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Will Iliana Ramos Jones become the first Latina to represent a district in Winter Garden?

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Norine Dworkin

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

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Norine Dworkin/VoxPopuli

Iliana Ramos Jones: "Change can happen. I want to make sure we have a voice."


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In an election season of firsts for women — with Kamala Harris, the first Black, Indian woman on a major party’s ticket to be elected Vice President — Winter Garden may produce a first of its own. If Iliana Ramos Jones, 54, is elected on March 9 to represent District 2, she would be the first Latina to sit on Winter Garden’s city commission. She would also be the first person of color to sit on the commission since Harold Bouler lost his bid for re-election in 2012.

Only four women have ever sat on Winter Garden’s city commission, including District 1's Lisa Bennett. On March 9, we’ll know if Ramos Jones is to join them.

Hers has not been an easy campaign; she’s had some hiccups along the way. The learning curve even for local campaigns is notoriously steep. The binder of campaign rules, inches thick.

“I’m a newbie that’s for sure. It’s a lot to learn,” says Ramos Jones, who comes to Winter Garden from Chihuahua, Mexico by way of El Paso, Texas and then Orlando. She’s been in Central Florida for some 40 years, settling here in 2007.

When she’s not running for office — a full-time job in itself — she’s running Empire Finish Systems, the construction company she owns with her brothers. She’s the company’s chief financial officer.

Still, what she lacks in political acumen, Ramos Jones makes up for in affability. We grab some to-go coffees from Axum and head upstairs where I know it will be quiet. There, outside of Pilars Loft, we sprawl out on the floor, six feet apart, to talk about her campaign platform, getting Hispanics a seat at the city of Winter Garden’s decision-making table, and why she didn’t show up to the Orlando Sentinel interview with her opponent.

Norine  Dworkin: Why do you want to run for city commission? Have you ever been involved in politics or government?

Iliana Ramos Jones: I’m not a politician. I’ve never been involved with politics. I’ve always been active in the community through our company, working with Habitat for Humanity, Matthew’s Hope. A couple of years ago we renovated a house for someone in our church.

At one point, I was thinking about adopting a child, and when that didn’t happen, I thought about serving the community more on my own. Winter Garden has grown, the Hispanic community has grown. As a Hispanic person myself, I feel like we need more communication as a minority. We’re not completely educated on what voting means and voting is very important. I don’t think we exercise that right very often. There’s always the idea that “My vote doesn’t count” and “Can I really change anything?” Yes, you can. Change can happen if we do our due diligence and do our homework. That’s why I want to help. I want to be part of it. I want to make sure that we also have a voice.

I also love that Winter Garden is a small town. That’s why I moved here. Growth is going to happen; it’s inevitable. But what kind of growth? Is it appropriate for Winter Garden? Is it conforming to the charm of Winter Garden? We can do all kinds of things to keep it charming. I want to be part of the decision making and be part of protecting the city. I want to see change, but the right change. Not the crazy change that could happen if we don’t protect it.

ND: So what will you bring to the commission to ensure the right kind of change?

IRJ: The first thing I would like to see accomplished is Tucker Ranch. With all the things they’re coming in with, that park will be one of a kind in the state. I love nature. it’s just beautiful when you have open space.

ND: Yes, but that’s already in development.

IRJ: It is, but they’re still working on it. There’s also the 40-mile connection of the West Orange Trail around Lake Apopka. That’s going to be a great idea to do, so I want to review those areas as well. And I think, storm water [systems], they’re maintained, but I think they can be updated.

ND: But those projects are established, they’re in development or they’re ongoing. What is it that you bring? What is unique to Iliana Ramos Jones that will come to the commission if you’re elected?

IRJ: I want to continue with the platform they have already established. I don’t think that right now Winter Garden has a major thing that I can say, What if I had a magic wand … I want to eliminate homelessness. They’re doing a good job. I want to make sure it continues in that way.

What I think I bring is that I’m a CFO for a company and I’ve been with the company for over 25 years and I’m responsible for 77 people. I create jobs there. We hire people. I have to manage a budget. I have to make sure it’s fiscally correct, that it’s in balance. You don’t survive 25 years if you don’t have the right numbers. I want to make sure that happens here.

Right now our taxes are great. I think our 4.5 percent property taxes are awesome. I would oppose lowering our taxes, especially right now when we’re going through Covid-19. We’re running a surplus in the budget. They’ve done a great job. I want to make sure that’s not interrupted, that it continues on the right path, that someone doesn’t take it way left or way right.

I’m also fluent in Spanish, I can create more awareness for the Spanish community of what the city offers, the ways they can participate, and bring them to participate more. There are a lot of people who come from Central and South America who don’t speak English. I would like them to know there’s someone they can communicate with and make them aware of what’s happening.

ND: How would you continue to hold the door open for others to sit on the city commission committees and boards that help run the city so that the Latino community has a seat at the table when decisions are made about how the city grows?

IRJ: You bring more people to volunteer, and you make more people aware of what they can do. There are a lot of qualified people with diverse backgrounds: African-Americans, Spanish, Asian. There are a lot of qualified people. But are they aware that they can actually go in and say, “I want to learn, I want to participate”?

ND: How do you reach them?

IRJ: By making myself available, by holding meet-and-greets, by saying “Come and join us, Come to a meeting, Come be part of it, Look what’s going on.” If we let them know that they count, maybe we can pull out more talent. Then we have a bigger pool to pick from, more variety, more diversity. I think I can help with that. In my office, we have people from every walk of life. We have all nationalities there. Different opinions, different points of view. Maybe someone did something in their country that we didn’t do here. It makes us stronger.

ND: The Covid-19 pandemic continues unabated. There is an Orange County mask mandate in place, but people are often without masks in public places. As a commissioner what would you do to help keep Winter Garden residents safe?

IRJ: If we want to minimize the virus until we all get the vaccine, we need to be more responsible. I know that some people, for whatever reason, they just don’t want to wear it. I wear it. Not because of you, but because of me. I’m protecting myself. I have family members who are sick or older. If I’m commissioner I would say, let’s continue with the masks until we have more vaccines available and because the virus is mutating. I hate the mask as much as anybody, but we all have to abide. I hate the seatbelt, but it’s the law. You have to abide by it.

ND: I’m curious why you didn’t join your opponent for the interview with the Orlando Sentinel?

IRJ: I do not want to debate. I do not like confrontation. I’m not afraid. Being in construction, trust me, you have to develop a really thick skin because it’s still a male-dominated area. Unfortunately, my opponent is quite confrontational and he has said some things that are just not true, like me being a developer. No, I’m not. I’m not a developer. Do I have special interests? No. I’m pretty much funding my own race, my own campaign, A) because I’m not  good about asking for money and, B) after everyone has suffered with Covid-19 and stuff, not everybody has extra money, and I’m interested enough in the position that I’m willing to put in my own money.

But in the end, I spoke to the lady [arranging the interview], and she said she would send the link if I changed my mind. So I called her Thursday morning and said I changed my mind, send me the link. So I sat down, I had my computer ready and nothing. I called her and said, “I thought you were going to send me the link.” She said, "I did send it to you.” I said, "What email did you send it to?” She sent it to my husband. She said she was going to tell the interviewers to let me into the call but they never did.

[Editor's Note: Iliana Ramos Jones was interviewed separately by the Orlando Sentinel.] 

ND: You had a bit of trouble with your political signs. Some of them didn’t display the “Paid for by …” language indicating that your campaign had paid for them. It seems like a small thing, but it’s actually a big deal because it goes to transparency and voters knowing who is funding their candidates. What happened with the signs?

IRJ: [laughing] Yes. So, when I ordered my signs, they came in bundles. I read them. I see “Paid for by …” I grab a bunch and start giving them out. But there were several, I don’t know how they went through the printer without [the “Paid for by…” notice]. I thought it was just a printing error. But as soon as I saw it, I said, “Oh Shoot!” We printed some labels [that said “Paid for by …”] And some we labeled in black marker, which on purple is … not noticeable. They wanted me to switch the signs, so I switched the signs. And I also put stickers on them. When I realized what happened, I tried to find out which signs didn’t have the wording and go back and correct it.

I’m not a politician. Norine. This is who I am — a straight shooter. These are my beliefs, my convictions, my ideas. I’m an open book. You want to find dirt, I’m sure we all have it, but you’ll probably find it underneath my shoe. I’m not perfect. I’m just trying to help and serve my community.

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