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Ocoee Mayor Rusty Johnson wins re-election with more than 60 percent of the vote

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Norine Dworkin

Editor in chief

Wednesday, March 15, 2023


Norine Dworkin/VoxPopuli

Ocoee Mayor Rusty Johnson wins his third term with more than 60 percent of the vote on March 14, 2023.

Updated March 15, 2023, 5:30 p.m. 

Fending off two opponents, Ocoee Mayor Rusty Johnson easily won re-election for a third, and final, four-year term, while District 3 Commissioner Richard Firstner won his bid for a third term in a landslide, and first-time candidate Scott Kennedy was elected to an open commission seat in District 1.

Johnson received 2,596 votes, or nearly 61 percent of votes cast, against District 4 City Commissioner George Oliver III, who garnered 1,169 votes, or just over 27 percent, and political newcomer Chris Adkins, who picked up 515 votes, or just about 12 percent.

In the District 3 race, Firstner won 540 votes, or 76 percent, easily thwarting a challenge from Shante Munns, who received just 167 votes, or nearly 24 percent. In the District 1 race, Kennedy gained 617 votes, or about 63 percent, against opponent Shuantae “Hope” Bellamy, who netted 362 votes, or nearly 37 percent of the vote. The seat opened up when Commissioner Larry Brinson Jr. said earlier this year that he would not seek re-election.

This will be Johnson’s last stint as mayor since voters approved in 2018 a two-term limit for the mayor and commission seats. After serving almost a quarter century as a commissioner, he was first tapped as mayor in November 2015 in a special election to serve out the term of former longtime Mayor S. Scott Vandergrift, who had resigned for health reasons earlier that year. Johnson then won a full term in March 2016 and, with no challenge in 2019, kept his seat. 

Johnson had said his priorities were to finish the improvement of downtown that was started seven years ago. He said the next project was Oakland Avenue, where they're planning a "trail down the middle of it that leads out to Franklin [Street], which will eventually lead over to Chapin Station." 

Oliver, who was serving his second term as the city’s first African-American commissioner, decided to vacate his seat to become Ocoee’s first Black mayor. Florida Statute 99.012 requires elected officials to resign their seat at least 10 days before the first day of the qualifying period for the office they seek. His resignation is effective on March 21 when Johnson will be sworn in again as mayor. A special election will be held at a future date still to be determined to fill the now open seat. Oliver is eligible to run again. He did not return a request for comment about his plans. Nate Robertson, a Republican who lost a state House race in November, has also announced his candidacy.

Adkins said he was “proud” of the race he ran and thanked those who voted for him. “This was never going to be easy, but some things about the city needed to be brought to the attention of the Ocoee taxpayers,” he said in a text to VoxPopuli. “They have put their trust that over the next four years, Ocoee will get on track with our infrastructure problems, that we, as a city, will see through the downtown master plan, City Center and Fifty West, hopefully while protecting our beautiful Starke Lake.”

Firstner’s win will also be his last since he, too, is term limited. He said he wanted to serve another four years to oversee the completion of several city projects that are underway. 

Munns, a Democrat who lost a congressional race in November, did not return a request for a comment about the race and her political future. VoxPopuli had raised questions about her residency. While public records indicated her primary residence in Orlando, she listed an apartment within District 3 when she filed paperwork to run for the commission seat. During a political forum in February, she brushed off questions about her residency, saying she qualified under the rules to run for the office.

Kennedy, who is chief financial officer for an Orlando-based building materials distributor, most recently served as vice chair of the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission. He had said that traffic and fiscal responsibility are his top priorities.

“For a first-time candidate to have this large margin of victory shows that District 1 residents agreed with our vision and platform for the future of Ocoee — safer streets and neighborhoods, solving the traffic congestion, balancing growth with infrastructure and preserving the character of our city,” Kennedy wrote in a text to VoxPopuli. “We are honored to have the trust of so many and ready to get to work on these issues.”

He never really had much of a challenge from local entrepreneur and community activist Bellamy, who said his work on his Zigs Nation Digital Network will continue as will his community work.

“Being a commissioner of Ocoee would block so much on a national activist platform,” he said in a Facebook message to VoxPopuli. “This is the real work. I go out and learn the problems, then I come up with solutions to make it better. I heard the community issues across the district, and I will be addressing them.”

According to the Orange County Supervisor of Elections, 4,290 ballots were cast in Tuesday’s election: 4,280 ballots in the mayoral race, 1,014 ballots in District 1 and 742 ballots in District 3.

This year, voters overwhelming chose to vote in person on Election Day, casting 2,842 ballots on March 14, rather than vote early (85 ballots cast) or by mail (1,363 ballots cast).

This may reflect the fact that there was a single early voting site open — the Supervisor of Elections office in downtown Orlando — while three Election Day polls were located within the districts. New Florida voting rules also meant that after the midterms, voters who had received mail-in ballots had to re-register with the Supervisor of Elections to continue to receive their ballots in the mail.

Turnout was highest, at 17.36 percent, at the Ocoee Lakeshore Center, perhaps because residents from both Districts 2 and 4 were voting there. Johnson saw his biggest show of support come from these districts — he earned nearly 71 percent of the vote there.

District 1 saw 13.57 percent turnout while turnout in District 3 was 11.46 percent. Turnout is typically lower for municipal elections than federal elections, but this year's voter turnout was on par with the 2021 city elections when approximately 14 percent to 15 percent of residents voted to re-elect then-Commissioner Oliver and Commissioner Rosemary Wilsen of District 2.  

Managing Editor Dibya Sarkar contributed to this report. 

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