Republicans in Lee County overwhelmingly picked Jenna Persons as their nominee to become State Representative from House District 78 on Tuesday night. Persons, a 37 year-old attorney, easily defeated her closest competitor, Roger Lolly, 42, a former baseball standout who later founded the non-profit If I Can Dream Foundation.
In Tuesday night’s primary, Persons garnered 11,493 votes, or 59.09% of all votes cast, while Lolly could only muster 5,122 votes, or 26.34% of the total. A third candidate, Charlie Lynch, pulled down 2,834 votes, but was never in serious contention.
The race between Persons and Lolly was effectively decided in early July after Lolly came under scorching criticism because of his unusually high salary as the founder of his taxpayer-funded non-profit group. Lolly’s If I Can Dream Foundation received 100 percent of its funding from a state contract to provide vocational training for developmentally disabled teens and young adults. His $187,000 salary in 2018 consumed a significant portion of the state contract, and was about $100,000 more than other non-profit group CEO’s typically take for providing the same service in other cities.
The story, which The Capitolist first broke on June 30th, was quickly followed by the revelation that Lolly paid a friend $84,000 from the contract during the same year that the friend moved to Tennessee to open a barbecue restaurant. Those revelations later became campaign fodder in the race, with mailers and television ads blasting Lolly for his lavish spending.
Judging from the election results, the ads worked.
On August 7th, the district’s largest news outlet, the Fort Myers News-Press, highlighted the scandal in a preview of the race, crediting The Capitolist with breaking the story:
Lolly founded and runs If I Can Dream Foundation, which serves young people with disabilities. His compensation from that has fueled negative ads.
That year, the organization’s entire budget was made up of $540,326 from the Florida Department of Education to job train 200 people with disabilities, records show.
Lolly, though, felt the salary was fair for what he does, estimating he works “minimum 65 to 70 hours” a week running camps for young people ages 14 to 21 and, throughout the year, helping at-risk students and adults find work and stability in the community. In total, he estimated the foundation helps about 350 people a year.
A July post from The Capitolist honed in on how foundation Vice President Reuben Sliva received about $84,000 in 2018, the same year Sliva opened a restaurant in Tennessee. Sliva said he worked for If I Can Dream from January 2017 to August 2018 before moving to Tennessee.
With Persons’ win on Tuesday night, she will face Democrat Shawn Williams in the general election after Williams qualified as the Democrat nominee without opposition.