Mayor Glenda Hood proclaimed 2002 the year of the arts, but this municipal election season more accurately pays homage to the almighty dollar, judging from the eight candidates who met the Jan. 18 deadline officially to declare their campaigns for the Orlando City Council. Five candidates in three city commission races each have collected more than $30,000 in contributions, an unofficial record. One candidate, Roger Chapin in District 3, broke the $70,000 mark, the largest amount in the history of a council race not counting a mayoral campaign. Given the usual turnout, he will be lucky to collect 2,000 votes in the March 12 election, meaning he will have spent $35 for each vote he receives.
Unfortunately for voters, all that money won't necessarily help them determine whom to vote for. Races are non-partisan, so you can't vote party lines. Only one city-wide candidate forum is scheduled. But it's closed to the public. The candidates' web sites are helpful, but they all say the same thing: Each will work for better neighborhoods, better traffic flow, safer streets.
Candidates likely won't bother with radio or TV spots because each district contains about 14,000 voters out of a metro population of 1.4 million. And they can't mail too many brochures for fear of annoying constituents. So how best to use all that cash? "I'm spending more money on higher-quality brochures," says Chapin, who at 31 would become the youngest Orlando commissioner since George Stuart Jr. won office in 1972. "I wanted to have nice yard signs. Whether that pays off, we'll have to see."
In District 1, incumbent real-estate broker Don Ammerman, 55, faces a veteran campaigner, 51-year-old outdoors writer Tom Levine, running in his third municipal election. Levine is well-known around City Hall and has a grass-roots following that earned him 3,000 votes in the last mayor's race. But Levine's home was recently gerrymandered into another district. He had to move back into District 1 to run against Ammer-man. Will that concern voters? And will he be able to shake the reputation that he's too immature and flaky for public office?
Another District 1 candidate, tax attorney Phil Diamond, 42, boasts a résumé more typical of those who seek public office in Central Florida. He's a Rotarian, founder of the Delaney Park Neighbor-hood Association and vice president of the Blankner Elementary School Foundation. He also has $33,690 in his campaign chest, including $1,000 from Charles Hood -- the mayor's husband. (Some may look at the endorsement as a detriment. Hood was 0-3 in the 2000 council elections.)
In District 5, observers are waiting to see if a strong anti-incumbent attitude will oust Daisy Lynum, a 55-year-old social worker seeking a second term. Lynum's district has seen a resurgence in development during her first four years in office. But she has offended people with her put-downs and bullying tactics. Her enemies have begun devising alternatives to her "proven leader" campaign slogan. Their preferences: "A proven liar" and "Osama bin Lynum."
Mary Jackson, a state employee who works in the Parramore neighborhood, the troubles of which have been front-and-center during Lynum's tenure, will challenge Lynum. Jackson has reported no campaign cash and, like Levine, also recently had to move into her district. Jackson, however, isn't willing to yield ground. "This race will be closer than [Lynum] thinks," Jackson says.
Also running against Lynum -- as she did in 1998 -- is Lawanna Gelzer, executive director of a non-profit agency that helps low-income HIV patients. Gelzer has served on a number of public-service boards; and her mother, Betty, is a Parramore matriarch. Gelzer, 39, also has the most innovative campaign advertisement: She bought a Chrysler PT Cruiser and had it decked out with $1,500 in yellow graphics promoting her name. She says she is spending only her own money.
In the District 3 race, 47-year-old incumbent Vicki Vargo takes on Chapin in the most anticipated of the council contests. Along with Ammerman, Vargo is one of the independent voices on the council. Politicos, however, fear she has sold out to Hood in hopes of keeping the mayor from campaigning against her.
A real-estate attorney, Vargo has reason to worry about her opponent. In addition to the campaign cash, Chapin has a well-known Orlando name -- and deep roots. His mother is Linda Chapin, the former Orange County Chairman and congressional candidate; his wife, Susan, was born a Chicone, an old Orlando citrus-growing family.
Even so, Chapin hails from a Democratic family running in a Republican neighborhood, meaning his name could hurt as much as help. Chapin also may have to shake the fact that he lives in a Mediterranean-style mansion on Ivanhoe Boulevard and is a vice president at Mears Corp., the city's transportation giant. That the two go together should surprise no one. It's a sign of the times: Money still rules.