It's election time ... again
Sunday, February 7, 2021
"Voting booths" by yksin is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Vote in local elections and you have a voice in who runs your city and how your city is run.
It’s understandable if you’re experiencing a strange sense of election deja vu. There’s candidate literature swinging from your door handle and political signs are springing up in your neighbors’ yards. We even have a Voter Guide on our front page. This all seems so ... familiar, right? You could be excused for thinking, Weren’t we just here? Didn’t we just do this election stuff?
The answer is Yes. Yes, we did.
Three months ago, we elected a new president and vice president, Congressional representatives, judges, attorneys general and a host of other public servants.
And yet, we still have one more job to do. We still have to go hyper-local and tune into what the 16 candidates running for Winter Garden and Ocoee city commissions and the town council in Windermere are all about. We still need to weigh their experience, examine their ideas, and then vote for the qualified people who will best steer our communities for the foreseeable future.
If you’re concerned about how our historic ‘burbs grow without losing their charm, voting in the presidential election won’t help. You need to vote in your local municipal election. If you’re wondering when East Winter Garden, a veritable food desert, might get a grocery store, then again, your November vote won’t move that forward. You need to vote in March. If you're worried about maintaining Windermere's dirt roads without them washing out in the next hurricane, vote in your upcoming local election. And if you’re at all interested in things like traffic, parking, zoning, low density housing and any of the myriad quality of life issues that affect us daily, then vote early ... vote by mail ... or vote on March 9 to elect qualified leaders who will be good stewards for our communities.
It may be tempting to blow off this election. After all, you may tell yourself, you voted in the important one. You turned out to vote for president. Local elections aren’t as sexy as presidential elections. They got shifted to the spring, like the scientific and technical Oscars, to keep the ballot manageable. The unfortunate trade-off is that without marquee races as magnets, local elections suffer from ridiculously low turnout.
Just look at Ocoee’s District 4 race in which Commissioner George Oliver III and former Commissioner Joel Keller are facing off for the third time. In 2015, Keller held onto his seat by 20 votes, winning 237 to 217. Only 454 people voted. More people queue up when a new iPhone comes out.
Then in 2018, Oliver beat Keller by 41 votes to become Ocoee’s first Black city commissioner. It takes nothing from Commissioner Oliver to point out that in that election, just 697 votes were cast. In a district with 8,489 eligible voters, 8 percent exercised their right to choose who would represent them on the city commission. The other 92 percent stayed home.
This time candidates Lori Hart, an educator/nurse, and Keith Richardson, a retired pastor, have thrown in, making it a four-way race for which there may end up being a run-off if no one ends up with 51 percent. In other words, Ocoee District 4 voters, you have options.
In fact, in this election everyone has options. Not a single candidate is running unopposed — that I even mention this tells you that it doesn’t happen nearly often enough. And the field across all districts is remarkably diverse with five women candidates, three Black candidates and a Latina candidate in the mix. I hope we see this diversity trend continue with more women, people of color and LGBTQ candidates qualifying for future elections.
This is democracy at work. But we, the voters, need to show up to do our part. Former House Speaker Tip O’Neill always said, “All politics is local.” And in the case of municipal elections, politics is so local you can touch it. Your city commissioner must live in your district. Many answer their own phones and are good at returning calls and emails. This is government at its most accessible.
Indeed this is Commissioner Colin Sharman’s origin story. Back when Winter Garden Village was being developed, he got wind the shopping center was going to be filled with big box stores and a movie theatre. He wasn't thrilled with how that sounded, especially since it was going in right next to his neighborhood. He got together with other neighbors and went to planning/zoning and city commission meetings, voicing concerns about the scope of the development. Eventually the shape of the mall changed. No more movie theatre. The big box stores were moved away from residential areas to the back side of the mall, closer to the 429 Highway. Winter Garden Village became the pretty, walkable outdoor mall it is today.
After that experience, Sharman saw that his district, District 4, needed more of a voice at the table when the city made decisions that affected his area. So in 2006, he ran for mayor. He lost that race. But he won the race for District 4 city commissioner. He's been on the Winter Garden City Commission ever since. He’s one of the comissioners up for re-election next month.
Most of us don’t need to make that kind of a civic commitment. All we need to do is vote.
“The vote is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have,” said the late Congressman John Lewis.
Let’s wield it.