Aggressive fundraisers emerge in Democrats’ battle royal for HD 48
More business-friendly Julio Rocha and more progressive Samuel Vilchez Santiago lead money chase among five Democrats in HD 48 battle.

Julio Rocha and Samuel Vilchez Santiago
Five Dems are running, but two stand out.

A business-oriented Democrat and another with Central Florida’s progressive and labor union community support are emerging as election forces in a five-way primary battle royal for the House District 48 seat that suddenly became available in May.

Democratic former Rep. Amy Mercado announced she would not seek a third term but would instead run for Orange County Property Appraiser.

Her exodus led to a scramble between real estate manager Nelson Pena, who’s got a long history of serving on civic boards, Hilton hotel industry strategic planner Tony Tsonis, with close ties to Orlando’s dominant tourism community, and former Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisor Daisy Morales.

Two months later, financial planner Julio Rocha, seeking the business-friendly lane of the Democratic Party, and  23-year-old Samuel Vilchez Santiago, openly courted by the progressive wing of the party, have emerged as the most adept at raising money in the race. Each has raised more than $20,000 in the short span while the other three Democrats have not raised that much between them, not counting what they gave their own campaigns.

The five are in a sprint toward the August 18 Democratic primary.

The winner will face Republican Jesus Martinez in a district that has an overwhelming Democratic majority. Yet Martinez, a real estate broker with a long history of community involvement in the largely Hispanic district in southern and eastern Orange County, does not appear the least bit intimidated. The Republican Party of Florida seems to think he has a chance too, because it has provided his campaign with $4,000 in seed money. He’s also got some powerful local Republican leaders, particularly Latinos, making calls for him. Overall, he raised just $5,400, plus another $1,000 personal loan.

Vilchez Santiago, whom the Orlando Sentinel called a “rising star for Democrats,” has raised just over $30,000 in just over two months, and had almost $20,000 of that in the bank with the latest available campaign finance reports, covering activity through July 10. He’s gotten $3,000 from various real estate PACs and $1,000 from both Latinx Solutions and a group called 78 Political Committee. But he’s also drawn scores of smaller contributions from a total of 154 contributors.

Rocha has raised $20,552 to date and had about $8,000 of that left as of July 10. His big contributions include $1,000 checks from Republican former Orange County mayoral candidate Rob Panepinto‘s Florentine Strategies and scores of three-figure checks from various businesses and businessmen and -women around Central Florida.

Pena has raised $6,526 and lent his campaign $5,000. On July 10 he had about $4,500 in the bank.

Tsonis has raised $5,570 and lent his campaign $4,468, and on July 10 he had about $6,500 in the bank.

Morales has raised $3,000 from outside contributors and included another $1,650 in donations from herself, plus $10,000 she lent her campaign. On July 10 she had $10,660 in the bank.

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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