Hero? Villain? Victim? Marni Sawicki Tells Her Story
The former mayor of Cape Coral looks back at the controversy that defined her tenure.
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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.
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.
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.