Politicians love to talk about families, but no candidate in the Orlando mayor's race likes to talk about families more than Bill Sublette.
During debates, Sublette returns to domestic life time and again, sometimes introducing his wife Suzanne and always reminding voters he has two daughters, Alex and Aubrey, 4 and 1 respectively, who help shape his vision of Orlando. "I like to see what the city will be like through their eyes," he told a College Park audience at First Baptist Church Monday.
When policy issues arise about downtown, Sublette, a former state legislator and, at 39, the youngest of eight mayoral candidates, often responds like a concerned papa. He'd like to help downtown's homeless get off the streets so parents can enjoy city life with their children. "Moms and dads have rights, too," he says.
Similarly, during debates, Sublette puts a family spin on the arts. "What are the arts? They're not just a professional symphony, Broadway shows or the ballet," he says. "They're a lot of things, including youth choirs. There's no better sight I like to see than when my wife brings my daughter to my office Tuesday afternoons after ballet practice, in her pink leotard. The arts start with children." Call it the soccer-mom strategy, a middle-of-the road approach designed to offend no one and include everyone. Who, after all, is against family and kids?
Sublette isn't so much playing it safe as he is playing it smart. The early buzz in the race is that he's neck-in-neck with former state senator Buddy Dyer. Both have the name recognition to win in this short election cycle.
But the family values theme, as innocent as it may sound, actually has some observers worried. It sounds similar to the hunky-dory tone adopted by Orlando's outgoing mayor, Glenda Hood. During her 11-year tenure, Hood treated the city as if residents were her grandkids, gushing about the city "family" while appearing spineless, petty and vindictive on some key issues.
Hood failed to back commissioners on such no-brainers as installing sidewalks and threatened to withhold money from commissioner's districts when they pushed for televised council meetings. She was widely criticized for delaying a council vote on a gay-rights amendment last fall while she sought an appointment to Jeb Bush's cabinet. Then, after landing the secretary of state's job in December, she delayed her resignation date, prohibiting commissioner Daisy Lynum from becoming, even briefly, Orlando's first black mayor.
Some political observers are hoping that if this election is about anything, it's about finding the anti-Hood. "The last thing we need is Glenda II or Glenda Jr.," says District 4 Commissioner Patty Sheehan.
Hood and Sublette have been linked together because both are moderate Republicans and because Sublette was deferential to Hood before she resigned, saying he wouldn't run for mayor if she decided to run for re-election.
Yet Sublette chafes at the suggestion he is Hood Lite. Especially since he gained a reputation as a maverick lawmaker during eight years at the statehouse, representing District 40, which ranges along Orlando's east side from the Audubon Park neighborhood to the Osceola county line. "Sublette didn't always take the conservative line, particularly on abortion issues," says UCF political scientist Aubrey Jewett. "He stood up for a woman's right to choose, which engendered Republican opposition when he was an incumbent."
In Tallahassee, Sublette, a civil-litigation attorney, was known as a legislator who looked out for the little guy. He wrote a law capping the amount lenders could charge for people borrowing on their car title, won more money for education and wrote a law outlawing racial profiling. The Miami Herald ranked him in the top 20 of 120 representatives during his last four years in office.
Sublette also received high marks for his attempts to open the statehouse to average people. He scheduled an annual event, the "Tallahassee Trek," in which several busloads of students and supporters paid a nominal fee to ride to the state capital for the day. They met the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the house, and were given a tour of the Florida Supreme Court building by one of the justices. Sublette came and went as his legislative time dictated, but made it a point to have lunch with the group.
Yet Sublette's campaign kick-off hasn't gone as smoothly as planned. He was slower than his opponents to put up a website, and his supporters don't appear as vigorous as those in other campaigns.
He's also been dogged by minor incidents from his past.
In December, 1989, Sublette was involved in an altercation with a woman in what is best described as a double-date from hell. The woman, on a date with Sublette's friend, slapped Sublette twice from behind after arguing with him about how he was treating his then-girlfriend. Sublette leaned into the back seat and slapped the woman and the two wrestled for a minute, according to a handwritten report filed with Orlando police by Sublette's date. Sublette himself reported the incident to police but charges were never filed.
Last October, Sublette was driving down Summerlin Avenue with his wife Suzanne, six months pregnant with their third child, after attending a Magic game. Out of nowhere, Sublette says, a female driver began tailgating him, several inches from his bumper. Sublette let off the gas and the woman tried to pass, nearly causing a head-on accident, according to Sublette. He says he swerved off the road, and she slammed on her brakes. She began yelling at him and pointing, and in defense, he put up his hand to block her hand. He got back in his car and started driving to his Delaney Park home, but she followed. "I was scared," Sublette says. "I felt foolish."
So Sublette headed for the Orlando police station, at which point the woman broke off. Ten days later she filed a report, but police didn't charge her or Sublette.
He says he's told media about the incidents but since he wasn't arrested or charged in either case, editors wouldn't touch it. The implication is that running the story is unethical. "I don't know the journalistic standards of your paper, but if I was never arrested, I don't find it to be newsworthy," he says. "It is clear to us that multiple campaigns have tried to find someone to write about this."
Orlando voters won't likely find the incidents revealing either, since one happened 13 years ago and the other involved an everyday occurrence of road rage. But it seems odd that in an era when presidential candidates must answer questions about drug use and former pro basketball players' sexual peccadilloes are front-page sports news, that incidents of alleged violence involving mayoral candidates should be hidden from voters.
Besides, Sublette has larger concerns.
Buddy Dyer, a natural campaigner, is a Democrat in a city with 39,368 Democratic voters and only 26,743 Republicans. And Sublette might not even be the best moderate Republican in the race. Tico Perez is making a strong push by displaying an amazing knowledge of city government and a healthy amount of personal charm.
But you won't hear much about little ballerinas in pink tights from the Perez campaign. He doesn't have any kids.