There were hugs all around, and a few tears, last Thursday as former state Sen. Gary Siplin introduced the seven elderly, low-income homeowners who’ve qualified for donated new roofs in the latest partnership program he created to assist Orlando seniors.
For more than a decade, Bakari Burns has been leading efforts in Orlando to provide health care and other services in distressed neighborhoods while running a health care nonprofit, and to address to the city’s homeless population.
For as long as anyone can remember, there’s been no greater thorn in the side of Orlando City officials than Lawanna Gelzer, the community activist at nearly every City Council and regulatory board meeting pushing for accountability in city programs.
The trio present three very different approaches to community service, three well-known names, and the only truly competitive race in this year’s Orlando municipal elections. This fall Siplin, Burns, and Gelzer are battling for the open City Council seat representing District 6 on Orlando’s southwest side.
There are two other Orlando municipal races, but neither appears to be competitive. Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, seeking a fifth full term, faces City Commissioner Sam Ings, who is vacating the D6 seat, and retired Navy veteran Aretha Simons. Ings and Simons have plenty of yard signs up. Dyer has a well-oiled machine. In the District 4 City Council race, longtime Commissioner Patty Sheehan picked up a last-minute opponent in newcomer Corey DeVogel.
With Siplin, Burns and Gelzer, voters in District 6 will be choosing between three long-established Orlando figures with distinctly different styles and records, all vowing to address housing, infrastructure investments, higher-paying jobs, and other economic needs.
District 6 incorporates a handful of low-income, mostly African American neighborhoods including Washington Shores and Richmond Heights, but stretches southward to include Universal Orlando Resort and the northern half of the International Drive corridor, with a handful of more affluent neighborhoods.
Siplin, with considerable institutional support, has attracted more than $128,000 in campaign contributions and spent more than $76,000 of that, including on radio advertising that began last week in Orlando. Burns, a first-time candidate, has picked up $40,000 in contributions and spent $16,000. Gelzer has attracted $16,000, an spent about $2,000.
Siplin, 64, is the old pro politician, slick, connected, experienced in campaigning and dealing. He spent 12 years in Tallahassee including 10 in the Florida Senate. His wife Victoria Siplin is an Orange County Commissioner representing much of the same area. He touts Tallahassee connections, including a friendship with future Senate President Wilton Simpson. Siplin also has baggage from a couple of minor scandals, but nothing he worries about.
Burns, 45, is a steady, behind-the-scenes force, serving on community boards and commissions while building a seven-clinic chain of his Orange Blossom Center for Family Health to provide health services in low-income communities throughout Central Florida.
Gelzer, 57, is the City Hall gadfly, posting more time there than most well-paid lobbyists. She’s also a perennial candidate who has never come close to winning but who makes every campaign interesting.
Siplin said he wants to focus on housing, seniors’ needs, code enforcement, investments, transportation improvements, Orlando youth, and jobs creation in District 6. It’s his connections, he suggested, that set him apart. Last Thursday he used those connections to bring together Rebuilding Together Orlando and JMD Global Roofing to launch a new program to help low-income seniors get roofs replaced. He points to other connections to address other issues, noting people in power listen to him.
“I met with Universal Studios, and they’ve agreed to do a job fair in District 6 as they prepare to open their new Epic Universe,” theme park, Siplin said.
“South I-Drive, which is in the county, they’ve got the hotels, the landscaping, the utilities beneath ground, they’ve got their own police force and all that. I talked to the hotel owners and businesses on North I-Drive and I’m going to work with them to help them make North I-Drive the way South I-Drive exists today,” Siplin said. “In order to do that, I’m going to set up a District 6 business council, with I-Drive people, Universal, Disney, and other corporations around Orlando. We’re going to meet once a quarter to discuss business development, how I can facilitate and leverage the city, how we can attract businesses in my district, with the idea here that the businesses will hire my people.”
As for those controversies, ranging from allegations of conflicts of interest with his nonprofit corporation to federal tax liens slapped on his home, he said, “Gary Siplin is an open book. I’ve been through the fire and I’m still standing, an I’m still serving the public.”
Burns grew up in the district, the son of a Navy veteran and teacher. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in public health management and began his career in public health in Tallahassee.
“That’s where I fell in love with just the idea” of serving “hard working people who just don’t have health insurance.” In 2003 he came back to Orlando to open the not-for-profit Health Care Center for the Homeless, which now operates seven clinics under the name of Orange Blossom Family Health, providing health care for insured, Medicare, Medicaid, and uninsured, with 148 full-time employees and an annual budget in the range of $15 million.
“District 6 needs bold, innovative, energetic leadership,” Burns said. “There are a lot of needs in the district. I think we need to have forward-leaning leaders who will advocate for the true needs of District 6, someone who can bridge that gap between the business community, the residents, as well as the elected officials.
“So you ask, what differentiates you from Siplin or Lawanna, it’s that you can walk through the community and see the types of things I’ve been able to do over the past 15 years. So I’m one that sees there is a need, and I put together a plan to address that need, not just talk about it and fuss about it,” Burns said.
Naturally, health care services are high on Burns’ list of priorities, along with housing, transportation, and homeless services. He helped craft the city’s “Housing First” program to address homelessness, arguing that getting people stable, secure places to live make all their other problems far easier to address.
Burns wants to see more investment in stormwater infrastructure in District 6 to reduce chronic flooding problems, public safety, services for the youth, and ensuring services for the large number of seniors in the district.
Gelzer contends no one running in District 6 knows more about how City Hall operates, or how it should operate, than she does. She last ran for office against Ings in District 6 in 2015, picking up 13 percent of the vote, finishing fourth in a five-way contest.
“I never stop running, and I never stop caring about the community. I am always engaged, and I understand what civic engagement is,” she said.
Her issues always has focused on getting City Hall to pay more attention, and to spend more money, on preserving and improving the impoverished neighborhoods, generally to the east and southwest of downtown. That has led her to stand out as a leading opponent to big-ticket initiatives pushed by Dyer including the Creative Village development, which she called “corporate welfare at its worst,” and city assistance for development of Exploria Stadium, the professional soccer stadium opened in 2017. Both impacted the historic, distressed, African American community of Paramore. City officials contend both developments include plenty to help Parramore, but Gelzer maintains they’ve contributed to gentrification with little to offer the longtime residents, and no significant city investment in the streets or other infrastructure.
Gelzer’s focus also has turned to climate change and environmental justice, contending the city must and can invest more to clean up the older neighborhoods that were dumped on, including with toxic dumping, for generations, improve infrastructure “that is not up to par,” and secure them against the flooding problems that have been increasing in recent years.
“When other communities get a cold, older communities, particularly older communities of color, get the flu or die,” Gelzer said. “These urban districts, these older districts, bring in quite a bit of revenue but you don’t see the return in investments in the community.
She contends the city is failing people on affordable housing, and for seniors programs that focus on entrepreneurship.
“I’m not running to represent just District 6. Because as a Commissioner, you vote on issues that affect the entire city. One thing I’ve tried my best to be familiar with things going on city wide,” Gelzer. “That’s why I make it a point to go to advisory committee meetings, the budget meetings… So as a citizen, I’ve been doing that for years, because it’s important to know how our tax dollars re being spent.”
Gelzer contends she never sees Siplin or Bakari at any of those meetings.
“My name is Lawanna Gelzer and I’m about accountability and I’m about integrity,” she said.