It wasn’t supposed to be this confusing. Until May, the local part of the Aug. 26 primary election in Orange County had a headliner in former Democratic congressional candidate and Orlando Police Chief Val Demings, presumed to be a viable challenger to one-term Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs. Jacobs’ four years as mayor have been full of strategic footholds for almost any candidate that the Democrats could drum up, and Demings was a rising star – it looked like there was going to be a real horse race at the top of the local ticket. (Even though, at least for now, the county mayoral and commission races are nonpartisan – a ballot initiative slated for the November ballot seeks to change that.)
When the earned sick-time issue fermented into the public records nightmare now known as “textgate” in 2012, Jacobs’ mayoral crown was visibly tarnished; her entire administration – including the Board of County Commissioners – descended into an expensive legal nightmare. State Attorney Jeff Ashton eventually slapped some wrists with $500 fines, but reputations don’t come quite as cheap.
But Demings – due to a series of unexpected events, including advice from outside consultants and lukewarm support from within the local Democratic Party structure – suddenly pulled out of the race in May, leaving Democrats without a candidate. Which means that now Jacobs has won re-election by default.
Despite pronouncements from leadership that Demings was still a “rock star” in the party’s eyes (whispers that Demings is already eyeing another congressional run once the dust settles on the redistricting process are already circulating), Demings’ move inspired internal acrimony and left the party in the lurch. Local progressive groups like VoteLocal2014.org have tried to pick up the slack, canvassing door-to-door to remind people that, even in August and even without a big-ticket race, your vote matters – in fact, it matters more. But will the general public listen?
“I think there’s a great deal more cynicism and apathy about politics in general than I have seen since the Vietnam days,” former Democratic Orange County Mayor Linda Chapin says. “It’s very discouraging and yet very understandable.”
The fear is that with all of the big state-office primary races virtually decided – Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Charlie Crist is a shoo-in for his primary; incumbent Republican Rick Scott surely can’t lose – voters won’t make the extra effort to get to the polls to vote for candidates they don’t really know or have much interest in. Of course, to some, that apathy and disinterest is by design.
“That’s the challenge you always find with local races, especially nonpartisan races in August, when people aren’t paying attention to politics; they’re busy getting their kids ready for school and not really paying attention. Which is unfortunately what Republicans in Orange County have always counted on. They’ve counted on low-participation, low-information, nonpartisan ballots so that they can continue to win elections,” Orange County Democratic Executive Committee chairman Carlos Smith says. “It doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to be paying attention to; there’s plenty.”
In fact, there is, and not all of it involves the litany of county commission, clerk of court, circuit judge and school board candidates lining up (and posting clever yard signs everywhere) for your consideration. Here are a few of the important reasons we’ll be voting next Tuesday.
YOUR RIGHTS ARE AT STAKE
For the better part of 2014, Orange County Commissioner Fred Brummer has been pushing amendments to the county’s charter, two of which involve the regulation of citizen initiatives. To date, only two citizen-petition efforts have succeeded in earning a place on the ballot – one for earned sick time, the other for “transparent” partisan elections. Seemingly in reaction, Brummer has been fighting the ability of citizens to move forward with initiatives that could place regulations on private businesses or limit the scope of power of the Board of County Commissioners and the mayor. Brummer also wants to see the petitioning process made more difficult by expanding the number of days that the supervisor of elections has to approve petition signatures from 45 to 150.
“I think the public has come to assume that the system is rigged, and that results in even more suppression of voters to the advantage of incumbents and powerful interests who know perfectly well that they can discourage low-information voters,” says former Orange County Democratic Executive Committee chairman Doug Head. “That constant messaging further suppresses the vote of Joe Average, who reads a story about corruption and thinks, ‘It’s all rigged anyway.’”
And that’s exactly why you need to get to the polls on Aug. 26: A county commissioner attempting to limit the power of citizens to have a voice in their own government is reason enough to vote.
SICK TIME IS STILL A THING
Even though the Legislature was swift to pass a state law in 2013 pre-empting municipalities from regulating private industries on personnel issues in an attempt to block the earned sick-time initiative, the courts still ruled that sick time should go before voters. So the question of whether businesses with 15 employees or more should be required to allow employees to earn up to 56 hours of sick time a year (enforceable in court) appears on the Aug. 26 ballot.
According to Republican political consultant Wade Vose, the strength of the sick-time issue “awoke a lot of folks in the business community.”
“Not just to what can go on here locally at the county commission level, which [they thought] just involved whether you got your zoning or were allowed to build a building,” he says, “but when folks put their mind to it, it can involve more and more regulation on business. I think that stirred up a lot of folks.”
Though the actual enforcement of a “yes” vote on the sick time issue remains uncertain – even if voters approve the sick-time measure here in Orange County, the new state law could block the county’s ability to enforce it – the fact that corporate interests, the state and the county commission went to such lengths (including breaking the law) to stop the measure makes voting in its favor that much more important. Lobbying interests should not have a louder voice than you in your own government, or a bigger place at the table. A “yes” vote – even if just in protest – is philosophically mandatory here.
A PRIMARY IS NOT ALWAYS A PRIMARY
Since 1992, Orange County has distracted voters about their suffrage by holding local elections on the same day (and on the same ballot) as the statewide partisan primary elections in August. But, unless there are more than two candidates running for a local office – and unless none of them earns more than 50 percent of the vote – the local elections are not primaries at all; they’re finals. Whoever wins becomes your next county commissioner. So vote now, or you may not get a second chance in the general election in November.
“The big losers in the [nonpartisan county election] proposition have always been the No Party Affiliation voters, who don’t participate because they think the August primary is only a partisan primary for the state,” says Doug Head. “They participate on a level of 8 percent, whereas 30 percent go to the polls in November.”
A citizens’ initiative launched this year by Citizens for Informed Elections gathered more than 70,000 petitions to right this decades-old wrong, and for good reason. The illusion that somehow local elections are nonpartisan is intended to mislead the general public into not showing up.
“Right now in Orange County, voters don’t know whether they’re voting for a Democrat or a Republican,” the group says on its petition webpage in bold, red letters. “This petition is to include this information on your ballot the next time you vote.” The group wants a question on the November ballot that will ask Orange County voters to decide whether they want to make county offices partisan and align county elections with presidential elections, so more voters turn out. (Commissioner Brummer, meanwhile, has proposed changes to the county charter that would do exactly the opposite.)
Confusing? Yes, and that’s by design. Which is why it’s important to pay attention to local politics and vote for county commissioners who represent you. The Brummers of the world are out there, trying to keep your voice from being heard.
YOUR VOTE IS OVERWEIGHT
Midterm primary elections are notoriously low on turnout, and those who do vote are not terribly diverse in their makeup. Of so-called “perfect voters,” who statistically turn out for every election, most are conservative, elderly and white. In 2010, only 129,000 – or just more than 10 percent of the county’s nearly 1.2 million residents (21 percent of the approximately 700,000 registered to vote) – voted in August. If statistics are correct, a majority of those were white “perfect voters” aged 50-79.
“Our number one goal is to have more working-class people participate with their local commission and vote for their self-interests,” says Organize Now director Stephanie Porta. Organize Now has been instrumental in keeping the sick-time question alive long after both the county and state tried to kill it. Through its work with the Vote Local campaign, the organization has also been educating voters about local candidates for office in an effort to boost participation in midterm elections. “Your vote can be more powerful in an August election than in a November election,” Porta says.
And it is: The glass-half-full side of the depressing “perfect voter” statistics we cited before is that your voice is actually amplified in low-turnout elections. Your vote could have the power of four votes, or perhaps even 10 votes, depending on whether you count the whole population or just registered voters. In Orange County’s 2010 elections, Republican primary voters outnumbered Democratic voters by 20,000 votes, despite the fact that there are 300,000 registered Democrats and only 200,000 registered Republicans in the county. If you care about progressive issues, throw your weight around.
In 2002, voters approved a half-penny sales tax for education that was intended to fund renovation and construction in the county’s public schools. The tax is set to expire in 2015, and Orange County Public Schools is lobbying heavily to have it renewed, even though chairman Bill Sublette admits that the school board was unable to fulfill its promises of rebuilding and renovating all the schools it originally intended to. The recession and decreasing local tax revenues created the alleged perfect storm that allowed for only 90 of the county’s schools to receive improvements.
“We’ve done such great things but there’s so much left to do,” Orange County Public Schools board member Nancy Robbinson says, “and it would be a shame for students and faculty at the schools on the list [for repairs] not to get the chance.”
There hasn’t much resistance to the “Change4Kids” tax campaign. The only real controversy surrounding the ballot question comes from a minor protest vote promised by parents and faculty of schools that are likely to be closed in order to make way for five new K-8 facilities: schools like the treasured Fern Creek Elementary. There is always some confusion as to whether “rebuilding or renovating” schools, in OCPS parlance, actually means tearing them down.
Three county commission seats are up for grabs in August – Districts 2, 4 and 6. District 2 Commissioner Fred Brummer is stepping down due to term limits, leaving five candidates and a write-in to vie for his seat. District 6 Commissioner Tiffany Moore Russell is likewise stepping down – she is running in a special election for Orange County Clerk of Courts – opening the door for six candidates to try for that seat. But most interesting will be the concerted effort by progressives and Democrats to replace incumbent (and continuing hopeful) District 4 Commissioner Jennifer Thompson.
“From the party’s perspective, it’s important that we communicate to voters just who the Democratic voters are in the local races,” says Orange County Democratic Executive Committee chair Carlos Smith. “We know most of the races are nonpartisan, so Republican incumbents get to hide their affiliation.”
Of the five hopefuls in District 2, two are Republican: Bryan Nelson and Prince Brown. Greg Jackson, Alvin Moore (the Democratic favorite) and Patricia Rumph are registered Dems. District 6 hosts an all-Dem roster including Lawanna Gelzer, Homer Hartage, Victoria Siplin, Derrick “Shine” Wallace, Roberta Walton and Virginia Whittington.
Finally, there’s Thompson’s seat. Thompson violated the public trust when she deleted text messages from her phone during the sick time/textgate debacle, claiming they were little more than “girl talk” and not relevant to the political discussion. Also, the county commission agreed to an outrageous $300,000 legal challenge against Hispanic activist groups seeking fair representation on the county commission. Even though the court eventually threw out the case, the optics were terrible. Of two Democratic candidates for Thompson’s position, Euri Cerrud and Maribel Gomez Cordero, the party is pushing Cerrud, hoping to mobilize an increasingly engaged – and disenfranchised – Hispanic community.
PAM BONDI NEEDS A CHALLENGER
hough she faces no primary of her own, Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi will be challenged in November by one of two respected Democrats, George Sheldon or Perry Thurston. Both men have served in a leadership capacity in the Florida House of Representatives; Sheldon served as Deputy Attorney General under Attorney General Bob Butterworth in 1999. Bondi, a darling of the far right, has been pivotal in fighting against marriage equality and Medicaid expansion since her election in 2010.
“The voters approved an amendment to the state constitution a few years ago to ban same-sex marriage,” Sheldon said in an interview with Context Florida. “That provision is now being challenged in court. The ban is legally indefensible, as some 25 federal and state courts have ruled. Most people in America and in Florida have moved past this old bigotry, but Pam Bondi is going to one court after another trying to stop change. This is unconscionable. We need an attorney general who respects equal rights for all citizens.”
We’re going to go out on a limb here and say we’d take anyone but Bondi on the November ballot, but on Aug. 26, Democrats need to pick who that’s going to be. And it has been Sheldon who has been making the most noise in the media rounds. He’s not afraid to take Bondi on publicly for her partisan positions and her clumsy decisions. He also seems to understand that it’s OK for the attorney general to challenge the positions of the governor.
NAN RICH NEEDS A HUG
Former Florida Senate Minority Leader (and state Rep.) Nan Rich launched her campaign in April 2012, but has yet to really ignite: not in fundraising, not in polling, not in public presence. She has, however, run a negative campaign, if only by default, as she attempts to stifle the well-heeled momentum of her opponent, Republican-turned-Independent-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist.
“My opponent calls himself the people’s governor. How so, when you don’t listen to the people?” she asked in an interview with South Florida Gay News. “They want a debate. They don’t know where he stands on the issues. Ignoring my candidacy, which Crist has done, is not the Democratic way. He’s running his campaign like a Republican. You can’t learn about someone in a 30-second sound bite. That’s just telling people what you want them to hear. Let’s debate with an independent person moderating.”
Rich will appear on the Aug. 26 ballot, and even though she probably won’t muster as much support as opponent Crist, she’s actually been a pretty solid candidate. She has been consistent on progressive issues, as she will point out to anyone listening or scream into the wind, and that’s impressive considering the way that Tallahassee can beat a politician down. However, she’s also flirted with the idea of Republican funding during the primary in order to take down Crist and attempted to ride Crist’s coattails into public debates. While most admit that November (and even August) ballots will require an extra hand to pinch your nose, most are also aware that Crist wins the nomination, at the very least. Still, it’s got to be hard to be invisible. If you can find her, hug her.