Danny "DJ" Culberson
Candidate, District 2 City Commissioner
Has never held elected office.
Director of Global Corporate Accounts for EcoSure, a division of Ecolab
Capella University, BBA, Business Administration and Management, 2021
Santa Fe Community College, AA, Accounting, 2005
Veteran restaurant manager Danny “DJ” Culberson, 39, says the food-service industry is good training for politics because it taught him to keep calm and carry on in high-stakes situations and always have contingency plans. The Florida native started as a prep cook at TGI Fridays, worked his way up to general manager there and at other casual dining spots and is now director of corporate accounts for the food safety audit company EcoSure. He also remotely manages his family’s two laundromats in Port St. Lucie and Fort Pierce. Now he’s running a longshot campaign for city commissioner.
The race for the District 2 seat is a three-way matchup between Culberson and his neighbors, incumbent Commissioner Ron Mueller and Iliana R. Jones, who lost to Mueller in 2021 and this year has hitched her campaign to fundraising juggernaut and County Commission candidate Austin Arthur. If no one earns more than 50 percent of the vote in the March 19 election, a run-off will be held on April 16.
City commissioners serve part-time for four years, earning an annual salary of $7,200, plus health insurance (with vision and dental benefits) and life insurance.
Mail-in ballots have begun arriving in mailboxes. You have until 5 p.m. March 7 to request a vote-by-mail ballot. Early voting starts March 4 and continues daily 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. through March 17.
Browse Culberson’s LinkedIn profile and you’ll find a chorus of people from the restaurant biz who he’s worked for, worked with and who’ve worked for him — all singing his praises as a detail-oriented, strategic thinker who knows how to put together the right people for the job at hand and create a positive, respectful work environment. Passion is the word that comes up in nearly every recommendation.
“ … he was known as a transformational and empathetic leader of large teams and integral to the successful operations of a dynamic business,” noted Meghan Gabel, Culberson’s supervisor at TGI Fridays and a colleague at EcoLab, EcoSure’s parent company.
In her recommendation, Christina Edson, now an IT specialist, noted that she changed restaurant locations three times to remain on teams that Culberson managed.
A Mexican-American who grew up, he said, in a “poverty-level” family in Palm City, Florida, Culberson is now father to three boys of his own with husband Bradley Loomis (also his campaign treasurer). The duo returned to Winter Garden two years ago, after a five-year hiatus in California and Nevada, because this is where they wanted to raise their kids.
Culberson’s role as a parent infuses his platform. It’s packed with youth initiatives like expanding city-sponsored holiday and summer camps, launching a “youth leadership academy” for middle- and high schoolers to foster life skills like civic engagement, financial responsibility, understanding government. Beyond that, he’s got ideas for funding small business loans, expanding the Parks and Recreation Department and pushing for more critical debate on issues and projects that come to the commission before votes are taken.
Culberson talked about all of this and more in a wide-ranging phone interview with VoxPopuli. This interview was done on Jan. 9. It has been edited for length and clarity. Some material was reordered or added from followup interviews.
VoxPopuli: What made you run for city commissioner now?
DJ Culberson: I’ve always planned on getting into local politics at some point in my life. My career is at a point where I'm not chasing my next promotion. My children are at an age where they can, for the most part, make themselves small meals or get themselves ready in the morning when necessary. This is kind of a perfect time for me to expand past just being a working dad and a husband … it just made the most sense to kind of step into the arena here and see what all of the possibilities are for myself. Even if it doesn't work out this go around, which might be a reality, I think that this is a really good opportunity to get my name out there and kind of pave a future here for how I can impact the community … how I can contribute at a higher level than I've been able to [with] just young kids and a growing career.
VoxPopuli: What are the three most important qualities for being a city commissioner?
Culberson: One, being able to set up a plan to positively impact the future as the city continues to grow. How can we create systems or improve systems to keep the city government functioning as it should, through that growth?
Second, as the community is growing, how do we use that growth to enrich people's lives versus detract from it? I'm talking about traffic. I'm talking about small businesses and improving the educational opportunities and the childcare options for working families. I think those are all key attributes there. I would say being able to look at the city holistically and look at the growth the city is experiencing holistically and creating multiple contingency plans or plans for how you'll structure that growth to the benefit of the community.
Being a person of integrity and being someone that really wants the best for the community is probably the most important piece of it. I reached out to both Ron and to Iliana early on because I really wanted this to be a positive experience for the community. We could pick each other apart, but ultimately who wins from that scenario? The three of us don’t and the community overall doesn't.
VoxPopuli: Tell me about your idea for a Youth Leadership Academy.
Culberson: We have high school students that are graduating that really don't have the life skills that they particularly need to really be successful in the start of their adulthood. How does local government function? What does it look like to [be] ready for an interview? What does it look like to be ready for different interview types — whether that’s collegiate or your first job — what's it look like to create a vision board? To start a business?
I think that we have an obligation to these high school students and to their parents to partner with them and provide that additional educational support that really is needed to get these kids in the best possible start to their adult lives.
We can certainly build out some additional educational opportunities or educational programs to support those folks. I grew up in a town where this was a really big deal. And this is something that certainly aided in my development as a young adult or a late teen. I think that some of those programs would go a long way here.
VoxPopuli: You also have a plan for supporting local businesses.
Culberson: We're at a point now where small business rents are so high or climbing so fast, right, that a lot of folks simply can't keep up or have already pulled in and chosen to do something else, ultimately leaving available real estate for larger retail groups or larger restaurant groups to come in and take those spaces.
My focus with the other commissioners is to create an understanding of where we are as a community and what the economic impact is of big business that's already planted or kind of taken root here in Winter Garden. Then how do we create the best possible plan for it, so that it's fair for the folks that have a dream and want to get into their own business, want to be entrepreneurs? But also how do we not miss these key growth opportunities that provide jobs and provide what the community needs to succeed or to thrive?
And then how do we structure the approval process for big business when they set up in Winter Garden so that they are actively participating in making the community better? I think there's a lot of opportunity in that specific bucket that we have some room to improve on there.
VoxPopuli: You want to set aside $2 million for small business startups. How would this work?
Culberson: It's important to note that I did soundboard this both with some city commissioners and with the city manager before building this out into my platform just because I wanted to understand was this really out of the realm of possibility or out of the realm of things that other cities have done in the past?
What I found was that Winter Garden had a similar startup opportunity in the early ‘90s … and it didn't get a ton of engagement. My thought was [that] we have a pretty healthy reserve balance. Jon [Williams, city manager] and the city commissioners have done a really great job of ensuring that there's always cash on hand to run the city. While that's very important, I think taking a portion of that budget and allocating it to residents’ opportunities for business growth is something that's doable and ultimately something that would help the city develop.
We have to vet this through city leadership and the city attorney, but the goal would be to set aside $2 million and to partner with a bank to qualify the folks that are coming to us with business plans. Then we're able to distribute small business startup loans of up to two $200,000. That's a healthy chunk of change that would drive some excitement in the community and get some folks excited about applying for these loans. If we're focused on maintaining this small-town feel of Winter Garden and this kind of noncommercial charm that’s the reason we all live here, I think we also have a responsibility to enable that where we can. [This] gives us the opportunity to just continue to drive small business growth and maintain independence from strong commercial intrusion here in Winter Garden.
VoxPopuli: Expanding the city’s summer camps, which are offered through the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, is an important part of your platform. Why is this so essential?
Culberson: Anyone who doesn't have young kids here may not really know this, but when you're signing up your kids for summer camp here in Winter Garden, the queue is relatively long, and there's not typically spots for everyone who potentially would need a spot for for their child, whether that's a day camp or a summer camp.
There are not as many stay-at-home parents as there were in previous generations… We can certainly do more for working families than what we're doing today. You just have to enable the staff to help grow that platform. Let's make sure that folks can get to work and don't have to worry about affordable childcare. Let's make sure that folks are not sitting online or in the queue for an hour before the registration opens. I think if we can expand that a bit, we can certainly drive more revenue for the city because there just aren't a ton of other options.
VoxPopuli: In May, the downtown Winter Garden restaurant, MoonCricket Grille, announced a 49-cent Budweiser beer promotion, perceived by many online as anti-LGBTQ+ and mocking the victims of the Pulse Nightclub shooting. The owner has denied this. What are your thoughts?
Culberson: So look, I don't know the owner of Mooncricket personally, and I don't know what his motives are. I saw the ads that went out. I certainly saw the chatter online. It was probably not done in the best taste. But to be honest, I don't know that I can judge his motives without frankly having a conversation with him.
I am a gay man, I am married to a man, and I do have a same-sex-parent family. So obviously, the motives of the community are personal to me. My goal in this role is not to get into the nitty gritty of where people's political affiliations or personal motives lie. It really is what's best for the city overall. And I do think it does deserve a broader conversation. But ultimately that gentleman has been in this area for quite a long time. He has built a reputation and a business here, and I do think he deserves the right to have a broader conversation with [the] community about what those ads and motives were there. Speaking to some of the other city commissioners about this specific instance, some folks [were] really upset by it, some folks kind of just shoved it under the rug.
VoxPopuli: Where do you stand on the city issuing a proclamation for Pride Month? Commissioner Ron Mueller tried to implement this, as he did with the city’s DEI resolution, and it was turned down.
Culberson: Yeah, so great question. I think every community deserves to have a Pride Month. I think that there is underserved representation in the LGBT community especially in rural, developing communities. That is something that's very important to me, not just because I'm part of that community, but because I want to make sure that my kids and the kids of other LGBT parents don't see themselves as different but have an opportunity to see or continue to see the normalization of their families and what they look like in the comparison to the rest of the community. So I think that Pride is ultimately a great opportunity to lean into that, specifically in smaller towns, such as Winter Garden.
Ron’s ideals are in line with my own. I would go about it differently. It’s one thing to start at the city government level and push down. It’s another thing to start at the community level and push up. While it's very important to have the city government's backing for some sort of Pride Month or Pride Festival or Pride Declaration, I think it's equally as important to garner support from local business owners. For me, I think that is likely the better route.
Let's start with, “What is it that local business owners are comfortable doing as far as banding together to celebrate Pride?” From there, let's go to the actual community and start garnering support from the folks that live here. Then it's time to move forward and kind of push the city government or persuade the city government from those two vantage points, local business and the actual folks that live in a community, to push that proclamation forward.
But we can't kid ourselves that this is still an area that is very split in both the political arena but also in cultural identity. It’s really important that if you're going to move that needle and create… more celebrating [in] a community, it needs to be done tactfully and without offending those folks. Because the last thing I want anyone to feel is that we’re pushing this down someone's throat. What I want is to… inspire the understanding that the LGBT community is part of the overall community, and we're just as determined to be involved and to make the city and the culture here as strong as possible.
VoxPopuli: What do you think sets you apart from the other District 2 candidates?
Culberson: Of the three of us, my ability to look at things from … a startup all the way to a multinational company — and be able to use that lens as we … address growth and start mapping out what the future looks like here for Winter Garden and how to best set up the city to capitalize on that growth as well as just knowing what it takes to be a parent and … what our kids ultimately will need right to be successful as they enter adulthood, I think are the two biggest vantage points that anyone in this role could ask for.
VoxPopuli: Currently, the city of Winter Garden has a resolution in place that bars journalists from asking elected officials questions before, during and after city commission meetings. Civil rights and media organizations have said this law is unconstitutional and violates the First Amendment and Florida statute. What do you think about reporters being able to question elected officials?
Cullberson: This is the United States of America. Freedom of press is key. So I think, ultimately, we have to stick with that as our guiding principle. If I was sitting on the city commission, I do think that it is a priority to keep the press involved and able to ask questions that both challenge the commission and also keep everyone honest. I'm saying that's not what's happening. But my view is that ultimately, anyone who would like to ask the question has a right to ask that question. And sometimes tough questions need to be asked in order to keep everyone focused on the key issues that the city is facing, but also to challenge those that really maybe haven't leaned in enough to support those key initiatives where the community itself is struggling.
VoxPopuli: City staff work closely with developers on projects and then recommend building projects to the commission for approval that may not be right for our community. 30 N. Park, squeezed onto the lot at Park Avenue and Plant Street next to the West Orange Trail, and the Smith + Main apartment building, with its Mediterranean style architecture, are good examples of this. Would you be able to vote against a given project even if the staff recommended it?
Culberson: I can't think of a time in my professional life where I have not been in charge of making decisions that would impact other people. The city commissioner’s role is to understand what’s in the best interests of the constituents and what their concerns are. I'll say with the city's employees having an opinion,”Look, I think you're free to express that opinion.” I'm certainly okay hearing someone else's opinion and not necessarily taking it to heart.
I think we need to position those staff recommendations with some forecasting or with some real teeth behind them to understand that a bit more. So, if Economic Development is recommending that we approve the shopping center, okay, well with that recommendation, I would like to know Where is the traffic study? What is the environmental impact study? What is the position of the ownership of that?
We need to know those things before we’re blindly approving for the purpose of just increasing the economy. The reality is, we have a duty to protect what comes next and protect this city for that next generation. And we really can't do that if we're just voting blind without any of the factors that would influence the future state of where those businesses are going in at.
I feel if you look at the way the city commission today approves business growth, it's two or three minutes of discussion, and then it's “All in favor?” And almost everything passes with a majority vote. How do we really push for some tougher conversations before we vote on that council?
VoxPopuli: How will you ensure that everyone feels heard and represented?
Culberson: Yeah, so that's a great question. Look, I'm toying with a few ideas. Obviously, I think what the city commissioners have done historically [was] always being involved downtown for the big events — that's one key piece of it. I also think we're missing an opportunity here for some community town halls and things like that to capture that feedback. The reality is a lot of the folks in this town are so busy working, raising families, or running their businesses that they don't necessarily have the bandwidth to think about how the city is structured or what moves you can make. We can create these events or these town halls that would inspire folks to, at minimum, share their opinion.
There's also some work to be done with some survey mail-outs whether that's an email survey or traditional mail out. Then we have to take a hard look at our advisory councils and make sure that each district is represented there. I know that's something that Ron had touched on in his time in office this last cycle and possibly the cycle before that. The conversation needs to be had broadly across the entire city commission to make a commitment that each district should be equally represented. We should be fostering working to inspire those community leaders that are capable, or do have the bandwidth, to play a bigger role in how the city continues to function and move forward. So creating opportunities for folks to provide feedback without having to go outside of their normal, everyday, already stressful, chaotic lives is one piece. Broadening city advisory boards to ensure that there's representation in these districts is another.
Are we doing these blind surveys? How do we establish a system not just as one district but as a city overall to gauge what's important to every constituent? How do we create those surveys? Those three buckets ultimately [are] where I would start to create that feedback platform [to] make the ability to get feedback a bit more available.