The campaign for mayor is a marathon. It's a long, grinding, arduous period filled with knocking on doors, fundraising, staying on top of social media, and managing staff and volunteers. In the case of Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson and Commissioner Kyle Becker, both candidates have been at it for months.
There is, however, a single hour in a campaign cycle that could make or break a candidate, and in the case of Nelson and Becker, it's January 31st from 6-7 pm. In that hour, the two candidates for mayor will square off in a debate at the Apopka Community Center sponsored by the Apopka Area Chamber of Commerce.
Both candidates are certainly laying out plans to win this debate, but at the core, the best strategy is to keep the debate focused on the issues that your platform is featuring. For Nelson, that would be budget management, fiscal responsibility, and healthy reserves in the general fund budget. He would also like to pivot to "promises made, promises kept" and "back on track" sections from his campaign website.
Becker will want to feature subjects like visioning, investment, and beautification of Apopka. He will want to pivot to themes like proactive versus reactionary and quotes like "creating a better version of our former self, honoring our past by being intentional about how great our future can be" from his campaign website.
What sits around the 50-yard line for both candidates are unresolved issues that both Becker and Nelson have strong opinions about but diametrically opposed on their approach - economic development and staffing numbers on a fire engine, to name just two.
More on those two topics later.
Plans are essential. Benjamin Franklin was a sage founding father and timeless philosopher. But there is another more recent philosopher/warrior with a different opinion that might also apply in the fight that is a debate:
Tyson ought to know. He put a lot of plans on their backsides in his time as heavyweight champ. And there is undoubtedly potential for one of these candidates to deliver a knockout blow - verbally. It's almost a certainty that both Nelson and Becker will be throwing punches.
In the 2018 debate, Nelson pounded incumbent Mayor Joe Kilsheimer on the budget, reserves, out-of-town donations, and his perception of high turnover among department heads.
On the City Council, Becker took on Nelson about economic development, fire engine staffing, and the City's role in Rock Springs Ridge attempting to repurchase its golf course lands.
There is no question these two candidates can throw a punch. The bigger question might be if Becker or Nelson can take a punch. That is an x-factor that can only be learned on debate night.
Both candidates would like to land that memorable line talked about by Apopka residents the day after the debate and throughout the election cycle. Here are two of the most memorable lines from Presidential and Vice Presidential debates:
At the debate between Ronald Reagan and President Jimmy Carter, Reagan asked voters to consider if their lives had improved during the Carter administration.
"Ask yourself, 'Are you better off now than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago? Is America as respected throughout the world as it was?"
--President Ronald Reagan
Reagan used it again in the 1984 debate, but this time as a positive to illustrate his four years in office. It's a timeless question to measure the incumbent administration's scorecard for its last four years, but Becker or Nelson could also implement it depending on its context.
Dan Quayle, George H.W. Bush's 1988 running mate, answers a question about his relative inexperience by saying, "I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency."
Bentson fired back:
"Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."
--Senator Lloyd Bentson
Unless Nelson or Becker compare themself to longstanding Apopka Mayor John Land, it would be unlikely that either candidate will get a comeback of this caliber. And speaking of Land, did you know that he was in office over 61 years (according to Wikipedia) and compiled a 15-2 record in mayoral elections from 1949-2014.
He was the Tom Brady of American mayors.
Land's incredible longevity in office made him both the youngest (29) and oldest (94) mayor in Apopka history. There's a reason he has a bronze statue in front of City Hall in his honor and memory.
Debates can go in a lot of directions. Given the amount of tension, potential volatility, and the event's gravity, they are often unpredictable. And depending on the format, moderator(s), and questions asked, debates can range anywhere from sterile, glorified press conferences to chaotic off-the-chain fiascos.
And given the unknowns in this debate, the range of turnouts could certainly go either way.
According to Cate Manley, the President, and CEO of the Apopka Chamber, the debate is going to follow a standard format - two-minute opening statements, two-minute answers to questions, followed by one-minute rebuttals, and then two-minute closing remarks.
It gets unconventional and unknown in the selection of the moderator and the questions that the person will ask.
Manley selected a secret moderator - asking no one for advice and keeping the name private. She says the person is not from Apopka or affiliated with Becker or Nelson. I would also hope the moderator has no direct ties to a political party.
Manley also chose to give Apopka residents the ability to ask questions in the form of an online survey. According to Manley, those questions are forwarded directly to the moderator, who will select the most popular among the responses.
A secret out-of-town moderator choosing the most popular questions from a survey of residents wouldn't be my preference. I would rather have local moderators - maybe two or three that know Apopka well and decide on the essential questions based on their community knowledge, and then a couple of questions from the resident survey. However, it's Manley's attempt to be entirely fair and impartial, and that is commendable.
Manley estimates that the moderator will choose from 10-12 questions on the survey of residents for the debate. Considering there are 52 minutes left after opening and closing remarks (two minutes apiece), I'm hoping they can get to 14 or 15. But whatever the amount is, I think there are core issues that should be addressed in those questions:
You might recognize many of those topics from The Apopka Voice Readers Poll, but to conduct a comprehensive debate without addressing those issues would feel incomplete. And yes, most of these issues, like economic development or how many firefighters should staff a fire engine, will fall short with only three minutes of discussion. But at minimum, the candidates will go on record with their opinions and approaches to these vital issues.
The 2022 Apopka Mayoral Debate is at the Apopka Community Center this Monday, January 31st, from 6-7 pm. However, according to the Apopka Chamber website, the live event is sold out.