Pete Barr Sr. spent about 10 minutes in the City Clerk's Office last week, filling out forms while several family members looked on. Impeccably dressed in a suit, tie and "I Love Orlando" lapel pin, he answered questions from two television crews in the Council Chambers lobby. Then he returned to the Clerk's office and pretended to shuffle through documents as the cameras looked on. Unofficially, it was the election season's first made-for-TV moment. "I'm rehearsing," Barr joked with one of the clerks.
Barr and three other high-profile candidates, each capable of amassing sizable campaign chests, will have plenty of rehearsal time between now and the city's next election, March 9, 2004. As of this Sunday, they will have 21 months, one week, four days and eight hours of campaigning before polls open Ã making it the longest mayoral election in the city's 127-year history.
The four candidates share several traits, however superficial: All are men. All live in neighborhoods in the southeast part of the city. All maintain offices in downtown, less than half a mile from each other. All say the city does a poor job of communicating with other governments, including the county and the Winter Park City Commission. All are well-known among Orlando's ruling class. And each of the four announced that he wants to be mayor without issuing a comprehensive campaign platform or addressing much in the way of issues.
Pete Barr, Bill Sublette and Tico Perez are Republicans. Sublette, Perez and Wayne Rich are attorneys. Perez, 40, and Sublette, 39, would be among Orlando's youngest mayors. (Glenda Hood, the city's youngest mayor, was 40 when she took office.) Barr, 68, would be among the oldest. Perez would be the first Hispanic mayor. (For further comparisons, see the sidebar, next page.)
Each candidate says he intentionally downplayed his announcement that he will run: no big parties, no big fund-raisers. None of them plans to campaign significantly until after the November state and federal elections. They intend to go on listening tours, talking to groups and receiving feedback.
The quiet time will give the four an opportunity to brush up on their charisma. Not everyone is overwhelmed by their potential. Rollins College political scientist Rich Foglesong says that, with the exception of former state lawmaker Bill Sublette, "It isn't clear that any of them have very strong appeal." Again with the possible exception of Sublette, none is considered a household name.
There are numerous reasons the four decided they ought to announce so early. For starters, as the city has grown up, so have the politics. Orlando is no longer the small burg of 50,000 residents it was in 1950. It is an internationally recognized city of 186,000 residents Ã and 85,000 registered voters Ã in a metro area of 1.6 million people. The city's next mayor will likely spend more than $700,000 to win election. Former Mayor Carl Langford spent only $55,000 in 1976.
"Politics has evolved," says Lew Oliver, head of the Orange County Republican Party. "There's very few offices you can run for where you get started two months in advance. Presidential races used to be five- to six-months long. Now they're two years long. Just about everything in the political arena has an extended time frame. I don't care what kind of campaign it is, you have to get started early, particularly in highly competitive races."
Even so, pundits expect future mayoral candidates to hold more to the traditional campaign timetable, which is about a year long. What's making 2004 special is Glenda Hood, Orlando's 52-year-old mayor, now in her third term in office. After President Bush won in 2000, Hood was reported to be in line for a federal political appointment. The rumors intensified when former Orange County Chairman Mel Martinez was selected for a Cabinet position. While the speculation has since subsided, it allowed political hopefuls to begin maneuvering for her office.
"We know that Glenda Hood has been trying to get a federal appointment for several years," says Barr, an advertising executive who endorsed Hood's opponent, Bruce Gordy, in the 2000 election. "If she were to get one in four to six months, that would cause a sprint run toward a special election."
Unless and until that happens, Hood remains the wild card in the 2004 race. The question everybody wants to know is whether she'll run again. Before the last election, she said her third term would be her last. Recently, she is said to have reconsidered on the advice of constituents.
Yet the signs are everywhere that Hood should reconsider her reconsideration. Her popularity has diminished the longer she has remained in office. In the 2000 election, Hood faced her first real opposition for mayor from former Commissioner Gordy. He raised $463,000 in his unsuccessful bid to unseat her, an impressive amount when you consider that Gordy entered the race only about four months before election day. Gordy admits running for mayor on such short notice was a mistake. He says feelings were hurt when he asked people for support even though they were already committed to Hood. Still, there was enough dissatisfaction with Hood to allow Gordy to raise all that money in a very short time span.
Another sign that Hood should stay out of the race was a poll in the April 7 Orlando Sentinel, showing that 75 percent of respondents believed the mayor should not seek a fourth term.
The poll was just one of many bad media moments Hood has endured since last summer when 27 firefighters and two police officers filed suit against the city, alleging that a city-run medical clinic failed to notify them of suspicious medical tests. (Firefighter attorneys were in the media again last week, having refiled their case.) Last fall the Sentinel ran a three-part series on what the newspaper described as the city's inept handling of the transfer of former Navy-base property to a private developer. Several weeks ago, Sentinel editorialists called on state attorney Lawson Lamar to investigate City Hall after reporter Mark Schlueb documented the large number of private meetings that had been held by council members, often without filing the appropriate documentation.
The higher level of scrutiny by the daily paper, which began with the arrival of Editor Tim Franklin two years ago, has left some city employees questioning whether the Sentinel is picking fights with the mayor. (Other observers say that the newspaper is finally doing its job.)
Hood's enemies, meanwhile, are excited about the idea that she might soon disappear from the local political arena. "There's a smell of blood in the water," says Doug Head, head of the Orange County Democratic Party. "People sense the end of Glenda Hood."
Hood's critics are also beginning to appear from unlikely sources, in unlikely ways. Like the current mayor, candidates Tico Perez and Bill Sublette are moderate Republicans. As such, they have put themselves in the awkward position of vowing to drop out of the mayor's race if Hood decides to run again. But both are also vocal about the current state of the city. They are careful not to blame Hood. Yet, who is the first person that comes to mind in reading the following statement from Sublette? "I've been frustrated with the direction of the city for the last four to five years. It seems like we've ground to a halt. We've not accomplished what we've needed to. I'm very opinionated about this. We need to refocus on our fundamental mission, and that is to make the city a better place to live, with cleaner streets, better services and better schools."
Perez doesn't condemn the city in so many words. But he is promising radical departure from the way the city has been run. "We'll have some major initiatives rolling out this summer," he says. "Progressive initiatives. Aggressive initiatives. We'll be pushing the envelope on some of our problems."
The question is, if Sublette and Perez are so adamant about a new direction, why drop out if Hood returns? Even if the two don't find Hood at fault, doesn't it behoove them as public servants to run against the incumbent CEO of a rudderless city?
Perez says no. He has other ways he can serve the community. "This is not a martyrdom thing," he says. "This is about who in the field of candidates is the most uniquely qualified person to see where we need to go."
Sublette says he's convinced Hood won't run again. As politically savvy as she is, Hood likely realizes the increasing difficulty of entering the race with each passing day. Allegiances are already being lined up, donations promised.
Sublette says Hood is playing it smart by waiting to announce her intentions. "Nothing will hamstring her worse than acknowledging that she is a lame-duck mayor Ã in dealing with the council and even the community at large," he says.
If Hood is out of the picture, Orlando might have its first really competitive mayoral race since 1980. That was the year Bill Frederick, an attorney promising reform, took on council member Shelton Adams. The election, however, turned out to be uneventful. Frederick won with 68 percent of the vote and went on to lead the city for 12 years during what some consider to be Orlando's golden era.
"Orlando used to have a good-old-boys system," says Foglesong, the Rollins College professor. "Someone got tapped to run for mayor. When Bill Frederick was moving out, Glenda Hood was moving up. She was anointed, rather than the winner of a competitive election. This time there is no heir apparent."
Many people would like to return to the days when Frederick was highly regarded as a business-friendly mayor. But Foglesong says it's time to leave the past behind. "It's become more complicated since the Frederick era," he says. "There are more players and different issues. Government plays a larger role. The private sector can't run things like they did in the era of Bill Frederick. The city needs someone who knows the governmental role."
Sublette, then, should get the nod as the early front-runner because he has the requisite governmental experience: He was a state representative from 1993 until 2000. The California native is a fiscal conservative who says he takes a libertarian view on many social issues. At the moment, his platform is no-thrills. He plans to talk about ordinary things like better schools, diverting railway lines away from downtown Orlando and burying utility lines."Other candidates might talk about issues that poll strongly," he says. "But I intend to talk about very mundane things."
Sublette's main concern is Wayne Rich. So far, Rich is the only announced Democrat in a city that has 12,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans. (The mayor's race is officially nonpartisan, though many voters are expected to toe the party line.) But Rich is a relative unknown whose reserved manner might fail to spark a diverse Democratic constituency. Many Democrats stayed home in 2000, when only 37 percent of the electorate bothered to vote.
With Bruce Gordy unable to get his name out, voters were left to decide between Hood and political gadfly Tom Levine. Many felt they had no choice at all. That feeling is shared by pundits who say that the candidates announced thus far for 2004 are homogenous and interchangeable.
"There's a feeling that these candidates aren't going to be reformer-type candidates," says Michael Hoover, a Seminole Community College political scientist. "They are established, Republican-oriented candidates. Is the city going to be different if Bill Sublette becomes mayor? No. Tico Perez? No. Pete Barr? No. It's going to be business as usual."
Hoover would like to see somebody step up who can persuade constituents that major growth-reform is in order. Or, someone who sounds convincing about mass transportation and downtown revitalization. It wouldn't hurt for a liberal, a female candidate and an African American to join the field. Perhaps somebody who can push the mental envelope the way Ralph Nader did in the 2000 presidential election.
"It may not mean that they win," Hoover says. "But at least they'll be taken seriously."
Whoever those candidates might be, they'd better hurry. Time is quickly slipping by. The next city election, after all, is only 15,392 hours away.