You might say Daisy Lynum's career on the Orlando City Council was baptized in controversy. She took office on June 1, 1998, which happened to be the day commissioners heard one of the most divisive issues in recent memory. A gay-pride group wanted to fly rainbow-colored flags throughout downtown Orlando, as other groups had done in the past. The issue for flag proponents was one of equal access.
The religious right had other ideas. Twenty-four speakers, most of whom identified themselves as Christians, lined up in the council chambers in opposition to the flags. Two were black ministers, who called homosexuality an "abomination" and "debauchery." But Lynum yielded no ground in her support of the gay group, and its proposal prevailed. In fact, she lightened the mood by noting that years earlier, on her first day on the Municipal Planning Board, she had been involved in a debate over an abortion clinic near Lake Lucerne. "There's something about first days for me," she remarked.
The Lynum on that June day was the city representative that District 5 voters were hoping for. Self-assured, principled, able to see the big picture, unbiased, enthusiastic, energetic -- Lynum was going to bring a vibrancy to District 5 that had been lacking in the last years of Commissioner Napoleon "Nap" Ford. Ford, who had been the district's only representative since 1980 when it was created to provide better black representation, suffered from health problems and didn't seem engaged politically. In his last three years in office, he never once voted in opposition to Mayor Glenda Hood.
Lynum represented a new guard. She was going to help downtown businesses, which had contributed heavily to her campaign, as well as low-income families living on the west side of I-4. She would stand up to Hood's administration and push for more benefits for her largely African-American constituency.
But somewhere over the last four years, the promise Lynum showed that day bogged down into name-calling, petty territorial disputes and a reputation as Hood's lackey. She has rushed to Hood's aid numerous times and shown an unparalleled hostility to District 5 constituents, calling opponents to her positions ants, fleas, pathetic people, fools and a posse of fools. She even compared them to the Taliban terrorist group. Not content with belittling her constituents, she also has called District 3 Commissioner Vicki Vargo classless and "retarded." She drew the ire of other commissioners several years ago when she scolded them for voting Hood off the airport board, saying they were following the "coward's way."
Lynum, who turns 56 in May, says she's the kind of person people should rally around as she seeks re-election March 12 to a second four-year term. She says she's a straight shooter, a commissioner unafraid of telling it like it is, even if it causes controversy. Yet she often comes across as boastful and duplicitous. She says she is a great researcher, has a photographic memory and is in touch with the needs of her district because she walks it every few months. But last year some of her constituents were surprised to learn that she'd been negotiating to allow a medical clinic for low-income patients to expand in Parramore. She negotiated even though the city has a ban on the expansion of homeless agencies in the neighborhood. Lynum's explanation: She forgot that the ban applied to the area of Parramore she was negotiating for.
Lynum also has shown an alarming propensity to play the race card -- much more so than the council's other black commissioner, Ernest Page. She has involved race in the light-rail debate, the mayor's race, the closing of a street in her Rock Lake neighborhood, a moratorium on homeless providers in Parramore, the debate over a new arena and the Nap Ford Community School. Yet, proving her allegations is something else. Last September she claimed her neighbors in Rock Lake, who wanted to be rezoned out of Lynum's district, had sent racist letters to the redistricting committee. But copies of those letters obtained by Orlando Weekly showed that race was not an issue. Similarly, she once insinuated to a reporter that City Hall was engulfed in racist attitudes. When asked to provide more information, however, she responded that she was too busy to be a whistle-blower.
Commissioner Page, on the other hand, says that African-American leaders who see racism have an obligation to react against it. If not, Page says they shouldn't be accusatory because it might come across as vanity. "Ego-tripping doesn't make me a revolutionary," says Page, who has not endorsed Lynum, or the incumbents in two other council races, in this year's election.
Lynum's opponents both hope to capture the anti-Lynum vote. Lawanna Gelzer, 39, is a Rock Lake resident who runs a nonprofit HIV clinic and is a financial officer for Greater Orlando Area Legal Services, which provides assistance to low-income residents. Gelzer is largely concerned with bringing more health-care services to the west side but is opposed to the expansion of a Parramore medical facility treating low-income patients. Gelzer finished last in a four-way race for the District 5 seat in 1998.
Mary "Action" Jackson, 49, is a state worker who prepares public-service announcements on venereal disease for teen-agers. She says she'll allow more access to her office than Lynum does, scheduling hours each week so constituents can come into her office with complaints. Jackson favors more street lights in neighborhoods and increased programs for children and seniors. She supports the expansion of the Parramore clinic.
Gelzer and Jackson are up against Lynum's $63,000 campaign chest, the second-largest amount collected this election season. Among the contributors who have given $500 to Lynum's campaign are the mayor and her husband, Charles; Disney Worldwide Services; the Orlando Magic; The Parliament House; and criminal defense attorney Mark NeJame, who contributed another $500 through his downtown nightclub, Tabu.
NeJame, who also backed Lynum in 1998, said he supports her because she's a woman of substance who stands up to the "good old boy" network. "I'm so sick of the arrogant country-club mentality," NeJame says. "I've fought that since I was in high school at Edgewater. There's a small elite group who thinks they know what is best for everyone. I'm not of that mentality. And Daisy is not of that mentality."
Even so, Lynum's re-election is anything but guaranteed. Sentiments against her run deep. In a letter last spring to the black newspaper, The Central Florida Advocate, John A. Wynn took exception to Lynum's taking credit for several projects on Mercy Drive that he believed should have gone to former County Commissioner Mable Butler: "Commissioner Lynum, sista-girl, a little piece of advice for you," Wynn wrote. "Money does not vote. People do. We smart black folks will see you and your money at the polls." Lynum also is the first city commissioner to have a website devoted solely to smearing her re-election bid (www.daisylynum.net).
Yet even with heated opposition, Lynum has not backed down. Asked if she had any regrets over the last four years, she replies, "Not a one."
Daisy Lynum was born May 10, 1946, in Leesburg, the largest city in Lake County, about 45 minutes northwest of downtown Orlando. She attended Carver Heights High School, then received a degree in sociology from Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach and a master's degree in social work from Florida State University. Lynum is divorced from Edward Lynum, a contractor and the former police chief of Wildwood. They have two adult sons, one of whom is a former Orlando police officer. In 1974, Lynum bought a house on the western edge of Rock Lake, on the opposite shore from The Parliament House, an Orange Blossom Trail motel and gay-entertainment complex.
For 20 years, Lynum worked as a social worker for the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services. In 1988, she took a job as a social worker with Orange County Public Schools, where she is responsible for alerting principals to students who have been arrested. Lynum, who intends to retire in May, has received largely positive reviews for her work: "Excels in establishing and maintaining excellent relationships with others," one evaluation reads. "She is able to develop a good rapport with all kinds of people."
Lynum first ran for office in 1982 against Alzo Reddick for a seat in the Florida Legislature. After losing, Lynum says she approached Reddick -- her brother's high-school teacher -- and offered her support. "We've been friends ever since," she says. In 1990, she ran for city council against Ford. In the campaign, she pointed out how subservient Ford appeared to be to then-Mayor Bill Frederick. "`Ford` OKs everything that comes across the city table," Lynum said.
Yet in her four years in office, Lynum hasn't behaved much differently. Though she once denied she was a "boot-licking commissioner," Lynum has voted in opposition to Hood exactly twice. In the fall of 1999, Lynum held fast in support of awarding the Centroplex concessionaire contract to Orlando Food Service Partners; she argued the company had better minority representation than Ogden-Goodings, a food service giant also competing for the contract. Last May, Lynum cast the lone vote against a cellular tower in Hankins Park. But that was only because she felt AT&T should still work with a nearby church to install the tower there.
It's true that this is not an especially contentious council. But in comparison, in less than two years, Vicki Vargo has voted against the mayor nine times and Patty Sheehan six times. Yet Lynum defends her record, saying that some commissioners resort to posturing while fighting their battles; instead, she prefers working quietly behind the scenes. She says she often asks city staff to pull items off the council agenda until she can work on them further. "I don't support Glenda," Lynum says. "I support the city agenda. I don't have to vote against `an item` because I learned early on to get it pulled off the agenda."
There are two problems, however, with pulling something off the agenda. One, it kills public debate, so that observers can't gauge who has the best ideas and the most persuasive arguments. Two, city policy requires that for an agenda item to be removed, at least four council members must vote to remove it. If Lynum is pulling items off as easily as she says, it might be prudent for city leaders to change their policy to better reflect the process Lynum is using.
At the same time, Lynum doesn't seem to have compelling ideas for the issues she champions. The No. 1 problem in District 5, especially the Parramore community, is crime. Parramore isn't a neighborhood in the normal sense of the word. It is an amalgamation of homeless providers, low-income residents, labor pools, commercial and industrial businesses, and government and nonprofit agencies. Residents to the north and west often complain about crime spilling over from Parramore. Ten streets in College Park and Spring Lake have been closed because of bleed-over crime.
Yet when asked what Lynum intended to do in the next four years, she said she favored the usual suspects -- neighborhood watch programs, job programs and more police. In the next breath, however, she backtracked: "I don't think more `police are` necessary."
After years of stagnation, there have been signs during Lynum's first term that Parramore is upgrading, thanks to the city's helping hand. In August, the Nap Ford Community School opened -- the first public school in Parramore in three decades. The Florida A&M Law School will break ground at Hughey Avenue and Washington Street this year. A new federal courthouse is planned to replace the one already in Parramore. This past December, construction crews broke ground on what will be a massive office, retail and residential complex at West Church Street and Division Avenue. The $53 million building will be home to Hughes Supply, a longtime Orlando and Fortune 500 construction-supply firm.
But Lynum's detractors give her little credit. "In all likelihood, it would have happened anyway," says Phil Cowherd, who owns 83 rental units in Parramore. "It's a sign of the times. Certainly the city has recognized that it's time to do something about the Parramore problem."
Gerald Bell, president of the Orange County branch of the NAACP, wrote in the branch's Winter 2002 newsletter that he was disappointed in Parramore's development. He criticized the city for not having a plan for the homeless, the mentally ill or the many people infected with HIV and tuberculosis. Bell blamed the Downtown Development Board, a city-run agency that came up with $12 million to subsidize the Hughes Supply project. He said the board failed "to provide the type of development resources that would benefit African Americans and the not-so-rich on the west side of Interstate 4."
Though the Hughes Supply project will have 120 apartments subsidized through the city for lower-income tenants, Bell says the city could be doing more. "They've spent a lot of money on commercial development," he says. "That same amount could have had people in affordable housing and treatment. They have to look at the social conditions that created these problems."
Told that Bell was dissatisfied with the city's handling of Parramore, Lynum responded, "Well, I'm happy."
If there's one place in particular that Daisy Lynum has failed as a public figure, it is championing the beliefs of her own party. Though Orlando elections are non-partisan, Lynum is one of two Democrats on the city council. Yet her party considers her to be a traitor. She not only endorsed the Republicans Hood, Mel Martinez and Bill Bagley, but also stumped for Gov. Jeb Bush. Those endorsements have left Orange County Democratic Party leader Doug Head "profoundly disappointed."
On the few "quality of life" issues to come to the council in the last few years, Lynum has proved equally incapable of maintaining the Democratic principle of looking out for the average citizen. When the debate over limiting tattoo parlors and imposing panhandling zones came up two years ago, raising civil-rights and First Amendment concerns, Lynum was the first commissioner to gush over the administration's plan. Her main concern was that the city wasn't pushing hard enough to limit basic freedoms. "So many things we prohibit downtown I wish were citywide," she said. "So many things I'd like to prohibit as we go west to Parramore." The city's other Democrat, Patty Sheehan, was more positive, asking instead what the city could do to lure upscale businesses downtown.
Lynum also declared that tattoos were "in bad taste" and that she couldn't go downtown without "seeing little kids with what I call self-injurious behavior." A month later, when confronted by a legion of tattooed young people demanding to know why the city was putting a moratorium on tattoo parlors, Lynum retreated to denials and half-truths. "I want to assure you, `the moratorium` is not any kind of indication of anyone's lifestyle," she said. "It has nothing to do with it. I have not heard that mentioned in our discussions."
Similarly, Lynum seems less than straightforward when discussing homeowner associations in her district. Association presidents Mercerdese Clark and Betty Gelzer both say Lynum has attended few of their meetings and has been largely uncommunicative. True, both Clark and Gelzer have conflicts. Clark, a former head nurse with the Orange County Health Department, was backed by Hood in a failed campaign against Lynum four years ago. And it's Gelzer's daughter, Lawanna, who is running again this year after coming up short in the 1998 race. Their relationships with Lynum are naturally awkward.
Even so, Gelzer and Clark say they have problems in their neighborhoods that need addressing. Clark wants a public bathroom placed in a park underneath the East-West Expressway overpass at Parramore Avenue; without one, parkgoers often urinate and defecate in the open. Gelzer says her neighborhood needs speed-limit signs and would like the city to do something about the flooding on Polk Street.
Yet Lynum rejects any notion that she has excluded the two women. "That is as full of bull as I've ever heard," she says. "Anybody who calls my office will get my help. Anybody who wants it, they get it. I don't discriminate."
But as Lynum continues talking, it doesn't take long, maybe less than a minute, before she contradicts herself. "I won't deal with a small group of negative people who don't deserve my attention," she says. "They've never contributed to anything. They are against everything. It makes no sense to me to placate them or give them two seconds of my time. I don't have sides. I work very, very hard."
Later she adds, "I don't deal with negative people. I am moving forward while they are standing still. In four years, I can't point to one thing they've done. They've never done anything to help. They are liars, pathological liars. These four or five people are so insignificant in the scheme of things. They are utterly destructive."
Lynum has been warned by other commissioners to keep those kinds of comments to herself. "I think it's important that even though we disagree with people, that we remember that they are taxpayers, citizens of Orlando and property owners," former Commissioner Bruce Gordy told Lynum at a February 2000 council meeting. "We need to treat them with respect just for our own integrity."
Lynum backer Dick Batchelor says her confrontational remarks illustrate her passion. "She has an emotional investment in her neighborhood, which I think is a good thing," he says. A liberal Democrat and well-known partisan fund-raiser, Batchelor also says Lynum pushed Democratic causes and doesn't see a problem with her endorsements. He cautions against making broad conclusions. "She's running for commissioner of Orlando," he says. "She's not seeking to be ordained."
Yet, Lynum's strong attacks overlook the fact that some of her detractors have a significant history of community service. Clark, for example, was executive director of the Parramore Heritage Renovation Foundation, a city-spawned nonprofit created to help Parramore pull itself out of poverty. Betty Gelzer, who owns a day-care center, has raised two generations of Parramore children and was a board member of the Parramore Heritage Renovation Foundation. Phil Cowherd was on the city's affordable housing committee and the steering committee for the Parramore Heritage Renovation Foundation. Cowherd has been besmirched as a slumlord so many times he jokes about it himself. But his family has maintained rental properties in Parramore since 1958 without once being called in front of the Code Enforcement Board. And Cowherd has quietly paid tuition so disadvantaged children can attend private schools.
Whatever their faults, the group hardly deserves to be compared unfavorably to Victor Thomas, the former Orange County Sheriff's captain who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to sell 40 pounds of cocaine. Yet, Lynum wrote a letter on city stationery to a federal judge last July asking for Thomas to be assigned to a cushy federal prison camp. Lynum defended her letter, saying, "That bad cop is better than the local Taliban."
That reference wasn't the first time Lynum has linked her critics to terrorists. Ten days after the Sept. 11 tragedies, she wrote in the Central Florida Advocate, "This week we've all witnessed the terror of evil-minded, ill-willed and angry people. On a smaller scale, I observe this type of destruction in our communities all the time and even though the scale is smaller, the impact is just as fatal."
Thomas is only one of many friends Lynum has been willing to help. After the 1998 election, she distributed more than $8,000 from her campaign account to 44 of her campaign workers. There's nothing illegal about the payments. But they do raise ethical concerns, especially since those paid include a police officer, a member of the NAACP and a homeowner-association president. Other candidates often go to great lengths to avoid looking as if they're buying loyalty. After the 2000 election, for example, former Commissioner Bill Bagley painstakingly distributed his leftover campaign cash by returning money to 243 contributors; some received a prorated check for as little as $1.75.
Still, Lynum will tell you she has nothing to worry about in this election. She once boasted that "a majority of people" love her style of leadership. "I was fairly elected," she said. "Strongly elected." In fact, she won 1,028 votes in 1998 in a district of 8,748 eligible voters -- or just 12 percent of the electorate. She beat her opponent, Charlie Jean Salter, by only 351 votes in the runoff. That's hardly a mandate worth bragging about. Yet it's typical of the facts Lynum brushes aside, secure in her belief that she alone is the ultimate truth-teller.