Orange County Commission District 5 candidate Emily Bonilla grew up in the heart of a big city, and all she ever wanted was to live on a farm. She moved out to rural Orange County several years ago with the intention of doing just that.
That happened to be at the same time a group of developers had plans to build near the home she had moved into.
So Bonilla decided to do something about it. From the springboard of her local activist group Save East Orlando and media outlet East of the Econ, she launched her county commission run on the basis of defeating urban sprawl. She said developers sometimes “don’t understand” what the people in the rural communities want.
“They don’t understand why they’re out there,” she told Orlando Rising. “I think there’s a different perceptions everywhere, and when you have one group with one perception, coming into an area where another group has a different perception, they’re going to clash. The ones coming into the area, they’re the intruder. The people in the rural area are going to push back, they’re going to protect what they invested in there.”
She added that she knew there were developers who were good people and who did not act that way, saying you “can’t put people in a box.”
From her own rural standpoint, Bonilla sees the imbalance between the increasing population of Orange County in contrast to the languishing job market.
“Orange County has one of the worst job markets,” she said. “Our salaries are really low, and our rents keep going up a lot faster than what the income is, so it’s really hard for people to make a living.”
Bonilla said the county has to bring in more jobs faster than it’s currently bringing in more people – increasing the population faster only increases the competition for jobs, and doesn’t offer incentive for jobs to offer better salaries, she said.
“If I post a job and have 1,000 people applying, I don’t need to raise the salary for that job,” she said. “I have so many to choose from.”
At a launch party for Bonilla on Wednesday evening at The Porch in Winter Park, an animated crowd of Orange County Democrats talked about the need to get people out to vote in the local elections, something they felt didn’t have enough interest. The presidential elections, they stressed, were important; but it was local elections that affected peoples’ lives.
Bonilla took questions from audience members worried about their lack of representation locally. She pledged that if she were elected to the county seat, she would be the type of commissioner who listened to her constituents.
She also received accolades from other local representatives, including Senate hopefuls Chuck O’Neal, Speak Up Wekiva founder and former Vice President of the League of Women Voters, and former state Rep. Linda Stewart, who is a former Orange County commissioner herself.
O’Neal said Bonilla was hitting on the issues that mattered. He spoke in grave tones about urban sprawl, and blamed the Great Recession on the overcrowded glut of homes on the market. Bonilla, he said, represented “the concerns of the Orange County residents who oppose urban sprawl.”
Stewart said Bonilla being a Hispanic woman was significant and would add more diversity to the council. But she also thought it was important because Bonilla was speaking for those who lived in rural communities on the east side of the county.
“I think the east side hasn’t had a representative on the county commission in District 5 ever,” she said. “The way they’re growing, they need a voice.”
Addressing her supporters, Bonilla condemned developers who bypass the rules in order to push forward their projects, vowing not to let it happen if she is elected.
“It’s like playing with a child,” she said. “If the child is losing, they change the rules so they can win.”