Desmon Duncan-Walker takes City Commission’s District One
by James Thompson
In a historic race for Gainesville’s City Commission District One seat, public arts and community history advocate Desmon Duncan-Walker unseated incumbent Gigi Simmons with 52.5 percent of the vote. Commissioner Simmons earned 47.5 percent. In the At-Large Commission seat, incumbent Gail Johnson handily defeated her opponent.
The precinct totals for the Duncan-Walker/Simmons race were not nearly as even keeled as the overall results, as each candidate won by about a 60-40 split in all but one of the nine precincts.
District One is not just a “Black District” like many White progressives from other parts of town imagine. Like all our Gainesville Districts, it weaves into the center of the city up to the university and has pockets of gentrification, almost entirely White neighborhoods, mixed communities, student housing, and of course lots of over-priced multifamily housing.
It’s hard to tell how the lopsided precinct victories may reflect this, or if it was simply a result of where the candidates chose to make phone calls and knock on doors. Turnout was low at 10.6 percent, but given the inevitability of the At-Large race (Commissioner Johnson did not even accept campaign donations), and this being the last stand-alone City race, it’s not a surprise. City races occur on cycle with County races and party primaries this August.
Simmons’ past electoral success laid the groundwork for this District to have the opportunity to select from two strong progressive African-American women’s voices for the first time in Gainesville history. The candidates who run for this seat will likely reflect the pivot from Simmons’ original candidacy for many cycles.
Supporters for Commissioner-Elect Duncan Walker drew stark contrasts with Commissioner Simmons on the most heated topic of the day:w the gentrification of historically African-American communities as developers build luxury student housing or renovate existing dwellings into unaffordable units. The City’s approval to build luxury student housing in neighborhoods like Seminary Lane, Pleasant Street, and Porters took front and center during this race, with Duncan-Walker’s camp promising to do more to reevaluate and slow down a nationwide process that has taken on the momentum of a juggernaut.
The irony is that both candidates had good positions on gentrification. Commissioner Simmons stood with an absolute Commission majority in acknowledging the legal obstacles to fighting property rights in Florida in neighborhoods that were rezoned for vertical density many years ago under different leadership. During her term she focused instead on issues like the landmark renters’ rights ordinance, in which she played a key role.
In Florida it is almost impossible to deny property rights to developers or to down-zone neighborhoods. Renters rights on the other hand will improve the lives of tens of thousands of residents, most concentrated in District One. It is a district rich in history and community, with the highest concentration of African-Americans. But it also encompasses most of the East Side from Waldo Road, a pocket of low wages and food deserts drawing deeply from our segregated history.
Commissioner-Elect Duncan-Walker and her supporters want a Commissioner who will line up more aggressively with the minority vote on the Commission, led by At-Large Commissioner Gail Johnson, in seeking a moratorium on development in historically Black communities. Their consensus is that more could be done to protect older neighborhoods or to at least leverage the City’s progressive voice to get more from developers that do build there.
Other issues drew some light as evinced in the candidate’s Gainesville Sun editorials. Commissioner Simmons drew the entire attention of her piece there to the COVID crisis and work being done in District One to protect public health and facilitate the transition back to normal life. Duncan-Walker brought up the need to work more closely with the school board and other local governments, and to prevent District One from funding sprawl through current tax structures.
But it was gentrification that created all the heat in this election. Gigi Simmons has been a great Commissioner, but District One seems to want more. Commissioner-Elect Duncan-Walker has her work cut out for her.
James Thompson frequently analyzes local and state house elections for The Gainesville Iguana. He is a community activist.