News & Features » News

Three Orlando city commissioners fight to keep their seats and fend off a slew of candidates in a contentious race

City Council smackdown!

by

comment

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!

DISTRICT 5

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."

citycouncil.jpg

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.

DISTRICT 1


D1 Treasure Chest:
(Total funds raised as of Oct. 6, rounded to dollar)
Jim Gray: $52,150
Tom Keen: $25,000
Sunshine Grund: $1,194 (self-loan)

Being the city's fastest-growing region is both a blessing and a curse for Lake Nona in District 1. It's led to ventures like the Medical City and the Orlando City Soccer training facility – but that growth has also contributed to pissed residents stuck in the perpetually clogged traffic veins called State Road 417 and Narcoossee Road.

Commissioner Jim Gray, though, says the Southeast Orlando district should continue with him as its representative.

"While not perfect, I think what the market is telling us is they like the lifestyle of the last five years," he says. "Except for a couple months, the district has been No. 1 in the building permits that come out of our area. Look at the results – I'm not trying to take credit for all of it, but we have led the city in new home growth, new job creation, now we're adding parks and bike trails. People like what they see. It's evidenced by the fact that they're moving to the area. Let's keep the momentum going."

Gray, president of the commercial real-estate firm GrayPointe Capital, has been in office since 2012. While his opponents say he's allowed developers to sprawl as far as they want, Gray says he's kept growth in check by requiring developers to reserve land for parks and schools to keep up with the new residents and adding more police officers for the district in the budget.

But Tom Keen, an aerospace simulation businessman who is one of Gray's opponents, says little affordable housing and standstill traffic congestion are among the district's worst problems. To the first point, Gray says affordable housing is something local officials have to work on in the future, especially with the Puerto Rican evacuees expected to relocate to Orlando. Gray has argued the city is already expanding Narcoossee Road from four to six lanes to help with traffic and that the market wouldn't support more buses in the Lake Nona area.

"I think public transportation has to be part of the solution," Keen says. "Giving permanent funding to Lynx would be a good step forward and including more routes so folks can take advantage. We don't need to wait for market conditions. We need to be thinking ahead and putting those things into place."

Sunshine Grund, an environmentalist who ran for Orlando mayor in 2015, says whomever wins for commissioner should focus on preserving the green space left in the district, particularly wetlands. Grund refuses to accept donations.

"My vision is to have a safe, smart and sustainable community that's a great place for people to live, work and play with great green spaces and great parks," she says. "We haven't had smart growth."

A last-minute controversy engulfed the race after a debate where candidates were asked whether they agreed with Dyer's decision to remove a Confederate statue from Lake Eola Park. Gray says he opposed the decision because he felt there needed to be more discussion – out of the 150 people who showed up to City Hall that day, half felt the statue was offensive, while others said the statue was part of their heritage. Keen, though, says he agreed with Dyer because a shameful symbol could discourage potential employers – Orlando should "be a modern city, not some town from the past." Gray says his viewpoint hasn't changed in spite of the national controversy surrounding Confederate statues.

"Had there been a vote, I would have voted no and said let's talk about it some more," he says. "We could maybe explore a solution somewhere in the middle that would have worked for both sides. ... The mayor and I may have different political parties [Gray is a Republican] but he's shown confidence in my ability to run my district."

DISTRICT 3


D3 Treasure Chest: (Total funds raised as of Oct. 6, rounded to dollar)
Robert Stuart: $145,645
Asima Azam: $103,486

*See bottom for editor's note*

Commissioner Robert Stuart's re-election to a fourth term has become the most expensive city race this cycle – and is in the running for most contentious.

Stuart, who also serves as the executive director of the Christian Service Center, was first elected in 2006 to represent College Park and Orlando's northern neighborhoods and has been sent back by voters twice. Stuart says he thinks voters should re-elect him because he’s done nothing but serve his community.

"I think people feel good about Orlando and feel good about leadership," he says. "We need someone who understands the important work we’re already doing on traffic, on the venues on maintaining our lakes clean. …This is my hometown, and I’m going to do all I can to protect it for everybody who’s here. I want it to be a greater place not just for the people who are here a couple years but for my grandchildren, and keep it going this way so we can all be proud of Orlando."

But his challenger, Asima Azam, a local real-estate attorney who has served on several boards, says he doesn't have much to show for being in office more than a decade. If elected, Azam would be Orlando's first Muslim-American city commissioner.

"I feel like Commissioner Stuart sees his position as a figurehead," Azam says. "Commissioners should take active leadership roles and champion policy initiatives – how are we going to bring car crime down, increase affordable housing, fix traffic congestion, help small businesses? I want to be the type of leader who has measurable positive impact and can point to things you've accomplished."

Both candidates talked about the increased need for affordable housing, a dedicated source of funding for Lynx and the need to manage infill development in District 3. Stuart includes among his accomplishments "Operation Lock It Up," where police officers proactively check for unlocked vehicles; making Orlando a Compassionate City that includes compassion into the decision-making process; bringing the Main Street America program to Orlando and putting more officers on the streets. Azam says the “Operation Lock It Up” program is not currently as relevant because of more advanced methods of break-ins, but Stuart says his opponent “has no idea what she’s talking about” and would know more if she attended neighborhood watch meetings before running for office.

Stuart and Azam have gone at each other for months. First, it was Stuart, whose campaign commissioned a telephone poll asking about Azam's religion, though Stuart insisted the question was not framed negatively. Then Stuart's son filed a complaint with the state against Azam for lacking required disclaimers on her yard signs. Azam responded by calling out the commissioner's campaign for sponsoring a Princeton Elementary PTA event where students were given T-shirts with "Vote Robert Stuart" printed on them.

"My opponent claims that this has been a dirty campaign against her and that I have attacked her, but nothing could be further from the truth," Stuart says. "I think she’s spent a lot of her time trying to convince people I’m wrong for the job, but I think people feel good about me."

Azam says if she's elected, she would focus on supporting local businesses, developing strategies for transportation and promoting smart growth around existing neighborhoods that lets their culture thrive.

"I think it’s been pretty clear the direction that my opponent wants to take is to divert the public’s attention from the issues and his record over the last 12 years of not really accomplishing any kind of policy change,” she says. “I think I represent where this community is going, as opposed to where it was. I'm not running as a Muslim candidate or a Pakistani candidate, but I'm proud of my heritage, very proud of how hardworking my family is and proud to call Orlando home."

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include comments from Commissioner Robert Stuart, who reached out to Orlando Weekly after this story went to press.

Tags

We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Orlando Weekly. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Orlando Weekly, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at feedback@orlandoweekly.com.

Orlando Weekly works for you, and your support is essential.

Our small but mighty local team works tirelessly to bring you high-quality, uncensored news and cultural coverage of Central Florida.

Unlike many newspapers, ours is free – and we'd like to keep it that way, because we believe, now more than ever, everyone deserves access to accurate, independent coverage of their community.

Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing pledge, your support helps keep Orlando’s true free press free.