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Iliana R. Jones won District 2 Seat by 57 votes

Could her margin have been even larger? Jones voters told VoxPopuli she shares their “values,” but others were “offended” by her “ugly,” “bullying” campaign. 

Iliana R. Jones in Winter Garden
Iliana R. Jones, left, outside Tanner Hall on Election Day, April 16, 2024. She spent more than $21,000 and won the District 2 seat by 57 votes. Photo: Norine Dworkin/VoxPopuli

Iliana R. Jones emerged victorious from Tuesday’s run-off election against incumbent Commissioner Ron Mueller to claim the District 2 seat on Winter Garden’s City Commission. She netted 52.6 percent of the vote. Of the 1,091 ballots cast, Jones received 574 to Mueller’s 517 — a 57-vote margin.

Given the money and expertise brought to bear on this race — Jones dropped more than $21,000 on the campaign, according to the last finance reports available to VoxPopuli, and brought on heavy-hitting Republican political consultant John Dowless — they may have expected a larger margin. In 2021, Mueller ran a grassroots campaign and won by 66 votes.  

Jones will be sworn in on April 25. She joins Commissioners Lisa Bennett and Chloe Johnson as the third woman on the commission and one of five women to ever sit on Winter Garden’s commission. She is also the city's first Latina commissioner.

The District 2 election had required a run-off because neither candidate had reached the 50 percent threshold to win outright during the March 19 regular election. [Jones pulled 48 percent of the vote; Mueller, 41 percent and Danny “DJ” Culberson, 10 percent.] 

With only the top two vote-getters in the run-off, Culberson threw his support behind Mueller in a widely viewed video endorsement that denounced Jones for promoting “hate-provoking politics at every opportunity” — a reference to the barrage of negative mailers, text messages and attack videos that District 2 voters received. He said her actions were “everything I stand against.” 

Jones, who made Republican support of her conservatism a main talking point in the nonpartisan election and refused to participate in any of the community forums alongside the other candidates, nonetheless had the support of the full Winter Garden Commission. Some of whom were out with her Tuesday at Tanner Hall, including Bennett, Mayor John Rees, former Commissioner Bob Buchanan and Jones’ brother, Sal Ramos, newly appointed to Oakland’s Town Commission. 

VoxPopuli talked with voters as they left Tanner Hall on Election Day to hear which candidate’s message appealed to them. 

Shared "values"

Jones campaign seemed to resonate with voters who told VoxPopuli she shared their “values.” That’s what one gentleman, who did not want to give his name, said as he got into his car after voting. Though when asked which values he was referring to, he quickly said, “Oh, I’m not going to answer that.”

Another retired couple, who did not want to give their names, was equally reticent. They said only, "She reflects what we want to have done, what we want to have continued being done in this community." When asked for more details, they demurred, "I think that's all we should say."

A 73-year-old walking through the Tanner Hall parking lot was more expansive about the reasons Jones secured her vote. “She is a local businesswoman. She is a minority, which I think we badly need in Winter Garden," said the retiree who did not want to share her name. "She is smart. She seems very honest. She's worked very hard for the position, which I think means a lot. And I just don't care for her opponent at all.”

A financial planner said Jones got both his and his wife’s votes because she “just seems to align with our values in the community.” Then he added that his vote was as much anti-Mueller as it was pro-Jones. “He’s kind of known to be a liar, taking credit for things he wasn’t in office for, doing malicious things to different business owners in the community,” the 41-year-old who did not want to give his name, said. “He’s not been a good commissioner. Just as much as I’m for Miss Jones, I’m against him.”  

Other voters told VoxPopuli that even on this second go at Election Day, they still didn’t know much about Jones’s platform and were irked that she didn't attend any candidate forums.

"She didn't debate!" said one voter who didn't want to give her name. "I went to that West Orange [High School] thing. Where was she?"

“In all of the campaign materials I have received from her campaign, I cannot remember one specific policy or plan that she wishes to undertake when she is in office and, that to me, is most important in earning my vote,” said Dr. Darren Transue, 43. The radiologist was also put off by the amount of money Jones spent on the race. “I wondered why they would do that for a commissioner job,” he said. 

Transue was not the only voter to point out questions about Jones' policy positions.

“We know nothing about her plan or her future or vision,” said a 46-year-old entrepreneur who declined to give her name. “The only thing that we know is that she dislikes [Mueller] immensely, and that was what she ran on, diminishing his character.”

The entrepreneur told VoxPopuli that on a recent evening, a Jones supporter confronted her in her driveway about her “Ron Mueller” yard signs.

“I was bringing my trash cans out, and [the supporter] got out of her car and she said, You need to take those signs down. Then she went on to tell me all of these horrible things about Ron. I told her that I thought that Ron was a great person.”

Asked about the confrontation Tuesday, Jones refused to comment. Raul Loya, a campaign volunteer, said they were unaware of the situation. 

A negative campaign 

Jones upped her share of the vote from 48 percent to 53 percent between the regular election and run-off. It’s possible she could have won the District 2 seat by an even wider margin, but District 2 voters VoxPopuli spoke with said they were turned off by the negative tone of her campaign. 

“I was offended by Iliana Ramos Jones' negative campaign tactics," said retired banking professional Melissa Brudzinski, 61. She was also offended by "the ugly, unsolicited texts from Florida Back The Blue and other unidentified parties attempting to smear Ron's character, and by Mayor Rees confronting and publicly shaming Ron in a meeting of the commissioners.”

The entrepreneur who had the driveway confrontation said watching the video of Mayor Rees’ remarks was “stomach churning,” and she was “a little shocked that it came even from the mayor.” 

“The bullying tactics she did, such a turnoff,” said the entrepreneur's friend, a 55-year-old retiree who was particularly incensed that she received a text message with a QR code for the Mayor Rees video. She did not want to share her name.

“Winter Garden doesn’t need that,” added a 60-year-old who works to bring restaurants to Winter Garden and preferred not to give his name.

Guys with Ron
From left: Samuel Vilchez Santiago, chair, Orange County Democratic Party; Danny "DJ" Culberson, community advocate; Ron Mueller; Wes Hodge, candidate for Orange County Supervisor of Elections

Care for the community

Mueller’s reelection was always going to be a hard fight. There was Commissioner Bennett’s push for an investigation into allegations of threats made to fire city staff and her pursuit of a forfeiture hearing. While Mueller kept his seat, the email evidence collected showed there was no effort to fire city staff and the commission ultimately imposed no penalties, Mueller’s reputation took a hit. 

He compounded things in early March when he said without evidence in another news outlet that the mayor and Bennett stood to gain financially from endorsing Jones. The mayor clapped back with a litany of misrepresentations he believed Mueller had made during his campaign. 

But supporters largely seemed to give Mueller a pass. Brudzinski, the retired banking professional, for instance, said that while she was “dismayed” by Mueller’s statements about the endorsements, it didn’t “outweigh the service he has provided to Winter Garden and our community.” She still voted for Mueller because “he cares about the community. Some of the other candidates, I never saw them, I didn’t get the feeling that they were as engaged with the voters and the people of Winter Garden.”

That sentiment was heard often from Mueller voters who spoke with VoxPopuli.  

Brudzinski’s husband, Jay, 62, said he liked Mueller’s “constituent-first” attitude. “I want a commissioner that's going to represent me as an individual and my community and my neighborhood,” he said. He said he’s encountered candidates in other places they have lived in who “have no time for you because you’re not a big donor or big business. But Ron, there’s not a time that we’ve bumped into him somewhere that the first question isn’t How’s everything going? Is there a problem somewhere? So, that was kind of a breath of fresh air from other places we’ve been.”

Elizabeth, who only wanted to use her first name, turned 18 in time to vote in the run-off and cast her first vote for Mueller. “I think he has good ideas. I think he really cares about what's happening in the community,” she said. 

A former NASA engineer, 67, who did not want to give her name, said the election had gotten a "little too nasty for my taste." She added that she appreciated that Mueller ran a clean, fair campaign and that he’d  “done a good job as far as his position.” 

Mary, 79, who only wanted to use her first name, said Mueller earned her vote by organizing area homeowners associations to help troubleshoot routine issues. “So people aren't reinventing the wheel,” she said. “If this neighborhood has already dealt with an issue, they can find out if your neighborhood is dealing with a similar issue.” 

Donna, who only wanted to give her first name, said she first met Mueller when he knocked on her door in 2021 — after he was first elected. 

“He said, Hello, I've just been elected. I'd like to know what you think about the city. What would you like to see happen? What do you already like? What would you like to change? I'd love to represent you and I'd love to know. And I've never had a politician anywhere that was interested in what I thought.”


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