Glenda Hood and Bruce Gordy came dangerously close last week to providing the defining image of their mayoral campaign -- and it would have tarnished them both deservedly. Ditto, for that matter, any of the business and political elite who gathered for what otherwise had promised to be just another stop in the snipefest that this race has become.
The occasion was a Feb. 11 luncheon of the Tiger Bay Club, the nonpartisan group that made a point of excluding grassroots mayoral candidate Tom Levine from a scheduled debate. Though Levine has qualified for the March 14 ballot -- as has prior also-ran Steve Villard, who previously campaigned only to draw attention to his status as a divorced dad seeking child-custody rights -- the Tiger Bay board wanted to hear only from the two monied front-runners.
Levine showed up anyway. And after Hood, the incumbent, and Gordy, the anti-incumbent, made their introductions, Levine grabbed a microphone and announced he would be joining in. Told by a flustered emcee that maybe he could have a few minutes at the end, he said, "That's not good enough."
Negotiations ensued. Hood and Gordy agreed to give him two minutes. Levine refused. "The people's representative deserves equal billing," he said.
They quieted him and began their opening statements: Hood first, Gordy second. Then Levine grabbed the microphone from the moderator, Orlando Sentinel political editor Michael Griffin, and started again. His amplified words were drowned by the audience's growing din, but it was clear that he was saying something about. "democratic principles" just about the time that uniformed cops started moving in to take him away.
"It's my city, not yours," he said to Hood, who, with the TV cameras rolling, must have seen her political career flash before her eyes and motioned vehemently to the constables to back away. After they did, she volunteered to be the good guy and let Levine speak. Moderator Griffin said it was Tiger Bay's decision. "Throw him out!" boomed a voice from the back. You really should honor our request to leave, advised the previous emcee.
An older woman stood to ask why he wasn't invited. No one would say. Has he met the legal requirements? she asked. Yes, he has. "If we deny him the opportunity, we're not doing the right thing," said another.
Levine, a freelance writer, was given the go-ahead for his opening. "I already gave it," he said. "Did everybody hear me the first time?" Yes! Sit down! murmured the rabble. "People in this room who would not have me speak know a lot about politics and very little about democracy," he replied, showcasing his gift for to-the-point retorts, if not much else, in his insurgent run.
The stakes rose slightly in a subsequent forum organized by the Downtown Orlando Partnership -- a group not smug enough to leave Levine off the agenda. Indeed, while Levine actually offered up a campaign pledge -- this one, to remove parking meters -- and council member Gordy renewed his assault on the mayor for her defiance of public consensus, it was Hood who laid out the more significant plans for the central business district.
In particular, she said, the city must "hold firm on our present hours of operations for our downtown clubs," thereby vowing to block club owners who want to extend the current 3 a.m. closing to 4 a.m.; chase the proliferation of tattoo and body-piercing salons from downtown and bar them from returning; and "immediately adopt" laws to sweep streets of prostitutes that have come to congregate along stretches such as Colonial Drive near the Orlando Arena.
Moreover, Hood vowed to speed city approvals for redevelopment of the vacant downtown block at Church Street and Orange Avenue that formerly housed the Terror on Church Street haunted house. The block's Middle Eastern owners, she said, have given up plans to develop the site themselves in favor of selling, "and we have had several development groups come in and make proposals so far. I'm just hoping that we can facilitate that process more quickly," she said.
Gordy, meanwhile, said again it's time to slow down Hood's push for a performing-arts center -- and with the Civic Theatres of Central Florida suddenly begging the public to help pull it out of debt, he can reiterate that position with new urgency. "Wouldn't it be nice to take that money and nurture our arts and cultural corridor that we're trying to establish now, at a time when we can't sustain a civic theater, we can't sustain a science center, and we've lost our symphony?" he said.
The pitch points up Gordy's challenge in trying to distinguish his record from that of a mayor with whom he's served six years on the City Council; though Gordy voted for it, the nascent arts corridor is widely known as Hood's baby.
But as evidence of Hood's trampling, full-steam-ahead tactics, Gordy has begun to cryptically slip the First United Methodist Church of Orlando into his spiel. The church, which 12 years ago spent $5.6 million for two acres that now sit in the path of the performing-arts center -- for which, after all, a scale model has been designed -- has retained an attorney to head off condemnation proceedings that church leaders fear are imminent. Indeed, the city made a purchase offer of more than $4 million on the land last year that the church rejected.
"Our position was, it's not for sale. It's not even a money issue," says Joe Nisbett, chairman of the church's board of trustees. "The church sees that land as integral to their long-term viability downtown." But already the struggle has cost them money: A business to which the church leased a building on the land has moved out, citing the site's uncertain future as the reason, Nisbett said.
Although Hood set aside money in a previous city budget to move a nearby fire station off the performing-arts center site, church officials never were formally contacted by the city about the potential use of their land. Instead, says Nisbett, when a pastor tried to arrange a meeting with Hood to discuss it, he was shuffled off to city administrator Brenda Robinson, who has been assigned by Hood to work almost exclusively on the project for more than a year.
Such realities, Gordy suggest, give the lie to Hood's stated embrace of inclusion and consensus. Here, he wants voters to believe, is another example where the mayor's decided what's good for the city -- even if those affected haven't been included in the discussion.