Positive reflections on recent city election

by Molly Mencken

Note: A number of people expressed surprise at the Iguana for not endorsing Lauren Poe and Adrian Hayes-Santos in this past election, candidates we had strongly endorsed previously. This piece gives a good reflection of the value of challenging incumbents as a way of making them better and bringing issues to the fore.

Movement organizers are reluctant to hinge hopes on election campaigns at the state and national level, where party politics interfere with justice and equity work. But the 2019 Gainesville Mayor’s race shows how a local low-budget grassroots leverage campaign can move mountains against a popular establishment Democratic incumbent.

Jenn Powell’s upstart progressive campaign ran against sitting Mayor Lauren Poe, who outraised her moneywise more than three to one. She used her campaign to raise issues unlike any City candidate in recent memory, and Poe and his Commission supporters responded wisely by moving forward on or publicly affirming many left progressive issues. Poe won (63%) against a field with Ms. Powell (18%), Republican Jennifer Reid (15%), and libertarian-capitalist Marlon Bruce (4%). The more assertively progressive Adrian Hayes-Santos openly campaigned alongside the mayor in his smaller District 4 race and won handily against anti-GNV Rise candidate Robert Mounts (74%/26%).

Before this election cycle began, the majority of commissioners and the mayor either didn’t discuss or were publicly opposed to pressuring the University of Florida on shifting its main campus from Duke Energy’s corporate shareholder non-renewable energy production to our publicly owned renewables-based utility. This was in opposition to their own citizen Utility Advisory Board (UAB) and research by local environmentalists like the now inactive Gainesville Loves Mountains. Jenn Powell was the first City candidate in history to make this a key point of her campaign, as well as raising discussion of a Payment-in-Lieu-of-Taxes (PILOT) program used in more than a hundred other cities to help wealthy colleges and universities share their prosperity with municipal government. The mayor conceded to work on the UF/GRU contract more vigorously near the end of the campaign. The Gainesville Sun cited this as a primary reason for endorsing his re-election.

Affordable housing also saw radical gains in traction with Mayor Poe under election pressure. Renters’ rights was championed explicitly by his fellow Commissioner and supporter Adrian Hayes-Santos, who wrote a white paper on the topic and worked with the Alachua County Labor Coalition (ACLC) on a vanguard renters’ rights policy including energy efficiency, anti-discrimination provisions, and landlord licensing. Powell endorsed the ACLC proposal early on, and Gainesville’s mayor finally endorsed it in some form, after running on the affordable housing issue in his last two campaigns without measurable results.

In fact, all of the candidates in the Mayor’s race were compelled to endorse renters’ rights, something that would likely not have happened in an uncontested race. During a Gainesville Chapter National Organization for Women candidate forum, all four mayor’s candidates even supported placing morning-after pills for women on public property in bathrooms or vending locations.

Ms. Powell campaigned on class issues that are shaping our national political conversations. She pushed heavily on a United Way study showing that 50 percent  of our community’s employed residents, people who actually have jobs, live paycheck to paycheck and are rent and food burdened. 

She attacked the mayor for making campaign promises that never turned to policies, and for holding fundraisers in the downtown Seagle Building penthouse hosted by wealthy property owners. 

His campaign responded by pointing to Ms. Powell’s in-kind donation from a small local business for yard signs as a kind of corporate contribution. This amateur mistake by Ms. Powell can’t account for her wide margin loss, but it supported critics’ claims that she still had a lot to learn, even after running for office in 2017.

For immigrant rights, it took ten months, and this election challenge from the progressive left, for Mayor Poe to finally apologize and acknowledge that the City needed to look into the Gainesville Police Department’s policy on reporting immigrant victims of domestic violence to ICE. Likewise, the Commission’s quick turnabout on waiting a year to end prison slavery, while also an attempt to keep up with Alachua County’s vote on the matter, was leveraged heavily by the Powell campaign. She promised it would be the first motion she made if elected, and the Commission soon reversed its waiting period stance to an immediate abolition.  

The Hayes-Santos campaign was under less pressure from first time candidate Mr. Mounts, who presented as a one-issue candidate on the admittedly crucial topics of neighborhood development and transparency for growth decisions. Mounts failed to make the case that he was more progressive on labor and the environment than Hayes-Santos, whereas in the Mayor’s race, Ms. Powell became the first City candidate who promised to take a salary equivalent to the hourly rate for the lowest paid City workers.

Early in the election cycle both Poe and Hayes-Santos reluctantly accepted the resignation of City Manager Anthony Lyons after the GNV Rise controversy. Lyons represented the kind of out-of-touch, pro-developer, and technocratic governance of the City to numerous environmental activists, social justice groups, and marginalized communities. Poe’s endorsing commission colleagues also moved forward on things like some of the bus programs and equity policies pushed for by James Lawrence and the surprisingly progressive Gainesville Sun project, Gainesville4All, including a consideration of a free ride program for youth and seniors.

Wisely avoiding conflict with County-wise voters who live in Gainesville, Poe and Hayes-Santos joined their majority in settling with Alachua County on a progressive pro-East Gainesville CRA restructuring that can put $70 million into struggling communities over the next ten years. The mayor took his newfound pro-County stance even further, taking credit for County conservation programs over two decades, many prior to his office, that took an area 60 percent the size of Gainesville off of portions of the City’s sprawl and annexation map.

We must acknowledge that all of the progress on these issues came from movement organizing – renters rights, prison slavery, wage equity, racial justice, conservation, women’s rights and local labor union actions. But it is difficult to imagine that the perfect storm of policy making, reversals, and campaign promises would have occurred without a contested mayor’s race. Now it’s time to keep the pressure on and hold the winners to their promises. Candidates come and go, the movement never stops. D

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