Crowded field qualify for Leon County Commission at-large seat

By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook staff writer

A field of candidates who are running on issues, including cannabis reform, the environment and the economy, are all set to be on the ballot in their bids for the at-large County Commission seat being vacated by Mary Ann Lindley.

Six of the seven candidates have either paid a $3,211.56 fee to qualify or collected at least 2,452 signatures in time to qualify by last Friday’s deadline. One write-in also was among the qualifiers.

The seven make the largest field of candidates running for any of the local municipal seats. Each of them, however, had one resounding theme – bring change to the County Commission.

Malissa Villar

The field started with 11 candidates before it dwindled down. Jeff Hendry, Scott Flowers, Danielle Irwin, Kelly Otte, Gaye Robin Colson and Carolyn Cummings were the qualifiers.  Malissa Villar is the lone write-in whose name will not be on the ballot.

Otte was the last qualifier for the race that seemingly drew a large field without an incumbent. She filed in December and like all of the other candidates found herself trying to be creative about campaigning in the last three months during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jeff Hendry

However, Otte managed to secure about 2,500 signatures, more than what’s required. She decided to run after being asked by friends to do so several times, she said.

The impetus this time around was her father who lived on a fixed income and couldn’t afford to pay $5,000 monthly to stay in a nursing home.

Scott Flowers

“That pushed me over,” said Otte, who is now looking forward to the challenge of campaigning in a pandemic leading up the Aug. 18 primary.

If any candidate gets 50 percent of the votes plus one, that person automatically clinches the seat. Any other outcome will result in a runoff in the Nov. 3 election.

“It’s definitely different because you can’t stand out front of stores,” Otte said. “It’s different from what every other candidate has ever done.”

Danielle Irwin

While the race for the Leon County Commission at-large seat is expected to heat up, six candidates, including Leon County Commission Seat 2 incumbent Jimbo Jackson, will return to office without opposition. The others who won four-year terms are School Board member Rosanne Wood, Property Appraiser Akin Akinyemi, Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley, Clerk of Court Gwen Marshall, and Tax Collector Doris Maloy.

Villa, whose background includes working as a committee staffer in the Florida House of Representatives until 2015, said cannabis reform is at the top of her agenda. She is working with several organizations that advocate legalizing marijuana use.

Kelly Otte

For instance, she said she is working with the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana. According to the organization, it “supports the development of a legally controlled market for cannabis.”

Villa said she wants to bring about “positive change through criminal justice reform, new environmental, agricultural and economical program.” She added, “There are numerous positive impacts we can make in the community.”

Gaye Robin Colson

Hendry, who heads up the John Scott Dailey Florida Institute of Government at FSU, said although the seat is at-large he wants to position himself to help bring positive change to the northwest and south side of the county. His upbringing in the Southern Bell Trailer Park gives him an understanding of people’s struggles, he said.

“I believe that my skill set from a professional level will bring a lot to the table in terms of being able to drive economic development toward that area,” said Hendry. “I believe that if you can create economic stability in families obviously you’re going to reduce poverty and you’re also going to have an impact on the level of crime.

Carolyn Cummings

“Those things are very, very important.”

When Hendry filed last October, he was among four hopefuls for the seat. Flowers also filed in October when there were fewer than five candidates entered.

 Then, it mushroomed to double digits.

“I wasn’t expecting it to get so big,” said Flowers, who is making his first run at an elected position.

Owner of Life Buoy Consulting Solutions, Flowers spent most of his professional career working for the state Department of Health.

He is counting on the relationships that he’s developed with his clients and through his work with non-profits to clinch the position.

“I hope it doesn’t take a huge war chest of campaign funds to get my name out,” said Flowers, who recently opened Sprinkles ice cream shop on Mahan Drive. “I think my name is already out there. I think people know me and they know what type of work I’m doing. I hope that my work speaks for itself.

“I think I can help. I’ve helped a lot of businesses, I’ve always been in leadership roles; managed large groups. I think that my skills and my experience can help out the county. I’m raising my kids here, building our businesses here so I have a duty to help.”

Irwin had been considering a run for public office since 2017 when she attended an Oasis Center for Girls conference with a theme “Women can run.” She just didn’t know she’d choose to run for a County Commission seat, she said.

Ironically in the coronavirus era, Irwin has a background in medical microbiology and taught college classes about topics that include the immune system. However, social distancing has also taken a toll on her campaign.

Irwin currently works for Cummins Cederberg, a marine and coastal engineering consulting firm. She’s also been working in the area of environmental protection and growth management for the past 20 years, she said. 

“I’ve learned a lot along the way and want to bring some of those lessons as we are experiencing growth pressures throughout our county,” she said. “A lot of the matters that come before a county commission are growth management related matters and so that fits very clearly in my wheelhouse.”

Cummings, an attorney who ran in the early 1990’s for a county judge seat, filed around the time that the pandemic shut down the state in March. But she successfully launched a campaign to get on the ballot by petitions.

“When they brought me two petitions that was significant,” she said. “When they brought one petition that was significant. So significant. People just stepped up to the plate.”

A successful run for the at-large seat would put her in a position to do more for the community than she’s done through civic involvement. She’s done pro bono for the Senior Center and residents of Bethel Towers.

Last winter, she also served on the selection committee during the city’s search for a new police chief.

“I’ve always been community-minded and I believe I can take that interest to the commission,” Cummings said. “I live here. I’m a business owner, a tax payer, I’ve raised my son here and I have a vested interest in Leon County remaining a great place to live (and) a safe place.

“I just believe I can bring to the table my experience; my methodical ways of looking at issues. I believe I can be an advocate. I can look at what is in the best interest of everyone in Leon County as a whole.”

Like Cummings, Colson is the only other candidate who has been involved in running a previous campaign. That was about 35 years ago when she sought an office in Indiana.

Not having an incumbent and the opportunity to push a platform that focuses on the middle class, makes the at-large seat attractive, she said.

“I see real threats to our middle class and I really worry about that because I want Leon County to remain a great place,” Colson said. “I see environmental threats, I see economic threats. My children are older now and I have a little more ability to participate so I thought it was time.

“I don’t live on the south side or the west side of town. I live on the east side of town but I think there are many, many needs in  southwest Leon County. There are needs everywhere but I think that part of the county has not been well represented historically. This seat is attractive because people are not confined to where they live.”

Getting out their messages seemingly remains a challenge for the candidates. Each of them said they intend to rely heavily on social media to reach voters in an era of non-traditional campaigning.

“Nobody wants to open their door to somebody wearing a mask, even though we all know why people are wearing a mask,” said Colson. “That face-to-face contact is just not viable right now. It’s tough.”

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