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Crowded County Commission At-Large Group 1 Field Focuses On Solutions To Disparities

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Among the local races in front of Leon voters this primary election, County Commission at large group 1 is a packed field.

Six of the seven County Group 1 candidates took part in a recent Political Perspectives on WFSU, where they all individually expressed a common goal: eliminating disparities in income, healthcare and other walks of life in Leon County.

But they all have varying plans to go about it.

Candidate Robin Colson has lived in the county for more than 30 years. She says job creating is a good place to start.

“Number one: good manufacturing jobs for Leon County,” Colson said on the program, which aired July 2. “I will stay laser-focused on that; we have to have manufacturing jobs. Those are the jobs that not only pay a living wage – those are the jobs that pay healthcare benefits and retirement.”

Colson says her professional background in performance management and quality assurance will help her make an impact on disparities:

“Those are all really collaborative processes, and I think that’s what it’s going to take.”

Danielle Irwin, also vying for the seat, has a professional background in science. She’s worked in the private sector as an environmental consultant for engineering firms, as well as for the state Department of Environmental Protection. One of her priorities is managing development in a way that addresses disparities.

“Making sure that we’re recognizing not just the needs of new development, but the needs of our existing communities, and making sure that those are being adequately prioritized,” Irwin said of her priorities. “But also, balancing those environmental pressures with environmental management. The way we manage our infrastructure, both new and existing, in terms of maintenance and improvement –we need to do that through the lens of racial equity.”

Irwin also stressed making quality services affordable, like child care for working parents.

Affordable housing was a topic that repeatedly came up during the candidate forum. Scott Flowers, a business coach and entrepreneur, had some thoughts on the matter:

“I think we need to redefine what community development is. It isn’t restaurants and bars, it isn’t $150,000 condos for students. That’s not community development – not the development that our community needs. We need real affordable housing,” Flowers said during the forum.

He also worked for a decade in state government. Flowers says that experience, combined with his entrepreneurship, makes him well suited to connect the business community with resources.

“I got to see it from both sides – as an entrepreneur, and also as a government regulator, and really see the impact government makes on the community,” Flowers explained.

Also in the running is Carolyn Cummings, an attorney of more than 36 years who says representing everyday people for years put her in a position to lead.

“I’ve advocated for thousands here in Leon County,” Cummings said, adding that at times included indigent clients, “and I would like to bring that experience, that knowledge, to represent the entire citizenry.”

On local government’s relationship with law enforcement, Cummings brings some nuance to the issue:

“We are all concerned about law and order in Tallahassee – but we cannot sweep that disparity, on how minorities are treated, under the rug. We need to have a holistic approach.”

Jeff Hendry is among the seven candidates. The 57-year-old has lived in Tallahassee all his life, he says, living more than the first decade of his life in a trailer park off West Tennessee Street. Hendry says creating economic opportunity that spans the entire community is atop his priorities.

“We have different segments of our county that have been left out of economic opportunity, and there’s a variety of reasons why,” Hendry said on the Zoom forum. “But at the end of the day, I want to be a champion of being targeted and intentional about driving our economic development and jobs into the Southwest, northwest, and south side of town.”

A familiar face in the local nonprofit world, Kelly Otte wants to win voters with her experience providing services to people who she says need it most:

“For the last 25 years, I have dug into this county with every possible fiber of my being. Two things that I think I’ve accomplished really well, one is to provide incredible services. So, in every place that I’ve worked, it’s been directly related to the people in this county, whether it’s through an issue like domestic violence or assault, or through poverty, or working with the youth, the girls that I’ve been working with for the last 9 years,” Otte said.

Otte recently left her executive director post at the nonprofit the PACE Center for Girls.

A seventh candidate, Melissa Villar, didn’t participate in the candidate forum and has raised little campaign cash. Her website says she’s dedicated to “changing the status quo” in Leon County

Though campaign contributions to all candidates slowed in the last several months – a trend seen nearly everywhere, several of the candidates amassed a sizable warchest. Hendry leads the pack in fundraising, having raised more than $80,000 from a mix of individual contributions and those from businesses and developers like NAI Talcor.

Cummings comes in second, having raised more than $72,000 – with considerable chunks of that coming from self-financing.

In a crowded field it could be tough to get the 50-plus percent of the vote to win outright in the primary. If that doesn’t happen, the field will be narrowed down to two for the general election in November.