Jerry Demings secures re-election as Orange County Mayor

Popular Democrat wins second term in Democrat-dominated Orange County.

Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings has been re-elected, the first step in a two-election process that could redefine his legacy and the county’s growth for decades.

In a four-way contest, Demings won with more than 60% of the vote in Tuesday’s Primary Election, assuring that he wins outright on the first ballot, rather than having to go into a runoff. He defeated three challengers who put up modest campaigns against the high-profile Demings, conservatives Chris Messina and Tony Sabb, and progressive Kelly Semrad.

Also, Orange County Commissioner Christine Moore was re-elected with 57% of the vote against two challengers in the County Commission District 2 contest.

District 4 incumbent Commissioner Maribel Gomez Cordero was forced into a November runoff and a recount may be needed to determine the other candidate moving forward. Gomez Cordero finished with 48%, while Mercedes Fonseca was slightly ahead of Karl Anthony Pearson, with both getting around 26%.

In District 6 another runoff and another recount may be needed. In a seven-candidate field, longtime community gadfly Lawanna Gelzer finished first with 19%, while Mike Scott and Cynthia Harris both finished with about 18%, with Scott slightly ahead.

Orange County School Board Chair Teresa Jacobs and School Board District 1 member Angie Gallo both won re-elections by landslides. Runoffs will be held for two open seats on the School Board. Maria Salamanca and Heather Ashby finished first and second for the District 2 seat, while Alicia Farrant and Michael Daniels finished first and second for the District 3 seat.

In the mayoral election, Messina finished second with 22% and the other two each got 9%.

Now it’s on to the November General Election anyway for Demings, where his legacy as Orange County Mayor will be tested and defined.

He’s asking county voters to approve a penny increase in the sales tax to pay for billions of dollars of transportation improvements over the next 20 years. Demings’ pitch is for trains, buses, re-imagined highways and streets that not only could ease Central Florida’s traffic congestion but change how the city moves in coming decades.

That issue would have remained on the ballot whether Demings won Tuesday or had to go to the General Election ballot himself to retain his office.

There was little doubt Demings would win regardless, if not Tuesday, then in November. He is a popular Democrat, married to another one, U.S. Rep. Val Demings, in a county that has 150,000 more Democratic registered voters than Republicans.

Demings maneuvered to balance economic growth with other priorities, keeping much of the Democrats’ loyalty while also winning support from much of the business community, including the Orlando Economic Partnership and the Central Florida Hotel & Lodging Association.

And yet, Messina and Sabb have identified openings on the Right, and Semrad has done so on the Left.

None of Demings’ challengers have amassed anything like the kinds of campaign funds or political bases that opposed Demings in his 2018 election. Through last week, Sabb had spent about $27,000 on his campaign; Messina, $26,000; and Semrad, $18,000. Demings has spent $346,000 on his campaign, much of it going into numerous countywide mailers touting his housing, economic development, public safety and public-private partnership efforts.

The county’s challenges are obvious. For decades, Orange County has experienced tremendous growth, overwhelming transportation infrastructure and housing stock availability, and threatening environmental treasures.

At the same time, the county’s hospitality-heavy economic base gives it one of the lowest median wage rates in the country, creating a population base highly vulnerable to inflation, taxes and housing costs.

Then, there was the COVID-19 pandemic, during which Demings fell back on his public safety background as a former Orlando Police Chief and Orange County Sheriff. He drew widespread praise for the visibility. Thanks to his twice-weekly public briefings, he appeared on Orlando television news broadcasts nearly every night.

Yet Demings took the strategic approach of high caution, advocating mask mandates, shutdowns and widespread vaccinations. That put him in sharp contrast and frequent conflict with Gov. Ron DeSantis and other Republicans who switched course in mid-pandemic to advocate openness and no rules regarding masks and vaccinations.

Economically, Orange County bounced back from the pandemic, going from double-digit unemployment rates in 2020 to 3.1% by this past June. The population continues to grow.

Demings pushed through big pay increases for law enforcement and a new high-tech attitude toward delivering county services.

As his administration’s first priority, Demings put together affordable housing programs he says will bring 30,000 affordable housing units in the next few years and which kept 10,000 renters from being evicted. Yet he opposed a ballot proposal for one year of rent control, which brought critics from the Left, who’ve been pushing against what they see as a corporate takeover of rental real estate.

And for his opus, Demings rolled forward with his top priority, a ballot proposal to raise the sales tax by a penny to pay for billions of dollars of transit and transportation improvements. But his push came despite an era of 8% inflation, drawing critics from the Right, opposed to tax increases, and Left, opposed to regressive taxes.

He also advocated for growth measures that included construction of a road through Split Oak Forest, and did nothing to defend charter amendments approved by voters in 2020 to protect Split Oak and to create new protections for the county’s two most revered rivers, Wekiva and Econlockhatchee. That brought critics from the Left, who saw it as a dereliction of environmental protection.

Sabb, a retired, decorated Army colonel, and Messina, a high-tech entrepreneur, each pitched freedom-first platforms. They each tapped into conservatives’ anger over Demings’ COVID-19 strategies of closing and restricting businesses and requiring mask wearing, and over his proposal to increase sales taxes during an inflationary time.

Semrad is a faculty member in the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management and a longtime environmental and social justice activist well known for her testimony at Orange County Commission meetings, including on Split Oak and the rent control measure.

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].

One comment

  • Terry best

    August 24, 2022 at 6:16 pm

    He should run out of town he can’t even speak English he is a socialist

Comments are closed.


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