Decision Apopka 2018
By Reggie Connell/Managing Editor of The Apopka Voice
In 2010, Apopka City Commissioner Billie Dean defeated Barb Zakszewski in the Seat #1 election with 1,164 votes (62%) to her 725 (38%). In the Seat #2 race, incumbent Marilyn Ustler-McQueen beat challenger Sam Ruth with 1,149 (61%) votes to Ruth’s 735 (39%).
Mayor John Land ran unopposed, and those three Apopka incumbents joined Commissioners Bill Arrowsmith, and Kathy Till back on the Apopka City Council.
What’s the relevance of that brief factoid of Apopka politics? It was the last time an incumbent won an election in Apopka.
In 2010, the Apopka City Council had a collective 131 years of experience sitting on the dais. Land (58 years), Arrowsmith (31), Dean (18), Ustler-McQueen (16), and Till (8) combined for what was quite possibly the most years in office of any municipality in the state. Now with the retirement of Dean, all five members of that Council will be a part of Apopka’s history, but not a part of its government.
Since 2014, four incumbents have run for re-election and lost. In 2014, Ustler-McQueen ran unsuccessfully against Commissioner Diane Velazquez, and Land lost to Mayor Joe Kilsheimer. In 2016, Arrowsmith lost to Commissioner Kyle Becker, and Commissioner Sam Ruth (who won an open seat in 2014), lost to Commissioner Doug Bankson. And while four straight losses may seem like an anomaly more than a trend, in municipal elections around the country, incumbents have won at a rate of 88%.
So how will the incumbents fare tomorrow?
All signs point to a close mayoral election. Orange County Commissioner Bryan Nelson won The Apopka Voice Reader’s polls in December, January, and February. He also led most of the way in a close fundraising matchup with Kilsheimer. However, mail-in-ballots and early voting are trending to a similar turnout model (5,000-6,000 votes cast) that propelled Kilsheimer over Land in 2014. There is simply not enough details to establish either candidate as the frontrunner.
In Seat #2, Velazquez and challenger Alice Nolan appear headed to a runoff. In a January and February poll conducted by The Apopka Voice, both candidates ran neck-and-neck and outdistanced first-time candidates Leroy Bell and Alicia Koutsoulieris. Velazquez and Nolan are also close in total contributions, which is often an indicator of success in local elections. Depending on the outcome of the mayor’s race, these two seem destined to decide this election in April. However, like the mayor’s race, there isn’t really enough evidence to call anyone a frontrunner.
There is no incumbent running for Seat #1. Six-term Commissioner Billie Dean is retiring, and the eventual winner will be a first-term commissioner. Suzanne Kidd has won all three Apopka Voice Reader’s Polls, and led in fundraising, but has never eclipsed 50% in any of the polls, which suggests this seat will also likely be won in a runoff. Gene Knight and Alexander Smith seem to be challenging for the second spot in the runoff, with Knight placing second in the December and January poll, and Smith taking second in the February poll and leading Knight in fundraising. Theresa Mott has been fourth in all three polls and third place in fundraising for Seat #1.
If the incumbents were to fall tomorrow, the City Commission would have gone from 131 years experience in Apopka elected office to only four years (Bankson 2 years, Becker two years, and three newcomers) in just eight years. It would also extend the incumbent losing streak to six.
So much for making term limits an addition to the City Charter.
But even if the incumbents are victorious, it still only gives the City Council 12 years of experience in office.
Tomorrow the 10 candidates get their report cards around 7 PM. And while this election cycle is difficult to predict, it seems crystal clear that Apopka is still experiencing political growing pains, and its voters are still sorting things out.
We will know a lot more by tomorrow evening Apopka.