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In Winter Garden city commission races, it’s neighbor v. neighbor  

Updated: Feb 8

Candidates for District 2 and District 3 hail from the same neighborhoods. What does that mean for voters?

boxing match
Photo by Johann Walter Bantz/Unsplash

A little neighborly competition can be a good thing. But Winter Garden’s March 19 city commission elections are a big step up from Best Holiday Lights or Most Beautiful Landscaping. 

In two districts, neighbor is challenging neighbor for a seat on the city commission. Hopefully no one needs to borrow cup of sugar in the meantime.

In District 2, Commissioner Ron Mueller and candidates Iliana R. Jones and Danny “DJ” Culberson all live on Lake Cove Pointe Circle, portions of which hug Lake Apopka.

Chloe Johnson and Karen Mcneil, the candidates vying to represent District 3, are also relative neighbors. Both live in East Winter Garden. 

Winter Garden’s city charter says that candidates must live in the district they wish to represent for at least a year before running for office. But in the same neighborhood? On the same block? It’s enough to make you wonder if there’s something in the water. 

Aubrey Jewett, PhD, an associate professor of government and politics at University of Central Florida, has studied state and local politics for more than 30 years. He told VoxPopuli in a phone interview that he’s never seen a situation where candidates for two districts have all come from the same neighborhoods. Although he said it’s always been a possibility. 

“We have 411 municipalities [in the state], and some are pretty small. There are some cities with fewer than 500 people.”

A myopic view?  

Local elections are often decided by a fraction of the city’s eligible voters, some of whom may not even be aware an election is taking place, so when candidates happen to be clustered like this, could it impact voters? 

“With everybody so concentrated in one area, a lot of times candidates forget that they represent the whole district,” notes political strategist Jeremy Rodriguez, who worked on Congressman Maxwell Frost's campaign. “Voters can feel left out.”

Jewett explained that people often get involved in politics, especially at the local level, because they want to fix their own neighborhoods. Mcneil’s candidacy, for instance, is powered by a drive to fix the storm water drainage issues that have plagued East Winter Garden for generations and to see Center Street restored as a commercial hub. 

The caveat, Jewett said, is when candidates all hail from the same ‘burb, “voters might not get exposed to as much discussion about challenges and problems facing other parts of the city."

“Like-minded people tend to live in particular areas,” Debbie Chandler, Esq., co-president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, said in a phone interview. That may narrow choices for the district, leaving voters “shortchanged.” 

“Residing in different areas can bring forth a diversity of input,” she added.  Without the diversity of perspectives, “candidates can have a myopic view of the issues.”

Jewett calls it “tunnel vision policy making.”

Take transportation. “If all the candidates come from a neighborhood where everyone owns cars and the roads are pretty good, they may not be thinking about public transportation,” Jewett said.

“We’re just more familiar with the places we live,” Chandler said. “Candidates must make a special effort to learn about other parts of the district.”

“The good candidates will listen,” Wes Hodge, former chair of the Orange County Democratic Party, now running for Supervisor of Elections, said by phone. 

Candidates who’ve experienced specific problems are more likely to try to fix them as public officials, Jewett said. Absent that experience, issues can become “blind spots.” The flip side, though, is making decisions based on “what directly impacts them and their neighborhood,” said Jewett.

"That's how we sometimes get zoning decisions that favor land-owners, realtors, developers and builders who've donated generously to political campaigns. They often advocate for and benefit from favorable zoning decisions," he said.

District 2 candidates all live on Lake Cove Pointe Circle in this community. Photo: Lucy Dillon/VoxPopuli

You live where?  

While candidates on the same block make an interesting anomaly, where they don’t live is often more concerning.

“In a lot of local elections across Florida, one of the issues has been people running for office when they don’t actually live in the district they want to represent,” Jewett said.

That happened during Ocoee’s 2023 municipal elections in District 3: Shante Munns ran against Commissioner Richard Firstner when her primary residence was in Orlando. A charter review commission was formed as a result, and one of the amendments the commission drafted is a 12-month residency requirement for all candidates. It’s on Ocoee’s March 19 ballot. 

At least with all of the candidates on the same streets, we know they actually live in their districts, Jewett said. “It’s refreshing.” 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated that Chloe Johnson lived on Kenny Court. She does not. She does live in East Winter Garden.


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