Newsmakers


Hero? Villain? Victim? Marni Sawicki Tells Her Story

The former mayor of Cape Coral looks back at the controversy that defined her tenure.

 

I first met former Cape Coral Mayor Marni Sawicki at Starbucks inside Target, her choice, on a Thursday morning in March. She thought it less likely she’d be recognized here than in the freestanding Starbucks on Skyline Drive in the Cape. Being recognized is something she is avoiding. Although her four years in office ended in November 2017, the public memory is long—much longer for controversy than for praise. Her time in office contained both.

As the first female mayor in the city’s four-decade history, Sawicki took Cape Coral to a higher level of involvement in state and national governmental associations. She secured important grants for municipal development and disaster response. She spearheaded a complex, workable and transparent strategic plan, helped to lower millage and keep the city financially sound while its employees received their first raises in years.

She also landed in some hot water thanks to an unfiltered authenticity. And, an attractive and intelligent single woman, she dared to have romantic relationships with men while in office. The details of those relationships led to a campaign by a few colleagues and others to discredit her by shaming her online, accusing her of ethics violations and launching a movement for her ouster.

And, she very publicly became a victim of domestic violence.

Here, we meet the woman behind the headlines.

 

Life before the Cape

The day we meet, Target has just opened and is nearly empty. We are deep in conversation when a man approaches our table.

“Marni?”

She’s up and hugging him within a minute, asking about his hospital stay and how he is feeling in a short but warm exchange. They say goodbye. Recognized once doesn’t seem too bad.

We make plans to meet again and she heads for the door, clutching what’s left of the large Diet Coke she arrived with. She’s leaving for Sarasota, where she’s been staying, and then on to Largo, where she’s meeting a new friend or perhaps a date. He’s new to Largo, having moved from Texas, so he doesn’t know much about her, she says.

Before she can leave the store, I hear a clerk at the self-checkout station say, “I thought that’s who you were.” Sawicki smiles. They talk.

Long before all of Southwest Florida came to know her name, I’d learn, Sawicki was a well-known local girl in Pennfield, Michigan—“where everybody knew everybody.” In the small town near Battle Creek, she grew up the elder of two daughters of Ron and Dottie Dilsaver, a factory worker and an executive secretary. Sawicki credits her mother with her eventual interest in political office; Dottie Dilsaver was a legislative liaison for the United Auto Workers branch in Michigan and was elected to the Calhoun County, Michigan, school board in 2009.

All four years of high school, Marni Dilsaver was the secretary of her class, one year campaigning by making pins with dill pickles on them. She was a member of the homecoming court, and a Youth for Understanding exchange student who went to Denmark for several months.

She would become a businesswoman in Aurora, Ohio, in Atlanta and elsewhere. For years she was a senior executive in insurance underwriting and commercial transportation. She is described as “a focused and astute business woman with a quick mind” by the president of a hotel company, who wrote a testimonial on LinkedIn. “Highly motivated, professional and truly committed to the continued development of herself, her team and her organization,” according to a sales territory leader for a national insurance company.

Answering an email for this story, a former colleague further described her as having “leadership courage.”

​Sawicki’s journey to public office wouldn’t begin until after her arrival in Cape Coral. She and her children’s father, Adam Sawicki, though divorced, both moved to the Cape in 2010 to co-parent Madisson, then 13, and Brendon, then 11. The family had more than once visited the area, and Marni in particular came to embrace the city as her own. She started her own marketing and consulting company, Indigo Pros. She became a member of the Rotary Club and the Cape Coral Civic Association. She also was a Community Outreach Team member for Abuse Counseling & Treatment, an organization she—the child of an abusive, alcoholic father—still supports.

In November 2013, Sawicki became mayor by defeating incumbent John Sullivan by just 120 votes. She was praised as an anomaly on the political scene—a “breath of fresh air,” someone with no political baggage, a charismatic style, corporate leadership experience and the advantage of youth at 43. The mayor’s office is nonpartisan, but Sawicki was clear about being a Democrat in a Republican-dominated area.

“I’m an open book for the most part,” Sawicki told a reporter with The News-Press that December, when she was named among the People to Watch in 2014.

The statement would foreshadow some difficult days ahead, in which politics would mix with personal life to often toxic results.

 

Cape crusader

In public office, Sawicki was candid. Approachable. Available. She held “Mayor’s Night Out” town hall-style meetings to help her maintain the pulse of citizens. She also was in many ways successful. In a letter to The News-Press to nominate her in 2017 for the People of the Year award, her children pointed out that Sawicki became involved on the Cape’s behalf in the Florida League of Cities and the Florida League of Mayors. She was active in the U.S. Conference of Mayors and other organizations. She twice was honored by the Florida League of Cities as a “Home Rule Hero” for protecting the city’s right to develop policies that protect the community’s way of life.

Sawicki was invited to participate in think tanks at prestigious schools like the Harvard Institute of Politics and nonprofit foundations like the Kauffman Foundation. She secured several significant grants, including a $750,000 sum from FEMA to help train 100 people in disaster preparedness. She led the Cape into a new age of technology with apps for workers and citizens.

Illustrating that “leadership courage,” she did not flinch when confronting others or when raising new city issues head-on, including questioning the financial practices of Cape Coral’s charter schools; investigating changes in benefits for city employees; or pressing officials and business owners to figure out how to establish a new indoor-and-outdoor entertainment area. In July 2014, she was the first Southwest Florida mayor to publicly support same-sex marriage.

The outspoken leader was holding her first political office in a town where feathers were always waiting to be ruffled. Personal and business agendas were strong and seemingly overlapping; cantankerous politicking and public scrutiny were tradition; city business and citizen opinions were hashed and re-hashed with increasing acrimony all over the internet.

“Cape political discourse thrives on Web,” headlined a story in The News-Press in November 2006, enumerating the sites on which issues were aired. Sawicki would become quite familiar with this internet stage.

 

Open wounds

During the last 18 months of Sawicki’s time in office, the flames of drama that inevitably accompany politics and an outspoken personality were also fanned by matters in her personal life.

At the center of a very public firestorm was Sawicki’s on-again, off-again relationship with former Cape Coral Fire Department Lieutenant Kenneth Retzer. Their relationship over three years, all during her time in office, comprised alternating periods of calm and turmoil. May 2016 was a particularly tumultuous month: Sawicki received from Retzer lengthy, repetitive emails and frequent, sharp texts laced with recriminations and name-calling and what the brutally frank among us would call unfounded “slut-shaming.” All of this among his declarations of love, friendship and protection.

The two married in June 2016 and divorced about 2 months later.

For this story, Sawicki freely supplied documentation, including copious exchanges from April through August 2016 between Sawicki and Retzer; an ex-girlfriend of his; and a handful of business owners, City Council members and former friends who became Sawicki’s vocal and plotting detractors, speculating she was involved in everything from local cronyism to mafia connections. Their correspondence reads more like a Real Housewives script than a meaningful dialogue about the direction of their city, which her detractors claimed to have at heart.

Top: Sawicki with Naples Mayor Bill Barnett, Bonita Springs Mayor Peter Simmons and Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson. Center: Sawicki with Kenneth Retzer.

Those emails—more than 4,500 of them—and other documents were among the fodder for an internal affairs investigation into Retzer’s behavior by the fire department, and thus fodder for community debate.

Meanwhile, Retzer was convinced that Sawicki—no longer his wife—was guilty of a breach of ethics because she accepted expensive jewelry and other gifts from Brian Rist, a prominent Cape businessman and owner of Storm Smart Companies. Retzer took pictures of receipts and compiled “evidence” for a complaint eventually filed with the ethics commission by Councilman Richard Leon in August 2016.

Comments swirled throughout the summer of 2016, made by strangers, foes and former friends. “Respectful” would not be the word to describe those made on social media, including numerous Facebook pages and now defunct webpage shesahomewrecker.com. A petition to Gov. Rick Scott circulated to remove her from office. In March 2017, Sawicki announced she would not seek re-election. But to detractors, she was a sitting duck.

And the misfortune didn’t end there. Testament to the difficulty of breaking the cycle of abuse she experienced with her father, Sawicki was assaulted by Retzer in June 2017. They had temporarily reconciled and together gone to Miami for a U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting. The incident occurred in private at the conference hotel, her children overhearing in the next room.

A couple of times throughout it all, Sawicki would cross the lines of courageous and candid to hot-tempered. News segments, articles and editorials would call her out for “squabbles,” “outbursts” and “storming” out of a meeting—twice—once “lobbing insults” to City Council members Richard Leon and Dolores Bertolini on her way out and Tweeting about Leon’s “bullying” afterward.

She finished out her term in November 2017, leaving office in a cloud of controversy.

In February 2018, the Florida Commission on Ethics would clear Sawicki of any wrongdoing, finding no violation because Sawicki and Rist were in a romantic relationship at the time of the gifts.

Retzer, in contrast, was found by the internal affairs investigation to have made “profane, derogatory, demeaning and insulting comments” about City Council members, Mayor Sawicki and other city employees, and to have displayed conduct unbecoming to a public employee.

He also was found guilty of domestic battery by strangulation regarding the Miami incident, sentenced to a year under house arrest and three years’ probation.

 

Putting the past to rest

That was then.

This is now:

“I didn’t serve four years in a city I didn’t love,” Sawicki says over a fish sandwich on a sunny afternoon in Sarasota, in a restaurant near the apartment she is sharing with her daughter. She’s dressed in fashionable distressed jeans, a cold-shoulder tunic and designer platform sandals.

“There are so many things about it I love and people I love. But there’s an ugly side I’m struggling with. How do I live there? How do I live with it? You can’t un-see things.”

“There have been times in my life that have taken me to my knees. But you will not get me to a 10-count. I will stand up,” she says with a laugh.

“I literally had a breakdown my last day in office,” she continues. “We were at 10 Twenty Five brewpub in Cape Coral. All these people came and wished me good luck and thanked me. A whole bunch of people I thought were my friends didn’t show up. …”

“I went home, grabbed my dog, packed my bag and spent a week at an inn on Fort Myers Beach. I cried for a week in my camo Tractor Supply hat and ripped jeans. I cried because I felt free and yet not free. The whole time all that was going on I kept thinking, ‘When I’m out of office…’”

“[Fort Myers Mayor] Randy Henderson told me when I took office, ‘Just be mayoral in all you do.’ There were times I wasn’t. I was a shaken soda pop up there on the dais.”

One of those times in particular stands out in memory. In May 2016 she took issue with Fort Myers Beach Town Council member Tracey Gore, telling her, “I don’t appreciate the tone that you use” and accusing her of being adversarial at a workshop about water quality. Sawicki then was criticized for not attending a Cape Coral City Council meeting that night.

“I had gotten 250 text messages and I don’t know how many voicemails that day from Kenny (Retzer),” she says. “That was the day I was trying to file a restraining order.”

“I was very direct with Tracey Gore that day,” she says. “She deserved it. But I wouldn’t want someone to come into my chambers and do that. I’m not sorry for what I said. (But) I wish I had not done it in that manner.”

She is trying to forget things like having received death threats over a zoning issue, like having called her best friend in Cape Coral for help getting home after the Miami assault and being told to “get a rental car.” A few former friends have inched forward in efforts at reconciliation since she was cleared of ethics violations. But political agendas mattered then, in Sawicki’s experience, and certainly must matter now.

“I’m still hopeful that there’s good in everyone,” she says. “When I fall into bitterness, that’s when I go off the grid, stay home and read.”

 

Leaning out

“I never really liked the raw deal she got in the media,” says J. Mitchell, a friend Sawicki has known since she moved to Cape Coral. (The friend does not publicly use his full name due to anticipation of online harassment unrelated to his friendship with Sawicki.) “A man says those things and it’s OK, but if she as a woman says anything passionately, it’s considered ‘bitchy,’” he says.

“Marni’s beliefs are her own, and they are not to be compromised. … Even if you might not agree with her, you certainly should respect them and the passion for which they are expressed.”

Pearl Taylor is legislative executive assistant to the mayor of Cape Coral. She worked very closely with Sawicki and managed her social media accounts when they threatened to distract her.

“She’s a remarkable woman,” Taylor says simply.

President and CEO of the Southwest Florida Community Foundation Sarah Owen worked with Sawicki on community panels while Sawicki was mayor. “She was always willing to come to the table if I needed insight or information,” Owen says. “You always knew that she was going to tell you exactly what she thought. And like a lot of people in the area, I followed her (career).”

“Then I watched the things she was going through with domestic violence,” Owen continues. “I clicked on an (online) link for her victim’s report and I read it. To read what she wrote really impacted me. I wanted to reach out as a colleague and a fellow traveler in this world to say, ‘What are you going to do next?’ She had mentioned this in interviews, that she was going to do something with this.”

Sawicki has indeed become an advocate, speaking to groups throughout the state. But she wants to go beyond being “just the face of domestic violence,” she says. “Because women are so much more than that.”

In a speech this year to alumnae of the Tri Sigma sorority, which she joined as a college student at the University of Central Michigan, Sawicki urged the women not to “lean in,” as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg famously encourages in her so-named book, subtitled Women, Work and the Will to Lead.

Sawicki recapped her thoughts in a blog post: “Since her book, women haven’t made much of any progress. … As women it’s time we stop ‘asking’ for a seat at the table … and start taking what is rightfully ours. We need to start being authentic and real.” She calls that “leaning out.”

Sawicki also is nurturing a vision of opening a retreat center, possibly in Sarasota, where all mid-career women can network, discuss, recharge and heal—because life inflicts wounds upon everyone.

She’s working on revitalizing her strategic marketing company, too, and maintains a post office box in Cape Coral. Her son is living there with his father, and she makes frequent trips back. But most days you’ll find her in Sarasota, frequenting Siesta Key beach, getting to know the eclectic downtown shops and restaurants, making new friends. Recently, she volunteered at the city’s arts festival along with a friend who owns a chocolate shop.

Madisson Sawicki sees signs that the “fun-loving” mom she knew is coming back. Together, mother and daughter set up an Etsy store where Madisson sells gemstone bracelets and other items. Sharing an apartment works for them. “She’s much better than my other roommates,” Madisson says.

Sawicki’s a brunette now. When asked about it, she sends a text message in reply. “New life = new me.”

She may not want to be recognized in a coffee shop to discuss her time as mayor, but she’s not disappearing, which she is convinced her detractors want her to do.

That first morning we met, I had just gotten back to my car when I received a text message from Sawicki. She sent me a link to a song.

“My new theme song! Holy smokes, listen to the lyrics!” she wrote.

It was This Is Me, from the soundtrack to the film The Greatest Showman:

When the sharpest words wanna cut me down
I’m gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out
I am brave, I am bruised
I am who I’m meant to be, this is me
Look out ’cause here I come
And I’m marching on to the beat I drum
I’m not scared to be seen
I make no apologies, this is me.