Interest spreading for Amy Mercado’s HD 48 seat
Democrats Tony Tsonis, Nelson Pena, Samuel Vilchez Santiago all have filed to run for the HD 48 seat, opening with the departure of Rep. Amy Mercado.

Tony Tsonis, Nelson Pena, Sam Santiago
Tony Tsonis, Nelson Pena, Sam Vilchez Santiago are in, while Daisy Morales ponders.

Three Democrats now have filed to run for Orlando’s Florida House District 48 seat being vacated by Democratic Rep. Amy Mercado, with a fourth potential Democratic candidate waiting in the wings.

Tony Tsonis, a strategic planning manager in the hotel industry, filed to run in late April before Mercado made her surprise announcement last week that she was going to run for Orange County Property Appraiser instead of seeking another term.

Nelson Pena of Orlando, who runs a real estate management company and a motivational consultancy, filed to run last Friday.

Samuel Vilchez Santiago of Orlando, a member of the Orange County Charter Review Commission, filed to run on Wednesday.

Orange County Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisor Daisy Morales has indicated that she is considering entering the contest.

Democrats have a pretty strong advantage in voter registration in the district, which covers parts of southern and eastern Orange County, including parts of east Orlando. It is a diverse district with a significant Hispanic population and a fairly modest economic base. It is home to thousands of tourism industry workers and has been sharply hit by the coronavirus crisis, both with high numbers of infections and with new unemployment.

Tsonis said he got in because of what he saw happening with the coronavirus crisis, which has impacted him personally in many ways. His employer, Hilton Corporation, is at the heart of the international tourism industry that has been hard hit by the economic collapse. He has watched as numerous people in the industry have lost jobs and struggled to get state or federal unemployment compensation.

In March, his father died from COVID-19. Tsonis watched helplessly, from a distance, as his father, a retired high school teacher in Maryland who owned a restaurant, got sick with a mysterious disease, and then died in a hospital shortly after testing positive for the coronavirus.

Tsonis, who had been active in student government at the University of Central Florida 17 years ago, decided he wanted to get involved.

“I had a chance to speak with Amy last week. And as I told her, I really wasn’t looking to primary somebody in the usual sense of the word. I had just been really inspired by my experiences during the coronavirus pandemic, and my experiences working alongside of my co-workers, dealing with all the areas of unemployment concerns,” Tsonis said. “That was really my motivation for looking for an opportunity to serve my community.

“In this district we have so many folks working in the hospitality industry, working in hotels, working in restaurants, working in the theme parks, and the impact on Central Florida is just terrible,” Tsonis said. “And it’s a big motivation for me: How can I work in Tallahassee to help get through that?”

Tsonis wants to improve access to health care, expand affordable housing, and to develop “an unemployment system that works.” He also wants to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Among the other candidates, Pena has a rental real estate company with properties in Florida, New York, and Pennsylvania, and a motivational consulting company.

“I want to continue the legacy that Amy Mercado started,” Pena said.

Pena is a member of the Orange County Planning and Zoning Commission, has been active in the Orange County Democratic Party, and has been active in various community groups for a number of years, particularly working with teenagers, helping them develop a plan for the future, and teaching them critical thinking, money management, time management, and organizational skills.

As with Tsonis, he sees the coronavirus crisis as a profound challenge for Florida’s leaders.

“Obviously, right now, with this COVID-19, it’s affecting people’s lives, people’s livelihoods. Moving forward we really don’t know how this will be affecting our lives,” he said. “The government really needs to focus on helping people, especially those who’ve lost their jobs and their livelihood. We really need to pay attention to how we can help communities, in ways that people feel safe, and can go back to their normal lives.”

Vilchez Santiago also praised Mercado and vowed to continue her path, while pointing out that he intends to be the first Venezuelan-American and youngest Latino in the House.

He has been at the fore of one of Orange County’s busiest political bodies in the past year as a member of the Orange County Charter Review Commission.

He has also been active in a variety of activist organizations, including as Florida campaign manager for All Voting is Local, as a deputy director and board member for Ciudadano, and as a board member for Voces Unidas por la Educación. The latter two organizations work with Latino and immigrant groups.

Two years ago Santiago was campaign manager for Johanna López, helping her get elected to the Orange County School Board.

“My story is one familiar to this community — it is a story of hope, resilience, and perseverance,” Vilchez Santiago wrote in a news release. “After fleeing persecution in Venezuela, my parents began life in Florida’s 48th District as refugees finding work at a local McDonald’s and in a cab carrying travelers from the airport. They sacrificed for my family’s future. Their sacrifice is dear to my heart, and I look forward to honoring the sacrifices of constituents in this community by promoting legislation that serves the needs of people, not the pockets of corporate interests.”

His priorities include Medicaid expansion, access to affordable housing, increased minimum wages and earned sick leave, and public education funding.

Morales is a two-term supervisor with the Soil and Water Conservation District who has been active and visible in county politics for many years, developing longtime working relationships with county commissioners and other elected officials.

Scott Powers

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at [email protected].


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