A standing-room-only crowd of 250 people attended the first candidate forum for Orlando’s District 5 council seat, an astounding crowd considering the election is six months away.
Four of the seven District 5 candidates attended the forum, which filled the auditorium at Orange Center Elementary School Monday night. Incumbent Regina Hill and candidates Ericka Dunlap, Jibreel Ali and Cynthia Harris showed up, while Ondria James, Stovelleo Stovall and Betty Gelzer did not attend.
The forum got raucous when audience members began heckling candidates and several called derogatory names, such as “nasty” and “rude,” each time Dunlap spoke. Audience members reacted after Dunlap rolled her eyes while other candidates spoke and dramatically checked her watch as if she were timing other candidates.
Monica May, a radio personality at Star 94.5 FM, moderated the 90-minute event calming the audience and even cautioning a pair of hecklers that she would go “toe-to-toe” with them, before one walked out.
“We all know this is a very contentious race in a very important district,” May said. “We all have a lot at stake here.”
The forum focused on creating job opportunities, affordable housing and economic development in District 5, a predominately black area west of Interstate-4 in downtown Orlando, which includes the Parramore neighborhood.
Rich Black, publisher of Onyx Magazine, said Tuesday that he was amazed by the turnout considering the event was organized in less than a week using social media. He said he received 28 calls Tuesday morning urging him to sponsor more forums.
“In politics you never know what’s going to happen,” said Black, who also is the president of the Lake Sunset/Luola Terrace Homeowners Association in District 5. “Our forum had all of the elements of a reality TV show. This is the beginning of a movement. There were so many millennials, everyone had their phones up Facebooking live.”
Judging from audience applause, Hill, who took office in 2014, had the most support. She detailed a long list of accomplishments from a spiral notebook she carried onstage. Born in Tavares, Hill grew up in Parramore and talked about her success in bringing affordable housing and educational opportunities to the area and hiring more than 600 youth for city jobs during the past year.
The candidates spent half an hour debating the difference between urban development and gentrification. Public relations executive Dunlap questioned the City of Orlando’s development of Parramore.
“As a lifelong resident of Clear Lake Cove, just three block away from here, I heard wonderful rhetoric about urban development,” said Dunlap, the 2004 Miss America. “Gentrification is when you are obliterating a group of residents who have made an investment in their community for over 30 years.”
Dunlap said the $2 million West Lakes affordable housing project under construction by the city and Lift Orlando “is cute, but $2 million is nothing to be excited about. We should have $20 million in projects here. West Lakes does not have one black contractor on the project.”
Pendana at West Lakes, scheduled to open next April, will bring 200 mixed-unit apartments, 160 of which will be affordable housing with rents starting at $550 a month.
Ali called gentrification “a dirty word. I live here and I don’t want to see what happened in Parramore happen in West Lakes.”
Ali is the grandson of Mabel Butler, who served on the City Council from 1984 to 1990 before becoming Orange County’s first black commissioner.
Ali said he also wants to stop the use of excessive force by the Orlando Police Department. Orange County has double the officers but half the excessive force cases as OPD, according to Ali.
Harris said Orlando owns 33 percent of Parramore, preventing residents from owning the area they call home. She said renting causes gentrification.
“Any time the sheriff can come with an eviction notice and say get out,” Harris said. “We have to change that if we want to change this community.”
The candidates all agreed that the area needs more job opportunities and said black contractors should have the chance to bid on downtown construction jobs. They discussed adding additional training, certification and financial resources to help small black businesses compete for bids against larger construction companies.
The next District 5 forum will be held in September or October, Black said.
“We’ve never had this kind of turnout before in the black community,” he said. “We’re trying to frame the debate and bring people together.”
The forum was sponsored by Lake Sunset/Luola Terrace Homeowners Association, African-American Chamber of Commerce of Central Florida, Caribbean-American Passport News, Caribbean-American Chamber of Commerce of Florida and the Orange County Branch of the NAACP.