Not many people step out of their house onto a street named for them. Mable Butler does; the city so honored her in 1994. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Butler brought her unique brand of politicking to both the Orlando city council and the Orange County commission. And by "unique brand of politicking," I mean someone unafraid to step on toes, to be impolite when necessary, to swear in public, to tell people they're incompetent schmucks if that's how she sees it — consequences be damned. If you view politics as theater, Butler is the loud-mouthed actress who steals every scene. Not surprisingly, that's made her a polarizing figure. Some people love her, some people hate her, and she's fine with that. Most of the time, the feelings are reciprocated.
After eight years — she left the county commission in 1998 — Butler is "recycling" herself. She threw her hat back into the ring after the state attorney's office indicted Orlando commissioner Ernest Page on bribery-related charges and Gov. Jeb Bush suspended him. Butler was one of five people to campaign for Page's now-vacant seat in an April 11 special election that was remarkable for its pathetic 7.1 percent turnout; just 1,342 people of 18,895 registered voters went to the polls. Butler took 483 votes, or 36 percent, which put her in first place but didn't get her enough votes to avoid a May 9 runoff election against Sam Ings, who garnered a whopping 304 votes.
Orlando Weekly talked with Butler about her race, her legacy and her future in politics. We got a mouthful — and some tangential rambling — along the way.
Orlando Weekly: Are you surprised that you didn't get enough votes on April 11 to avoid a runoff?
Mable Butler: What I'm most surprised about is that the people didn't go out to vote. Had they gone out, I think I would have gotten what I needed without going into a runoff, but nobody went out to vote. The total number of persons voting in the district six April 11 race was 1,346 `editor's note: It's actually 1,342`. So you divide that among five candidates that have mommas, sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts, cousins that love them — whether they can do the job or not, they love them. … I got what was there, but I'm surprised `at` the low turnout, because I thought it would be much more important to the citizenry because we just had a commissioner indicted. And that could be vice versa, the hell with it. The hell with politics.
OW: When former Mayor Bill Frederick ran for mayor last year after Dyer's indictment, he campaigned on the premise that he had the experience to step into the job immediately. Your campaign seems based on the same idea.
MB: Well, No. 1, if you ever ride a bicycle you might stop riding, but you always know `how to do` it. Having served 14 years total with city and county, I have no learning curve. Remember, I'm not running for this job to live there forever. … We've been here before with this same commissioner `editor's note: Page has a previous felony conviction for fencing stolen goods in the 1980s`. Guilty or not guilty, I don't know. That's up for the jury to decide. … I had calls and calls and calls: "Commissioner Butler, please go and stay and try and get things straight for us." And I mean there are different reasons people call. Some say, "Go, girl, you can do it." That's why I continued with the "Recycle Mable Butler" `campaign`. I have no learning curve. If that's the question you asked; I went around the bin to answer it. I have no learning curve. I don't know all the issues; I know some tight issues are coming up. I know we are talking about a penny `increase to the tourist tax to fund a new arena` and all the big boys and girls are fighting over who's going to get what and when. I have no learning curve. I cannot be intimidated from outside of City Hall on my vote.
OW: Why is Orlando city commissioner Daisy Lynum supporting your opponent?
MB: I don't know. Daisy has never supported me. I don't know why, because she has come out and spoke that she is supporting Sam Ings. But prior to that she dubbed Vicki `Felder, who placed third in the April 11 election`, she brought Vicki out. Vicki was spouting it out all over the community, and in some of the forums we had, that she was in this race because commissioner Lynum and `Orange County` commissioner `Homer` Hartage asked her to. So I don't know whether that's true or false. But after Vicki finished third, I guess in this race, they decided that they would throw their support, all three of them, to Sam. … I don't think Sam can work with the mayor. Sam was the president of the recall of Buddy Dyer. I'm sure both of them will say they can work with each other, but you and I both know, you're talking out of both sides of your mouth.
OW: You have a reputation as a firebrand; at the very least you're one of the more colorful politicians this city has ever seen. How do you think that reputation will effect the election?
MB: One time, a gentleman told me this when I was running for county `commission`, he asked the mayor what kind of person I was. `The mayor` told him that "she'd throw you under the bus and then take you to the hospital." All I'm saying is that you can't tell me it's raining and I see the sun shining. I'm very opinionated, you're right. I'm very truthful. I have strong convictions about people, the principles; I put them all above politics. And if that's wrong, then I've been wrong all of my life.
OW: Why'd you decide to re-enter the political sphere after Page's suspension?
MB: I thought I was going to be a keeper of a seat until either the commissioner was found guilty or not guilty. If he's not guilty, he takes his seat `back`. If he's found guilty, I thought I would be there until 2008, hoping I could train or place somebody in the right position to know City Hall. See, most of the time — and this is true, if you research this — you'll find most whites … run because they springboard from volunteer boards where they work. I can name you five or six that sit on the zoning and planning, and end up `city` commissioners. I can name five or six that did the same thing in the county. They thought they had enough information to run. Along with that, they may have been active in other people's campaigns, which helped them learn what campaigning is all about. Most times in the black community we hop right out of the trash, right out of whatever and run for an office that we don't know anything about. So that is the difference. And that is what I would like to do.
OW: If Page is convicted he loses his seat, and that presents a strange political scenario. There would be another special election, and then another regularly scheduled election in 2008. Do you plan on seeking a full term if things work out that way?
MB: No. Wait a minute. Let's go back. We have to wait and see how this thing plays out. I am hoping that I can mentor someone. … It won't be Sam Ings. Because I don't think Sam's head is in the right place. When he lost the mayor's race, he got with a bunch of people — anybody but Buddy Dyer — to try and recall him. And I know Sam didn't have that kind of money to hire people to walk petitions because they couldn't, they wouldn't do it on the volunteer basis. So he hired people. So Sam was getting his money from somewhere else, not from Sam. I don't think Sam's head is in the right place, even though he says he's a minister. They have a lot of them serving time, ministers, OK? … I'm not going to say I won't, and I will. I refuse to say that. I got back in this to hold a seat 'til 2008, hoping that the right Ms. Right or Mr. Right will gear themselves up to run. … If `Page is` found guilty there's another special election. But his seat is up in 2008. I just don't see the city spending that kind of money. I can see the taxpayers protesting another `special` election.
OW: What are the most pressing issues for District 6?
MB: One of the things I'd like to do, if elected — because I'm hearing from a lot of folk about this, that and the other — if elected, I would hold a neighborhood summit. Now issues like downtown, the arena, the Citrus Bowl and International Drive and transportation, they will be with us. But I would hold a summit of neighborhood and homeowner associations and I would do it like a convention sort of thing. … `W`e would talk about your issues, your priorities. Because every need is different in every community. That is one of the things that I would do because I have been doing a lot of commissioner Page's work, commissioner Homer Hartage's work and even commissioner Lynum's work, because people say they are not accessible and they do not return calls. So I don't know. If there is a need, I have filled it for them, because rather than follow the path of the citizenry I go straight to the department head. That's one of the `benefits of the` knowledge of the relationship I left from both city and county.
OW: You've been called the matriarch of African-American politics in Orlando. Is that a label you embrace?
MB: I take all labels; SOB, MF, they call me a little bit of everything. It's whom I'm talking to, and who's in love with me. Know that I would lie down and let a car run over me for them, or the community or people in general. I was a social worker prior to being involved politically. I never had any idea I'd run for office, I never wanted to because I felt that, because I speak up and speak out, I could render as many people when I got on my soapbox as a preacher. But I got mad because of something in the community and I decided I would run. That is how I got into this. I have hurt a lot of people's feelings, because rather than saying it's the white folk that did this, `I say` "You did this because you are not active." I don't have a problem with telling it as it is. And I don't have a problem for fighting or pushing for what is right.