Palm Beach Post | By Giuseppe Sabella and Katherine Kokal | July 14, 2022
WEST PALM BEACH — Attendees at last weekend’s Florida Gun and Knife Show at the South Florida Fairgrounds could browse firearms, purchase boxes of ammunition, learn about the latest gun accessories or pick up yard signs and flyersfor Palm Beach County school board candidates.
District 6 contenders Amanda Silvestri and Jennifer Showalter hosted tables at the recent gun show, but it was a picture of Silvestri’s table — lined with campaign materials, a “Stop Woke” sign and several gun components — that garnered attention on social media.
Critics shared the image on Facebook and called it shortsighted for school board candidates, who are running in a nonpartisan race, to campaign at gun shows when firearms are at the center of highly partisan debates, especially after the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that killed 19 students and two teachers in May.
And though last week’s event raised eyebrows, it wasn’t the first time school board candidates have advertised at gun shows this year.
District 7 candidate Christopher Persaud had a table at the show in April, and District 3 candidate Connor Frontera said in a recent interview that he approved of supporters who attended previous gun shows and passed out campaign flyers on his behalf.
Persaud is facing off with two other candidates for the seat held by longtime school board member Debra Robinson, who is not running for re-election. Her district includes eastern West Palm Beach and Riviera Beach.
Frontera is hoping to unseat the school board’s vice chair, Karen Brill, who represents suburban Lantana, Boynton Beach and Delray Beach.
The primary election for all school board seats is Aug. 23.
Justin Katz, who has more than a decade of experience in Palm Beach County schools, first as a teacher and now as president of the teachers union, said the heavy presence of school board candidates at gun shows is unprecedented.
“I can’t say it’s never happened, but I’ve never seen it happen and have no memory of anyone ever talking about it,” Katz said, going on to question the link between gun shows and the candidates’ platforms, and whether they support the arming of school employees.
In recent interviews with The Palm Beach Post, the four candidates said gun shows were another way to meet voters, and most said the events had little to no correlation with their priorities in education.
Silvestri responds to criticism of gun parts near campaign yard signs
And at least one candidate appeared to rethink her campaign’s presence at the gun show after getting pushback on social media.
Silvestri, whose husband staffed a table alongside her neighbor for a few hours Saturday, originally posted about the show on her campaign Facebook page before deleting it.
“To hear the issue people had with it made me realize this is not the light I want people to see me in,” she said. “I want everyone to see me as a mom who really wants to make a change at the board.”
In the now-deleted Facebook post, Silvestri’s school board advertisements are piled on a table next to a selection of firearm parts, including what appears to be a scope and a stock.
Silvestri said the parts belonged to her neighbor, who was hosting a separate table next to her school board campaign materials.
Silvestri said she did not attend the show.
Online commentators, including Palm Beach County Democratic Party chairperson Terrie Rizzo and state Rep. Joe Casello, a Democrat from Boynton Beach, blasted Silvestri on Facebook for campaigning at the show. Some also decried the gun parts and incorrectly identified the stock as an assault rifle.
“That wasn’t part of our table,” Silvestri said of the gun parts placed a few inches from a bowl of mints and her campaign sign. “It wasn’t a gun. It was part of the gun.”
Western Palm Beach County candidates defend their gun show appearances
Despite the criticism, some candidates defended their decisions to pass out campaign literature at the two-day show and at gun shows held earlier this year.
The Florida Gun and Knife Show is a recurring expo event where attendees can pay $10 to browse an assortment of new and pre-owned pistols, rifles and knives for sale.
“I try to go to as many things as possible where there are large groups of people, because I want to get my name out there,” Silvestri told The Post. “That involves meeting people where they are.”
Silvestri added that her campaign encountered few voters who live in District 6, meaning most attendees are not able to vote in the election where both she and Showalter are challenging 11-year incumbent, Marcia Andrews. District 6 includes Wellington, Royal Palm Beach and The Glades.
“A lot of people were from Jupiter and Okeechobee,” she said. “Our main goal was to meet our voters.” The gun show attendees were “not our voters,” Silvestri said.
Showalter said she paid $90 to host a booth at the show on Saturday and Sunday.
There, she said she had numerous discussions and debates with attendees about what she calls the “de-education” of American children in public schools and how she would address bullying if elected.
“It’s an event where law-abiding citizens are exercising their constitutional rights,” she said of the show. “I understand that you need to go where the people are. That’s a way for me to reach out to the community.”
Both Showalter and Silvestri said the gun and knife show was the first expo or convention they’ve set up tables at as school board candidates. Both have previously campaigned at parks, community events and neighborhood parties.
Showalter said she hopes to work with law enforcement and would support arming teachers and school staff if that’s what police recommended.
Addressing criticism of her booth at the gun show in the wake of recent gun violence at schools, Showalter said school safety was a top priority.
“But legal, lawful, constitutional gun ownership is not the same thing that is happening in our schools,” she said, referencing recent mass shootings.
Between 1966 and 2019, 77% of mass shooters obtained “at least some of their guns” legally. In cases involving K-12 schools, more than 80% of the shooters stole guns from family members, according to a comprehensive survey of data funded by the National Institute of Justice, the research division within the Department of Justice.
Candidates who have previously campaigned at gun shows weigh in
District 7 candidate Persaud and District 3 candidate Frontera echoed the need to engage voters at community events of all kinds. The gun-heavy setting, they said, had no correlation with their priorities.
When asked about their stance on arming teachers in local schools, each of which is guarded by law enforcement officers, Persaud and Frontera said they needed input from experts before taking a stance.
“A lot of my supporters go to gun shows, so they say, ‘Hey, Connor, I’m handing out flyers at the gun show today.’ That’s great,” Frontera said, adding that his supporters also registered people to vote at the events, and that he never attended the shows.
Persaud, who attended the gun show about three months ago, uploaded a picture of himself at the event, standing alongside conservative activist Scott Presler. In the photo uploaded to Facebook, images on a nearby table urged attendees to “Vote Chris Persaud For School Board.”
And in a recent interview, Persaud acknowledged that images of school board candidates at gun shows prompted strong emotions in light of recent school shootings in the United States — a reaction that was unintended, but understandable.
“The people are still healing,” he said.
Palm Beach School Board candidate to benefit from shooting range fundraiser
Showalter will benefit from a fund-raising event scheduled for July 23 at Okeechobee Shooting Sports, a shooting range north of Lake Okeechobee.
The event offers a defensive shooting clinic and target practice. Attendees pay the event’s sponsor, Karnivore Armament, a minimum donation of $150 for range time, snacks, refreshments and the ability to use Karnivore firearms or their own guns for target practice.
Attendees are asked to bring their own ammunition or preorder ammo from the range.
Karnivore Armament is a police supply store based in Wellington. Campaign finance records show store owner Jesse Kearney’s wife, Kristen, donated $100 to Showalter’s campaign in June.
Showalter said the event was a result of “supporters who wanted to do a fundraiser.”
“I didn’t initiate it,” she said.