Media & Interviews

Orlando Sentinel (July 31, 2022)

 

Mayor Demings challengers have an opening "...Foremost among them: Kelly Semrad, who's emerged as a formidable voice for protecting Orange County's natural resources & resisting overdevelopment. Through her campaign, she's shown that she's no one-issue candidate - she's well-versed on the issues facing  Orange County, and needles Demings on his lack of response to critics." She says that he repeatedly says it is out of his hands. It's not out of his hands," She told Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board.  

She's right, and Demings should listen. In fact, if he wins re-election he might consider playing on Semrad's commendable sense of civic responsibility, and enlist her as his in-house antagonist-in-chief. 

The other two challengers...don't come close to Semrad's level of preparation and focus. But they sound many of the same warningss that she does. Demings should listen to them."

Click Picture (Above)

 

Click Picture (Above)

 

Orlando Sentinel (August 3, 2022)

 

"With three challengers questioning his first-term decisions and leadership, incumbent Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings aims to win four more years in office while also promoting his proposed sales-tax increase for transportation and trying to solve a housing crisis.

All three challengers — tech entrepreneur Chris Messina, retired Army Col. Anthony Sabb and University of Central Florida professor Kelly Semrad — derided the proposed penny-per-dollar increase to the sales tax, which requires voter approval in November.

“Now is not the time you go to your people and talk about raising their taxes, period,” Semrad said during a candidate forum hosted by the Orlando Sentinel editorial board.

Each also found fault with Demings’ direction during the pandemic, specifically his vaccination mandates for county employees.

"...The mayoral race is nonpartisan, which means the candidates won’t be identified on the Aug. 23 ballot by party affiliation.  Demings, 63, and Semrad, 45, are registered Democrats; Messina, 64, and Sabb, 61, are Republicans."

"...Campaign finance records show Demings paid $257,000 last month to Washington-based Resonance Campaigns LLC, whose portfolio includes work on the Biden for President campaign in 2020, handling direct mail in Georgia and other battleground states. Its website boasts of helping “send Democrats back to the White House and Donald Trump back to Mar-a-Lago.”

Messina has raised about $45,000, including loans from himself totaling about $10,000.

Sabb’s campaign shows donations totaling about $26,000, more than half in loans from himself.

Semrad, who said she will not accept donations from developers, has raised about $24,000 for her campaign, including about $10,000 in loans from herself. Her contributors include Chuck O’Neal of Speak Up Wekiva and Valerie Anderson of the Friends of Split Oak Forest. She also received $500 from District 5 Commissioner Emily Bonilla, who has clashed with Demings in public meetings.

 

The challengers offered conflicting opinions of an ordinance proposed by Bonilla to cap rent increases at 5% for a year for apartments located in buildings with four or more units. Semrad supports the measure as temporary relief for tenants, while Sabb and Messina oppose it."

Split Oak Forest

Semrad said she decided to run for mayor partly because of Demings’ vote in favor of the Central Florida Expressway Authority’s plan to extend a segment of the Osceola Parkway toll road through Split Oak Forest, a 1,689-acre, publicly owned conservation property.

“People deserve to have that forest left in perpetuity because that is what was promised to them,” she said. Sabb and Messina also disagreed with Demings’ vote, saying it shook local trust in government. But Demings stood by his toll-road vote, adding he believes citizens believe in him.

“I wouldn’t be sitting here if I didn’t have the trust of the people in this community,” he said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Use of hotel-tax money

"...All three challengers said the county should seek to expand uses of tourist-tax revenues, which Demings has not done. Some Florida communities have opted to use the revenues on community needs for transportation or public safety.

 

The money “should be coming back out to the benefit of the people,” Semrad said.

Revenues generated by the 6% assessment on the cost of a hotel room or other short-term lodging have been used primarily to pay debts to build, expand and maintain the Orange County Convention Center and fund Visit Orlando, the region’s tourism promoter.

Although revenues cratered during the pandemic, the tax brought in $38.6 million in March, the most in a single month ever.

Sabb and Messina also favored expanded flexibility but Messina said he wouldn’t move money around.

“The investment in tourism development is the correct allocation right now,” he said.

Demings said money left over from existing obligations isn’t enough “to do something transformational” with the failing transportation system, which will worsen as the county’s population continues to grow at a rate of 1,500 new residents per week.

“We need a multimodal system,” he said. “The only funding source that is sufficient to do that is the sales tax.”

 

Complete primary election coverage can be found at OrlandoSentinel.com/election

shudak@orlandosentinel.com

Orlando Sentinel (August 16, 2022)

Early-Voting Numbers are Low, But 'We Need Not  be Alarmed'

Election supervisors in Orange and Osceola counties are lamenting low turnout through the first eight days of early voting. “It’s been very slow,” said Osceola County Election Supervisor Mary Jane Arrington. “Very disappointing.” About a fourth of the 80,000 vote-by-mail ballots she sent voters have been returned. They’re due by 7 p.m. Aug. 23.

 

Generally, the top of the ticket drives turnout, Arrington said, but this year’s gubernatorial race isn’t generating much heat for Republican voters as their presumptive nominee, incumbent Ron DeSantis, has been campaigning out of state to build steam for a probable presidential run in 2024. “There’s not a high-profile contest,” said Bill Cowles, Orange County’s election supervisor, noting that party primaries for Florida’s U.S. Senate seat are formalities as the clash Nov. 8 pits U.S. Rep. Val Demings, a Democrat, and incumbent Sen. Marco Rubio, the Republican.

 

Early voting, which began Aug. 8 in Orange and Osceola, also is underway in Lake, where polls opened Aug. 11, and in Seminole, where voters began casting ballots Saturday. Early voting ends Sunday in Orange and Osceola counties and Saturday in Lake and Seminole counties. “Realize that for primary elections, typically there’s not that big of a voter turnout and we need not be alarmed,” Lake County Election Supervisor Alan Hays said. “Our responsibility is to make sure we set the table, so to speak, but we can’t make them come and eat.”

 

Meager voting totals prompted Save Orange County Inc., an advocacy group that has fought urban-style development east of the Econlockhatchee River and has endorsed its vice chair, Kelly Semrad, for Orange County mayor, to urge voters to cast their ballots. “If Save Orange County comes out in full force & takes our sustainable growth demands to the polls — we will win the mayor’s election for the people and the environment,” the nonprofit group said in an email to its members. “Help us get one of our own that has been fighting beside us for years into the seat of Orange County Mayor! The community is tired of fighting the good fight.”

 

Semrad is challenging incumbent Mayor Jerry L. Demings in a four-way race that also includes tech entrepreneur Chris Messina and retired Army Col. Anthony Sabb. If none of the four wins more than half the ballots, the top two vote-getters advance to the Nov. 8 ballot. As of mid-day Tuesday, about 66,000 or 7.75% of Orange County’s 856,000 registered voters had cast a ballot, including about 49,200 whose vote-by-mail ballot had arrived at election headquarters, according to a running tally posted on the supervisor’s site. About 26% of Orange County’s registered voters cast a ballot in the 2018 primary, including 66,471 who voted by mail.

Orange County’s voter rolls have grown by about 85,000 voters since then. Some voters underestimate the importance of primary elections in local races, Arrington said. Orange County’s ballots, for instance, include nonpartisan races in which all voters, regardless of their party affiliation, will help choose the county mayor for the next four years; three county commissioners; public school board chair; and a slew of judgeships. “People think judges don’t matter — until you’re in front of one,” Arrington quipped. She said turnout tends to pick up in the final days of early voting so participation totals might jump later this week.
“Usually it’s busier towards the end,” Arrington said. For example, in Seminole County, where voter participation has averaged about 25% over the past three primaries, the final two days of early voting in the 2018 primary brought about 6,300 to the polls, more than double the total of the first two days, data shows.

shudak@orlandosentinel.com © 2022 Orlando Sentinel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Florida Politics (August 19, 2022)

Orange County Voters Consider Second Term for Demings

Chris Messina, Tony Sabb and Kelly Semrad are seeking a runoff election shot at Demings.

Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings will find out Tuesday night if he gets a second term in that office, or if his actions on issues from taxes to mask mandates to land preservation have alienated too many voters.

Demings’ base is strong enough that he likely either will be re-elected outright in Tuesday’s Primary Election or be forced into a November General Election runoff with the strongest finisher among his three opponents, conservatives Chris Messina and Tony Sabb, and progressive Kelly Semrad.

The Orange County mayoral contest is nonpartisan. Nonetheless, Demings is a popular Democrat, married to another one, U.S. Rep. Val Demings, in a county that has 150,000 more Democratic registered voters than Republicans.

In his first term, Demings maneuvered to balance economic growth with other priorities, keeping much of the Democrats’ loyalty while also winning support from much of the business community, including the Orlando Economic Partnership and the Central Florida Hotel & Lodging Association.

And yet, Messina and Sabb have identified openings on the Right, and Semrad has done so on the Left.

 

None of Demings’ challengers have amassed anything like the kinds of campaign funds or political bases that opposed Demings in his 2018 election. Through last week, Sabb had spent about $27,000 on his campaign; Messina, $26,000; and Semrad, $18,000. Demings has spent $346,000 on his campaign, much of it going into numerous countywide mailers touting his housing, economic development, public safety and public-private partnership efforts.

The county’s challenges are obvious. For decades, Orange County has experienced tremendous growth, overwhelming transportation infrastructure and housing stock availability, and threatening environmental treasures.

At the same time, the county’s hospitality-heavy economic base gives it one of the lowest median wage rates in the country, creating a population base highly vulnerable to inflation, taxes and housing costs.

Then, there was the COVID-19 pandemic, during which Demings fell back on his public safety background as a former Orlando Police Chief and Orange County Sheriff. He drew widespread praise for the visibility. Thanks to his twice-weekly public briefings, he appeared on Orlando television news broadcasts nearly every night.

Yet Demings took the strategic approach of high caution, advocating mask mandates, shutdowns and widespread vaccinations. That put him in sharp contrast and frequent conflict with Gov. Ron DeSantis and other Republicans who switched course in mid-pandemic to advocate openness and no rules regarding masks and vaccinations.

 

Economically, Orange County bounced back from the pandemic, going from double-digit unemployment rates in 2020 to 3.1% by this past June. The population continues to grow.

Demings pushed through big pay increases for law enforcement and a new high-tech attitude toward delivering county services.

As his administration’s first priority, Demings put together affordable housing programs he says will bring 30,000 affordable housing units in the next few years and which kept 10,000 renters from being evicted. Yet he opposed a ballot proposal for one year of rent control, which brought critics from the Left, who’ve been pushing against what they see as a corporate takeover of rental real estate.

And for his opus, Demings rolled forward with his top priority, a ballot proposal to raise the sales tax by a penny to pay for billions of dollars of transit and transportation improvements. But his push came despite an era of 8% inflation, drawing critics from the Right, opposed to tax increases, and Left, opposed to regressive taxes.

He also advocated for growth measures that included construction of a road through Split Oak Forest, and did nothing to defend charter amendments approved by voters in 2020 to protect Split Oak and to create new protections for the county’s two most revered rivers, Wekiva and Econlockhatchee. That brought critics from the Left, who saw it as a dereliction of environmental protection.

Sabb, a retired, decorated Army colonel, and Messina, a high-tech entrepreneur, each pitched freedom-first platforms. They each tapped into conservatives’ anger over Demings’ COVID-19 strategies of closing and restricting businesses and requiring mask wearing, and over his proposal to increase sales taxes during an inflationary time. “With gas prices going up, and the economy constantly in turmoil, that couldn’t be a worse idea,” Sabb says on his website about the transportation tax proposal championed by Demings. Messina sought to characterize himself as a DeSantis for Orange County, while also charging that Demings remains committed to 20th century solutions for 21st century transportation problems. “I know that’s one of the things I bring: is the ability to come up with entrepreneurial solutions,” Messina says on his website.

Semrad is a faculty member in the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management and a longtime environmental and social justice activist well known for her testimony at Orange County Commission meetings, including on Split Oak and the rent control measure.

She tapped into the anger of residents after Demings and the Orange County Commission approved the Split Oak road.  “I believe that our local government must play a primary role in guaranteeing Orange County residents’ quality of life,” Semrad says on her campaign website. “This means our Mayor must ensure that at the heart of the county’s planning and development framework lies initiative and action to improve the quality of life for Orange County residents.

Orange County also is seeing three elections for the County Commission. In District 2, in northwest Orange County, Commissioner Christina Moore faces Christian Delgado and Sandra Fatmi-Hall. In District 4 in south-central Orange, Commissioner Maribel Gomez Cordero faces Mercedes Fonseca and Karl Anthony Norton Pearson.

In District 6, in west-central Orange, a bevy of candidates are vying for an open seat because Commissioner Victoria Siplin is term-limited. They are Rosemarie Diehl, Lawanna Gelzer, Cynthia Harris, Nikki Mims McGee, Hedder Pierre-Joseph, Mike Scott and Roberta Walton Johnson.

By Scott Powers

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at scott@floridapolitics.com.