With just over a month to go in the Orange County mayoral election campaign, Orange County Commissioner Pete Clarke is trying to set the focus on experience – his nearly six years on the county commission versus experience levels of his opponents.
Clarke spent time this week meeting with journalists, arguing that the race is far from over with front-runner Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings and Winter Park businessman Rob Panepinto, who both have been raking in endorsements and campaign money while Clarke has been relying on shoe-leather campaigning. The election is Aug. 28, and if no one gets more than 50 percent of the vote the top two advance to a Nov. 6 showdown.
Demings has been in law enforcement for 37 years, though that included a stint in the County Administration Building as deputy county adminstrator for public safety. Panepinto is a former president of the Orlando chamber of commerce and stresses his experience outside of government, in business.
Clarke contended that Orange County is in good position right now with a robust economy and a sound budget, and that the policies and management steered by the county commission under current Mayor Teresa Jacobs needs to continue with someone who’s been a part of them.
“This is really about credentials. This is a job that you really need to look at what a person has done. If you look at mine, and they go back decades, I was in the community… I’m well suited for the job. I’m ready for the job,” Clarke said. “I’m not a politician by any stretch of the imagination. I’m a people person.”
Clarke has never been a speak-first, think-later kind of commissioner. He cited that his experiences, first through decades as a community non-profit leader and organizer and then on the commission, for leading him to conclude that he prefers public polcies that emerge from detailed deliberations, public hearings, work with stake holders, staff reports, task force reviews, and studies, over bold promises.
He is promising a few things, such as streamlining county permitting processes as much as can be done, exploring prospects to provide vocational education programs in employment centers, and inventorying county property holdings to see what could be turned over to non-profits or the private sector to be developed for affordable housing.
But for most policies, ranging from improvements in public transportation to future development of the International Drive corridor, Clarke prefers to let the deliberations processes run their courses, arguing for sound, long-term solutions over quick-fix ideas.
“Until you sit there and until you have to cast a vote with serious implications… I think that’s something that sets you apart,” Clarke said.
While not discounting the kinds of efforts to attract high-tech jobs that both Demings and particularly Panepinto have advocated, Clarke cautioned such opportunities would add to the high-end in the jobs market, but would leave out most of the enormous pool of people in the county with limited skills stuck in low-wage jobs.
Address them first, Clarke argued, in his plan to address the Orlando area’s standing as one of the nation’s lowest-wage metropolitan areas.
For that he suggested working with Orange County Public Schools to set up technical training classes in employment corridors, for people who simply don’t have the time and prospects to enroll in bricks-and-mortar campuses while they try to make ends meet in low-wage jobs.
“It’s all about opportunity for folks. This is not something you have to drop a lot of money into,” Clarke said. “Until you do that then we’ll always be the lowest. The average will be so low.”
He added that his experience can be important in bad times.
“Things are good right now. That can change over time,” Clarke said. “And we could be facing some tougher times, We need someobyd at the helm who knows how to get through those times, who has actually ridden those times in a previous downtown and make sure we still do what we’re supposed to do, which is public safety and taking care of our residents.”