Want a prediction? Sure you do. Here goes: Betcha a million bucks Phil Diamond is re-elected to the Orlando city council March 14. OK, that's a safe bet, since Diamond is running unopposed. Peering deeper into my crystal ball, I'll guarantee you that Orlando commissioner Daisy Lynum will beat Betty Gelzer.
But there's one council race I refuse to handicap: District 3, where commissioner Vicki Vargo is fighting for her political life against a slate of likable, well-connected opponents. The rumor mill is buzzing: Vargo will win in a landslide; Vargo won't get even enough votes to put her into the top two and the April runoff election.
Every candidate thinks he or she's going to shock the world, and Vargo is especially confident, but this is one limb I simply will not climb out on.
The district has changed since Vargo won a special election in 2000 and re-election in 2002. There's Baldwin Park, the megadevelopment that houses not just two U.S. senators, but a throng of young professionals as well. And, of course, the district is home to College Park, that bastion of old Orlando.
Three of Vargo's opponents are tied into that traditional power network, at least peripherally. Bob Carr Jr.'s father was a former mayor. Robert Stuart comes from one of the most politically connected families in town. John Ruffier's grandfather was Billy Dial, a banker deeply integrated into the city power structure back in the 1950s and '60s. The last candidate is Jeff Horn, a tennis pro and longtime activist who may surprise us all with the support he pulls from the district's liberals. Or not. Who knows?
So I thought that the best way to approach the race was as a potential voter trying to decide who to support. It's an academic argument, because I don't live in the district (or even inside city limits). I am versed in city politics, however, and I've spent the last month interviewing the candidates, attending their forums and pondering the question. So think of the following as who I would vote for, if I could vote.
It's not an easy decision. They're all good candidates, and each has his/her charms. But I can only pick one. And that one is …
NOT VICKI VARGO
In the last six years, Vargo has staked her claim as Orlando's most conservative commissioner. She's a deficit hawk unafraid to hack at city workers' pensions and health benefits and throw around the word "privatization." More than once, she's been a lone (or nearly lone) dissenting voice on some of the city's lavish development incentive deals.
But Vargo also has allied herself with the religious right. In 2002, she was the most outspoken opponent of the so-called Chapter 57, a measure to extend equal protection to gays citywide. A year later she issued a proclamation praising Exodus International, a Christian group disdained in the psychiatric community that wants to "cure" homosexuals through prayer and therapy. And her soap operatic feud with gay commissioner Patty Sheehan in 2001 and 2002 was legendarily embarrassing.
So Vargo's made enemies. Some of her problems are personality malfunctions. She can come off as abrasive, even though in person she's not that way at all (at least when I've talked to her). And her ham-handed effort to build a controversial trail around Lake Ivanhoe proved consensus-building wasn't her forte.
But what Vargo lacks in charisma, she makes up for in dedication. More than any other commissioner, she has gone out of her way to attend neighborhood association and watch meetings, picnics, block parties and forums within her district; even her opponents give her credit for that.
She has also earned a reputation as a good "pothole commissioner" who attends to localized community problems fervently.
"I have been available and accessible," Vargo said at a Feb. 23 debate at Henry P. Leu Gardens. "District 3 has never had a commissioner who's been as accessible as me."
True, say her opponents, as long as you don't piss her off; two of them told me she removed them from her e-mail list when they became political enemies.
I asked Vargo if she has any regrets. She really doesn't. "I don't want to change any of my votes," she says. "I take my policy-making seriously."
Case in point: her sole nay vote against the city's incentive deal with boy-band magnate Lou Pearlman to renovate Church Street Station. History is with her, as Pearlman hasn't come close to delivering on what he promised.
"Staff came to me very starry-eyed, and I recognized it," Vargo says. "I was the only one who did my homework."
But to me, the virtual voter in question here, Vargo's tenure has been a mixed bag. The council needs a voice like hers on economic issues, if only to balance an administration that's never met a handout it didn't like. She's also willing to say out loud what everyone knows: City staffers are the mayor's lobbyists, and their recommendations should be taken with a grain of salt.
But she can be divisive. That spat with Sheehan was ridiculous. So was her annoying penchant for calling herself "mayor pro tem," like the position mattered.
I could overlook that. And maybe I could even get past her Chapter 57 vote, which she says was philosophical, not homophobic (she did vote to grant protections to gay city employees).
But I still take issue with her tactics, including using deceptive information to try to rally anti-gay support from the black community. And blessing Exodus International was just pouring salt in an open wound.
It's her vision for downtown that really scares me, though. She speaks disparagingly of tattoo shops and nightclubs, then backtracks and says tattoo parlors aren't evil, just not the kind of retail she has in mind. She wants retiring baby boomers to pack the downtown condos, a great recipe for a sterile vertical suburb and exactly what this city doesn't need.
Not that she's against people having fun downtown. "I've said all along, the city needs to develop an, uh, upbeat section," Vargo says. "A place where people who enjoy that cultural setting can gather and have a lot of fun." That kind of sounds like the night life equivalent of a blue box to me, but hey, I'm just a guy who doesn't even get to vote.
Vargo supports the Dyer administration's effort to build a performing arts center, a new arena (if the Magic kick in 25 percent of the cost) and a renovated Citrus Bowl, but she downplays the city's role in making those projects reality. "The burden is on Orange County to make it happen," she says, pointing out that the county controls the tourism taxes the city will rely upon for funding. "The city has land as an asset. That's all we have."
She also wants to move the Coalition for the Homeless' men's pavilion out of Parramore, and not just because it hurts Parramore's redevelopment. It's too close to the neighborhoods in her district, she says, so it needs to go somewhere else.
Like, perhaps, Patty Sheehan's district. "They're all friends," she tells me. "They can work it out."
NOT JEFF HORN
I didn't expect much from Jeff Horn, but he surprised me. I knew going into our meeting that he was a gay tennis pro making his first foray into professional politics, and that his fund-raising had been lackluster.
He lacks the cachet of other challengers, but he's on the ball (pun intended). He's been an activist and volunteer for decades. In the 1990s, for instance, he and Daisy Lynum co-founded a youth tennis program in Parramore called the Genesis Community Program. (Lynum was a tennis pupil.) He has volunteered in every political season since 1976, he says. At campaign events, he makes a point of saying that he won't take money from developers, and talks about how he was often the only one to show up at council meetings to protest controversial College Park developments.
He's against incentives in all shapes and forms, and says he wants the Magic to contribute at least a third of the cost of any new arena before the government gets involved. "We need to be more than willing to say farewell," he says. If there's not enough money for all the big projects, Horn says the arena should take priority over the rarely used Citrus Bowl or the performing arts center.
All legitimate positions. Horn is also a vegetarian, another plus in my book. But he's not my guy. Not because he's unqualified; the city could do worse and he's certainly put his time in studying issues and attending meetings.
There are three things holding him back: No. 1: Despite his protestations to the contrary, Horn's a long shot. No. 2: He doesn't exude strong leadership and too often falls back on platitudes about bringing the community together when he runs into a tough question. No. 3: The council needs a counter to the city's Parramore policy, and Horn's not that person. He supports the city's ban on new or expanded social services in Parramore a legitimate view and talks passionately about the need to think about the homeless as people, not objects in the path of redevelopment. But that's exactly what Lynum does, and I doubt commissioner Jeff Horn would call her on it.
NOT BOB CARR JR.
Though I wish he were the guy. Of the bunch, Carr is the most laid-back, the most self-deprecating, the folksiest. He's the one you want to have a beer with, and yet he has a deep knowledge of this city and its government that comes from being reared by one of its forefathers. He speaks eloquently and convincingly about the virtues of public service, and backs it up by teaching literature to kids with dyslexia, attention deficit disorder and other problems at a private school.
"I know I can do this," he tells me. "I know what I'm talking about."
He ran unsuccessfully for Orange County commission in 2004, but he thinks he did well enough in the precincts the city and county share to give him an edge. But his fund-raising has been sub-par just over $8,000 in relation to his family clout, so you have to wonder how that will translate on Election Day. (A good last name didn't do much for the son of another former mayor in 2004, when Tom Langford failed to unseat Sheehan.)
His beef with Vargo is her style. "She's confrontational," he says. "She lectures the people who put her into office. It's a matter of respect. I know what public service is. You listen with respect, hearing and respecting the people you listen to."
Carr sees himself most closely aligned with Vargo and commissioner Diamond on fiscal issues. Like Vargo, he leans Republican, but considers himself a social moderate. He wants a new performing arts center, but doesn't think the one named for his dad should be bulldozed along the way. He wants to improve LYNX and sees commuter rail as a secondary option. In Parramore, he talks about the need for truly affordable housing and worries that redevelopment will "steamroll little people."
I like Carr, but I can't quite bring myself to support him. He's a nice guy, and would make an able commissioner. I wonder how forceful he'd be, how much passion and drive he'd bring to the dais. I don't think he'd make lots of bad decisions. However, I'm not sure how effective he'd be at pushing the good ideas through.
NOT JOHN RUFFIER
Ruffier was a close second. And if this campaign doesn't work out, I hope he finds another race to get into. Young (he's 34), bright and articulate, Ruffier, who is gay, could be a dynamic politician one day soon.
He's got an impressive resume. A commercial real-estate lawyer at the high-profile Lowndes Drosdick Doster Kantor and Reed firm, Ruffier is also past president of the Orlando/UCF Shakespeare Festival Associate Board, on the board of directors of the Coalition for the Homeless and city government liaison for the Metro Orlando Economic Develop-ment Commission, among other things.
When I ask him who on the council he'd most resemble, Ruffier gives a good answer. "Somewhere between Phil [Diamond] and Patty [Sheehan]. I think [Sheehan] has improved as a commissioner over the years. … Phil, I respect the way he does business."
He's a big fan of building a new arts center, saying the city needs something more like Tampa's center than the Bob Carr. But does Orlando's arts community have enough support to justify the cost? Yes, once the under-construction condos fill out, he says.
Ruffier's an outspoken fan of the incentive agreements the city has doled out. The only one he speaks ill of is the $3.5 million upfront cash incentive the city gave Premiere Trade Plaza developer Cameron Kuhn.
As for Parramore, he says the city needs to give up the illusion that it will be Thornton Park West. On the homeless, "Because of the clientele, [the Coalition] has to be downtown. That's Daisy's district."
He's right. So why am I not supporting Ruffier? Because …
I'D VOTE FOR ROBERT STUART
The things Vargo does right, Stuart will do just as well. On the rest, he'll do much better.
That Stuart comes from a well-connected family is a given. (It's rumored his bloodline is descended from British royalty.) One brother has an outside shot at knocking off Rep. Ric Keller in November. Another heads the Orlando Regional Chamber of Commerce. Another is a former state senator who briefly ran for governor in 1990, then headed the state's Department of Business and Professional Regulation.
His parents ran an office supply store before anyone ever heard of Office Depot. His father helped found the Orlando Area Rescue Mission and marched with civil rights leaders.
Stuart inherited the family's political skill. He's a solid fund-raiser, the only one to keep pace with Vargo. He's also dedicated his life to public service.
For the last decade he's helmed the Christian Service Center, a nonprofit in Parramore that helps the poor. He co-chaired Glenda Hood's Mayor's Working Committee on Homelessness, though Dyer has done little with its recommendations. Stuart has also umpired Little League games since 1968, and even made a trip to the Little League World Series in 2005.
Ask him (or his family or friends) why he's running, and you'll get this answer: "This is what we do." It's not flippant, it's just the way he was raised.
"I wish people knew the true story about his background," says Stockton Reeves, a political operative helping run Stuart's campaign. "We would win outright."
Robert Stuart is more conservative than at least one of his siblings. George Stuart Jr. was a liberal, adamantly pro-choice leader in the legislature who "made the Bubbas highly irritated," says former Orange County Democratic chairman Doug Head. Robert's son is an aide to state Rep. Sheri McInvale, who angered the Democrats earlier this year before switching parties.
He's also a member of the College Park Baptist Church, and didn't bother seeking the gay Rainbow Democrats' endorsement in this race because he knew he wouldn't get it. Admittedly, that gave me pause. A thriving metropolis needs progressive, gay-friendly leaders.
But I got over it. Chapter 57 is done, and Stuart sees no need to revisit it. More importantly, he's not a bomb-thrower. He speaks plainly and genuinely. "It's about the community, not about me," he says. "This is my town. I don't like the way people are treating it."
Stuart has banked the endorsements of the city's police and fire unions, the Service Employees International Union Local 8 and the Orlando Board of Realtors.
He's with Vargo on fiscal responsibility and accessibility, though on the latter he thinks she takes more credit than she should. "You cannot show up to a meeting and leave two seconds later and say you showed up," he told her at the Feb. 23 candidate forum.
But he really shines when talking about Parramore. He deals with the homeless and impoverished every day. He knows how the city's crackdown on social services has hurt them. Get him revved up and he'll talk for hours about the need for transitional and truly affordable housing, issues the city has ignored for far too long.
He understands how petty the conversation about moving the Coalition has become, and how the city has myopically focused on it, overlooking the bigger picture. And he's willing to call out one commissioner in particular: "It's appalling that Commissioner Lynum is trying to re-gentrify Parramore by bringing people outside in."
Stuart says commissioners often treat their districts like fiefdoms, and that they support other commissioners' pet projects just as long as those commissioners support theirs. It's an unspoken, quid pro quo agreement that has left city residents at the whims of parochialism. Nowhere is that reality more pronounced than Parramore.
And that's why Robert Stuart would get my vote, if I had firstname.lastname@example.org