the meeting felt like “an orchestrated hit against me.” Some speakers criticized Brown’s public use of the #BlueLivesMatter hashtag, a show of support for police that some see as a rebuttal of #BlackLivesMatter.

“You have no clue who I am,” Brown told the speakers, pointing to her role on a public safety task force through the Broward League of Cities after the Parkland shooting, as well as her position as regional executive director of a nonprofit that helps people affected by hearing loss. “I think this is an atrocity,” Brown said. “I have been attacked.”

Brown did not respond to an interview request from the Herald.

Less than 5% of Weston’s population is Black. Members of the local Black Lives Matter group said it was disheartening to see city leaders dismiss their concerns and their call for the creation of a diversity board similar to the one in Pembroke Pines.

“This is the city we grew up in. We want to make the city better for everyone,” said Anya Jackson, a senior at Cypress Bay. “It’s sad to see that when we speak about these issues, it’s kind of just dismissed.”

Brown to Trump supporters: Let’s ‘make Weston red’

Trump received about 14,200 votes in Weston this election cycle. Brown got about 13,500.

It’s not clear how many Weston voters selected both Trump and Brown. But Brown openly aligned herself with the president when she spoke at a pro-Trump rally in September in Pembroke Pines.

“Can I hear ‘Trump 2020’?” Brown, a registered independent, said while addressing the crowd.

The speech was a strong public show of partisanship from a municipal leader serving in a nonpartisan seat.

“I sit on that dais with my colleagues and I listen to their liberal, left-leaning, so-called progressive ways and the way they want to move this city,” Brown said at the rally. She told the attendees that one of her constituents is Democratic U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, drawing boos from the crowd.

“What we want to do,” Brown said, “is make Weston red.”

A Trump supporter campaigns on Election Day at the Weston Branch Library on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Weston, Florida.
A Trump supporter campaigns on Election Day at the Weston Branch Library on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Weston, Florida.

A website funded by a dark-money political committee, Young Professionals for Florida, featured part of Brown’s speech at the rally with the caption: “Peggy Brown is bringing right-wing extremism to Weston.”

But it appears Brown’s message spoke to many residents. On social media, Brown affirmed people’s fears about how their beloved city might change in the coming years. When a resident posted in August that he feared the “radical Left” would “bring poor people and crime into our communities” — and that this was why he planned to vote for Brown — Brown “liked” the post from her Facebook account.

When the local Black Lives Matter group released a “report card” that gave Brown failing grades on various issues, Brown “liked” a comment in response that referred to the group as a “domestic terrorist organization.”

Brown also did little to disavow more extreme parts of the Trump movement. Asked for her thoughts on QAnon, the baseless conspiracy theory that says Trump is fighting a cabal of pedophiles, Brown wrote on Facebook: “I have serious concerns about any group or organization whose members/leaders choose to remain anonymous.”

Joseph Mullen, a Cypress Bay High School graduate who volunteered for Stark’s campaign and is now a freshman at Cornell University, said that while he was frustrated with the election results, he understood the outcome.

“Peggy and people who run on those platforms, they have a message that gets people out there [to vote],” he said. The message, Mullen said, is “if you don’t vote for me, your way of life will be taken away.”

Mullen, who helped organize the local BLM group, said messaging portraying Stark as a “socialist” may have been effective among Weston’s Venezuelan-American population, even though Stark is a moderate Democrat.

Jean Qian, a senior at Cypress Bay who is also involved in the Black Lives Matter group, said she saw the municipal election in Weston as evidence of national politics “influencing what was supposed to be a nonpartisan race.” Beyond that, she said, the outcome seemed to stem from the “extreme passion” of GOP voters.

Brown’s victory was one of many local triumphs for conservatives in South Florida on Nov. 3, even as Biden carried the region. Outgoing Republican Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez unseated Democratic U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell in Congress, while Republican Maria Elvira Salazar defeated U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala. Democrats also suffered several stinging defeats in the Florida House.

Those conservative victories, including Brown’s, were likely due in part to the inroads Trump made in South Florida over the past four years. Weston followed that trend. In 2016, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton won 64% of votes in Weston to Trump’s 33% — a 31-point margin for Clinton that dropped to 18 points for Biden this year.

Brown supporters win seats on PTSA

The recent conservative wins in Weston haven’t been limited to the city commission. On Wednesday, the Cypress Bay High School parent-teacher-student association elected seven new executive board members, several of whom are supporters of Brown and Trump, according to posts on social media.

One of the new members is Simon Shum, who worked on Brown’s campaign. Shum organized a September rally in Weston with the goal of raising awareness about what Shum calls “the lack of free speech in schools for conservative teachers and students.” In local Facebook groups, Shum said he “wanted to reveal the extent of liberal indoctrination from grade school to universities.”

Shum could not be reached for comment.

Burt Miller, the president of the Broward County Council of PTAs and PTSAs, told the Herald he has concerns about the recent Cypress Bay PTSA election and about the possible political motivations of the new board. The PTSA is currently under suspension due to outdated bylaws, and Miller said that suspension won’t be lifted until county and state PTA leaders feel comfortable the group isn’t pursuing a political agenda.

“We’re going to monitor them,” Miller said.

Cypress Bay is highly regarded among Broward’s public schools and has almost 5,000 students.

With the PTSA election, Weston conservatives showed they can mobilize quickly and powerfully around issues and candidates. Last month, according to Miller, more than 300 people registered in less than 24 hours to join the PTSA and become eligible to vote in the election.

“We knew,” Miller said, “something was going on politically.”