At least two and possibly three incumbent members of the Orlando City Council find themselves on the run to keep their seats in Tuesday’s city elections.

The 2017 elections have found wildly different races in the city’s contests for District 1, covering most of southeast Orlando; District 3, covering most of north Orlando; and District 5, covering most of northwest Orlando. Yet all three are proving contentious and competitive in their own ways.

If the incumbents have any advantage, it’s enhanced in a broad perception that the city of Orlando is doing pretty well. The economy is booming. New sports and entertainment venues have recently opened or are soon to open. Since the last city election, the city bound together in a rare unity following its darkest day, the horrific Pulse nightclub massacre of June 12, 2016,

If the challengers have any advantage, it’s rooted in the belief that rapidly-growing and rapidly-changing Orlando’s voters are seeking new leaders for a new era.

“People we talk to like what is going on in the city of Orlando,” said three-term Commissioner Robert Stuart, who’s seeking re-election in District 3 covering north-central Orlando. “They like what we’re doing. They like what I’m doing. They don’t want it to change. People feel good about Orlando.”

Yet Stuart, who lives in College Park and runs a Christian relief ministry on the city’s west side, finds himself in perhaps the most combative of campaigns, and in a highly-competitive contest.

That’s thanks to an aggressive and well-funded campaign by progressive challenger Asima Azam, a lawyer from Baldwin Park, who’s been canvassing since February and has attended dozens of meet-and-greet gatherings in the district.

“The common theme with everybody is they’re tired of having someone who’s been in office for 12 years that… has really become unresponsive and unreliable,” she charged. “In terms of how we’re feeling, I feel like we’ve certainly outworked our opponent.”

Their race has been the marquee contest, and has attracted the most money and the most voters through early and absentee ballots. Yet the other two elections also are full-fledged battles.

In District 1 the non-partisan election has taken on overt partisan overtones, with
challenger Tom Keen making it as clear a he can that he’s a Democrat, against incumbent Commissioner Jim Gray, whose campaign has suddenly caught the full backing of the Republican Party of Florida.

District 5 features a battle royal between incumbent Regina Hill and six challengers, including several making plenty of noise, Ericka Dunlap, Cynthia Harris, Betty Gelzer, and Sarah Elbadri. The prospect is high that no one will get a majority of votes Tuesday, which would lead to a runoff election on Dec. 5, which likely would be Hill versus a single challenger trying to unite the anti-Hill opposition.

In District 3, Stuart has raised more than $167,000 and spent more than $154,000. Azam has nearly kept up, raising $117,000 and spending $96,000 in campaigns that have gotten ugly. In the end, the two, both registered Democrats, are hoping for referendums. Stuart wants a referendum on how the city is doing; Azam wants one on whether the city needs a new, more progressive, generation of leadership.

A similar theme has emerged in District 1, with varied neighborhoods, including the boomtown region of Lake Nona, the old communities west of Orlando International Airport, and some well-established areas along the Semoran Boulevard and Conway Road corridors.

Gray, president of GrayPointe Capital, a commercial real estate investment firm, talks about his accomplishments of pushing for new regional parks and more police, getting 24 more officers assigned to the district in the past couple of years. There also is, he said, the reality that many of the voters are “generally pretty happy” with how things are going.

“It’s a growth area so it’s a balance between growth and new homes and new businesses, and the quality of life for folks who already are there,” Gray said. “They enjoy the lifestyle we have out there. Those numbers are backed up by the fact that it’s the fastest growing part of the city, so if they didn’t enjoy that, people wouldn’t keep moving to Lake Nona.”

Yet, Keen, an aerospace business development manager, points out that the district is far more than Lake Nona, with residents of the Southport area feeling “a little bit abandoned,” and people farther north in the Vista Lakes area concerned about development in an already dense community.

“I think it’s about outdated thinking versus thinking for the future,” Keen said. “We’re very diverse and inclusive; that’s not really been reflective of what Gray has been all about these last few years.”

Gray raised $59,000 for his re-election, including a late-arriving $15,000 in-kind contribution from the Republican Party of Florida. Through last Friday he had spent $42,000. Keen raised $27,000, and spent almost all of it through last Friday.

In District 5, a largely inner-city, mostly African-American region, Hill, a nurse, may be the least vulnerable incumbent, yet she finds herself under attack from old nemeses, particularly Harris and Gelzer, concerned with her responses to gentrification pressures; and fresh candidates such as Dunlap and Elbadri, who talk about representing a new, more diverse, 21st century community that is emerging. Also in the race are Jibreel Ali and Ondria James.

The area has long been defined by older, proud African-American neighborhoods such as Parramore, with high home-ownership rates, and numerous small businesses, struggling in recent years with poverty and crime. Yet it now includes includes the soon-to-emerge Creative Village development on the edge of downtown, which will include the University of Central Florida’s downtown campus and a new community planners envision will be filled with high-tech entrepreneurs wanting to be in a live-work-play neighborhood. It also includes Orlando’s three big sports venues, Amway Center, the Orlando City Stadium, and Camping World Stadium, with emerging commercial districts aimed at tying them into a sports and entertainment district.

“A few of my achievements while being in office, were making good on my promises when I asked for my constituents’ votes. They included providing housing, jobs, and education,” Hill told Orlando-Rising.com earlier. “I can truly say that my greatest accomplishment was, even though the tests, trials and tribulations in my personal life… that I never stop serving my community, addressing their issues and attending to their needs first and foremost.”

Her references to “tests, trials, and tribulations” no doubt includes the tragic death of her 24-year-old daughter two years ago, but also her well-documented personal history with financial problems and drugs, and numerous arrests, most recently in 2009. She insists she is straight and sober, but opponents made issue of a rambling Facebook video she posted in April in which she appeared otherwise.

Still, the major attacks have come on the issues. Harris and Gelzer have been highly critical of Hill for not doing more to slow gentrification, and to assure that affordable housing remains within the grasp of low-income people who’ve lived in the area for generations.

“I would like to increase more financial measures on how to not only obtain home ownership, but how to maintain it,” Harris, who runs a non-profit, told Orlando-Rising. “Our community needs support systems in place that have the same model that is put in place for at-risk youth and model it the same way to increase affordable housing that will also meet the needs of developers who want to build and the people who would like to own a place to call their own.”

Dunlap, the former Miss America who is a public relations executive, insists she can bring a national and international focus to the district, particularly focusing on what can be done to share the benefits of potential developments throughout the district, while still seeking to preserve its traditions.

“We need a representative who can speak to the potential of the district, focusing on where we’re going as opposed to where we’ve been,” she said. “We need a representative who can inspire, who can make people believe in their own potential.”

Elbadri is an urban planner who said she’s got deep experience working in City Hall with officials, and outside City Hall with the planners, developers, and others who make things happen, including as executive director of the city’s Mainstreet Program south of Downtown. That, she said, has given her a clear vision for maximizing the district’s potential while protecting its heritage, a vision she charged the other candidates have not articulated.

“There are a lot of possibilities, a lot of challenges with the growth. I know those things. I want more people to understand those things,” she said. “District 5 probably has the greatest potential of any district in the city. We struggle with our challenges the most. We struggle with housing the most. We struggle with equitable economic development the most. We struggle with transportation the most… I’m a unique person with a vision for the future, and they know I’m going to work hard for it, and I’ve proven that I’m going to work hard for it.”

Hill raised $51,000 toward her re-election. Dunlap raised $34,000; Harris, $27,000; Gelzer, $24,000; Elbadri, $10,000; and Ali, $8,000.

About The Author

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at scott@floridapolitics.com.

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