If you haven't been paying attention, next Tuesday is your last chance to vote in the general election for Orlando City Council races. And if you have been paying attention, then you know this melodramatic political tale that one candidate described as "the Jerry Springer" show is finally coming to an end.
Orlando Commissioners Jim Gray (District 1), Robert Stuart (District 3) and Regina Hill (District 5) are all up for re-election, and all have a cluster of competitors after their spots (and $58,000 salaries) on the city's top municipal board. In her first re-election bid, Hill, more than incumbents Stuart or Gray, faces the biggest challenge, going up against six other candidates for the district that goes from Parramore to MetroWest. All three incumbents have received the endorsement blessings of Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, but that doesn't mean this match is over.
The good news is that most candidates agree on what should be important to the city: affordable housing, access to transportation, good jobs and public safety, all the more important with the influx of hurricane victims from Puerto Rico. The bad news is that, rather than debating policy, the commission races have turned into disputes over personalities and, at times, petty tit-for-tat disagreements.
Ultimately, though, you get the last word, and we're hoping this voting guide helps you differentiate between the noise and the substance.
Early voting started Monday, Oct. 30, and ends Sunday, Nov. 5. The election will take place on Tuesday, Nov. 7. Check your registration and voting location at ocfelections.com. Happy voting!
D5 Treasure Chest:
(Total funds raised as of Oct. 6, rounded to dollar)
Regina Hill: $41,885
Ericka Dunlap: $29,405
Betty Gelzer: $20,739
Sarah Elbadri: $8,199
Jibreel Ali: $7,225
Cynthia Harris: $6,257
Ondria James: $300
When she first ran in 2014 as an unknown candidate against a political dynasty, Commissioner Regina Hill's slogan was about bringing back "power to the people." Three and a half years after her surprising upset, Hill wants her constituents to back her new slogan: "The work continues."
"I've kept my promises from when I started," she says. "I don't want to do anything different. I want to expand on the great work that I've done."
Nearly four years after beating the son of former commissioner Daisy Lynum, Hill has a number of accomplishments under her belt, such as engaging more residents in the district; helping to turn the area into an educational hub by supporting Parramore's new Canvs co-working space and the Creative Village, backing neighborhood revitalization projects from the nonprofit LIFT Orlando near Camping World Stadium; and bringing in several hundred units of affordable housing, including 211 mixed-income units at the Parramore Oaks apartment complex.
District 5, which includes Parramore, Callahan, Rock Lake, Ivey Lane and the Mercy Drive Corridor, is mostly made up of African-American residents. Many are proud of where they live, but historical neglect and the effects of decades of racial segregation have left District 5 still reeling from prolonged impoverishment. Hill campaigned on a promise to make that better, and her supporters say she's done just that. But although she and the other six candidates have put forth similar proposals for the district, she differs substantially with her opponents on one subject: gentrification.
"Actually, I don't find neither one a dirty word," Hill said during a May debate when asked about gentrification and urban development. "What I find is that we have to be responsible with urban development and gentrification. I mean that I don't think that any community deserves a community that is full of hopelessness and despair and poverty."
Most notably, with the developments of the University of Central Florida-Valencia College campus that will bring 7,700 students to downtown, the Orlando City Soccer stadium and businesses that have popped up in surrounding areas, residents have complained of being pushed out of some of the only neighborhoods they can afford – and as they leave, Parramore is losing its culture. Hill's proposed solution is to develop mixed-income housing and use land trusts on properties with single-family homes to maintain current property values.
"Gentrification is not a dirty word," Hill said in the debate. "It's dirty when we do not care for our citizens and residents that are there."
Hill's answer on gentrification is what pushed Sarah Elbadri, an urban planner who was most recently the executive director of the SoDo Main Street program, to throw her hat in the ring.
"Our incumbent said gentrification wasn't a dirty word, and yeah, textbook definition of gentrification, no," she says. "But the connotations of it, and the real consequence of it, are a huge issue."
Elbadri, who helped start the Juice Bike Share program in Orlando, thinks the key is in a comprehensive affordable housing strategy and a dedicated budget for the Lynx transportation system.
"It's happening because downtown is growing," she says. "We need to figure out how that affects economic development and economic opportunity and how do we drive better-paying jobs into our cities and how do we shape that with government. We have a lot of power, especially in the communities that are the fastest changing, because we own a lot of that property as a city."
Cynthia Harris, a self-employed community activist often present at Orlando City Hall meetings, says she wants to change the relationship between the District 5 commissioner and constituents. During city meetings, Harris and Hill have gotten into heated debates, and the current race has focused on personal attacks.
"It's been like Jerry Springer unleashed," she says. "Out of all of the people in this race, the only person not chasing a check here is me. For too long, we've had people who look like us that are not for us. At the end of the day, the commissioners don't tell you what's going on until it's already said and done. As a voter and resident of District 5, it's my job to hire and fire the person that represents me."
Most of the smackdown scenes at recent debates have been among Hill, Jibreel Ali and Ericka Dunlap. Ali, a community organizer and former president of the Spring Lake Manor Neighborhood Association, contends that Hill is taking credit for the work on affordable housing done by Lynum and former Orlando City Commissioner Mable Butler, who is Ali's grandmother.
"Affordable housing is a major concern, not only for the people who live here in the district but with the hurricane in Puerto Rico, we're going to have people coming over," he says. "Long-term, we need to figure out how we can grow in West Orlando and bring people to our community. We also need to make sure we dignify the authors behind that work and make sure the audience knows the difference with taking credit and being a part of it."
The other distinction between Hill and several of the candidates are their reactions to the police response after the shooting of an Orlando police officer. Hill, who was friends with Lt. Debra Clayton, didn't want to comment on the nine-day manhunt for her alleged killer, Markeith Loyd, through West Orlando that left many residents on edge and concluded with some officers repeatedly kicking and punching a crawling Loyd.
In a January interview with WKMG 6, Hill said what she saw was "not brutality."
"Right now, I am still grieving the loss of my dear sister, Debra Clayton, that was murdered – not even just murdered, assassinated – shot nine times," Hill says. "I think the major focus should be on the family that's grieving the loss of a mother, wife, sister, a humble servant and the family of Sade Dixon [Loyd is also accused of killing Dixon]."
Most of Hill's competitors called it excessive force and are calling for more accountability for police, including increased use of body cameras and more people from District 5 on the Citizens' Police Review Board and other municipal bodies.
Hill has also been through a hell of a few years – aside from Clayton's death, her 24-year-old daughter Arvonni DeBose died, leaving her to raise a grandson. Hill, who used her checkered past to connect with many disenfranchised residents during her first election, attributed her incoherent speech in an online video to the losses she suffered. The video resurfaced in the last debate in October, though it was quickly shut down by Hill, who said she "doesn't even see the haters" as she fights for her district. Dunlap, a former Miss America pageant queen and public relations professional campaigning on a message of diversity and inclusion, says commissioners should be held up to a higher standard.
"It is an honor to be able to receive the trust of people who live in an area you are deeply connected to you," Dunlap says. "I think that's a respectable position who should be for a person respectful and respect-worthy. We all go through challenges – two years ago, my fiancé committed suicide and my brother died six months ago. ... Life is not easy, but it's easy to be rebellious. It's difficult to follow the straight and narrow path that allows you to focus on your goals as opposed to distractions."
To her critics, Hill says she's not a rubber-stamp for Dyer's proposals and it's fair to attack her – just don't dispute the work.
"I love District 5," she says. "I love this city. Wherever there's work to be done, I'm always available somewhere working. No one works harder than me. I'm passionate. I don't take this job lightly."
(Candidates Ondria James and Betty Gelzer did not respond to a request for comment.)
Next page: District 1 and District 3 races.