ORLANDO, Fla. – Early voting begins Monday in the race for Orlando mayor.
Incumbent Mayor Buddy Dyer was elected 16 years ago and has dominated each race since then. Dyer this year has two challengers: Orlando Commissioner Samuel Ings and U.S. Navy veteran and businesswoman Aretha Simons.
Simons sat down with anchor Justin Warmoth on "The Weekly on ClickOrlando.com" to discuss her platform and why she believes Orlando needs new leadership.
You can watch "The Weekly" every Sunday on Clickorlando.com and on News 6
WARMOTH: Why don't you first tell us a little about yourself and your background?
SIMONS: I'm a native Floridian. I was born in Arcadia, Florida. Every time, I say that people say, "Where is that?" It's just a couple of hours from Orlando, but I moved to Orlando in 1988. I went to college for two years and then I joined the Navy. I went to boot camp right here in Orlando. I spent 20 years in the Navy, 10 of those years were active. I served on Operation Desert Storm. I then got out, joined the reserve, moved back to Orlando and then I got recalled after the 9/11 attacks. I was once an IT, but during the 9/11 attacks, I served as military police. I started a nonprofit organization when I was here in the reserves called Abel Community Kitchen School while I was working during the day at a women's residential facility. That nonprofit was a culinary arts job program for welfare work recipients and formally incarcerated men and women, and with that food, we would then go and serve the homeless with it. A lot of people started asking me, "Who helped you do this?" And I said, "I did it." I started helping a lot of people do their nonprofit IRS paperwork. And then I started helping them with grant writing. I've helped millions of dollars come into the city. I've not only helped people write grants, I've saved lives. I've helped people build their businesses. I'm excited to serve the city as the next mayor.
WARMOTH: Well, we appreciate your service. Thank you for that. So, why run for mayor? Is this something that you've always thought about doing?
SIMONS: I have thought about it for a long time. A lot of people in this community inspired me, a lot of people who I've helped solve these problems. They've helped with human trafficking. They've helped with economic development. They've helped with feeding people. So, I said, "You know what, I can do a lot more if I had a seat at the table as the next mayor."
WARMOTH: You know, no Orlando mayor has been voted out in more than half a century, maybe longer than that. It seems like Mayor Buddy Dyer has a good reputation. The majority of the residents seem to like him and think he's done a good job, and they don't really care to see a change in hand. That, coupled with name recognition -- which is paramount in politics -- are you optimistic at all?
SIMONS: I am optimistic. I kind of disagree that people don't care to see a change because I filed to run Nov. 5, 2017, and started knocking on doors then. I know it was way ahead of time, but I knew that I had to get out there. I wanted to hear from the people, and the people are saying,"Yeah, it's time for [Dyer] to go." As soon as I said I was running for mayor, people said, "Oh yeah. Buddy's been in there too long." I'm hoping they vote that way. Voter turnout is always low, as you know, so that's why we are knocking on doors, and we're going to continue doing that until election day.
WARMOTH: So, this is the culmination of two years. What's the main concern from people as you've campaigned?
SIMONS: It depends on which neighborhood you go in. If you go in the Parramore area, of course, they feel like they've been gentrified. They feel like they've been left behind. They feel like their voices haven't been heard. If you go to Lake Nona, they're concerned about transportation out there. They're concerned about their children's safety. If you go to College Park, they're concerned about public safety and people breaking into their homes. So, it depends on which neighborhood you go into.
WARMOTH: If there is one thing that's your main talking point, your one sticking point that you want Orlando residents to hear, what would it be?
SIMONS: That they'll have a mayor who will listen. People want their voices to be heard. We've been focused on building, and we say we're a world-class city. We are a world-class city, but do the people feel that way? No. They want somebody who listens to their voices, and that's why I want to change the city council meetings to nighttime, so working people can come and have their voices heard.
WARMOTH: Yeah, because they're at 2 p.m. right now.
WARMOTH: Interesting. So, affordable housing seems to be top of mind for a lot of residents. I'm sure that you hear the same thing. Housing prices are up, rent prices are up, wages are not. What plan would you enact to get a hold on this crisis?
SIMONS: There are a lot of things we can do. I always tell people there are infinite possibilities of what we can do. It's just a matter of if the government wants to do it, and that's why you need a new leader who will listen to people. So, for the housing crisis, there are lots of nonprofits, there are lots of realtors, banks who own a lot of properties who are waiting for somebody to take it over and manage these properties. We can rezone areas. Where you have a building, we can make that an apartment. There are warehouse areas that we can sell. The city owns a lot of property and a lot of land, so we can rezone those areas and build housing. Tiny housing is not a bad idea for people who just want shelter because housing is a crisis in Orlando.
WARMOTH: You mentioned Parramore and the gentrification they're seeing. Part of that is the Creative Village that has taken shape -- a project that you disagreed with and that you called a waste of money. Why?
SIMONS: Because during the time when Parramore was being gentrified, we should've been building more houses there so families can stay there and families can move there. We already have a UCF campus and we have over 10 universities here in Orlando. Why did we need to build another UCF campus at that location where people used to live?
WARMOTH: I was going through your website as I was preparing, and reparations are a big plan and a big idea, and from what I could gather just by reading about it [on your site] that this is something near and dear to you as a big campaign talking point. Can you explain to our viewers what you plan on doing?
SIMONS: Yes, and I will bring up reparations and resurrect that conversation until the day I die. It's not about 40 acres and a mule -- it's not about the money. For here in Orlando, I think the city can do certain things. Let me use Parramore for example. Say those homes were passed down through generations and now they've been taken away. You've not only moved generations out of their home, you've changed their whole family dynamic with people moving to different places. So, for reparations, I'm thinking the city can give discounts on permits, discounts on business applications, there are so many discounts they can give. That's what I'm thinking about. It's not in terms of giving people money, but giving them discounts and giving them more opportunities in the city.
WARMOTH: Is this overdue?
SIMONS: Long overdue.
WARMOTH: Some critics would argue where that money would come from. Is that coming from their hard-earned dollars, their tax dollars, where would that money come from to help pay for that?
SIMONS: That's a great question. It's not money coming from anywhere. It's just a discount. And remember, this is not for everybody in the city of Orlando. This is for people who were born here and still live here in Orlando who are descendants of slaves. It wouldn't be for me because I wasn't born here.
WARMOTH: We were talking before we went on about the lack of publicity surrounding an election, which is pretty shocking when you're talking about a city that is world-class. What would you say is the reason there's not a ton of publicity surrounding this mayoral election?
SIMONS: It's on purpose. It's deliberate. That's why they have it on off years, and that's why I started early and started knocking on doors early. But it's on purpose. People say, "Oh, he's always voted in," but only 14 percent of the population votes because they don't know what's going on.
WARMOTH: No one is paying attention to politics right now just because it's not 2020. If this was 2020, obviously, there would be a different turnout. So, what would your message be to residents of Orlando who may not think that they need change right now or the one's who do need change?
SIMONS: That this election is really the most critical election because your local election affects the water you drink and even the air you breathe. It affects your everyday life. And if you don't feel it, think about the people who do feel it. Think about the people who work at your job that may feel it. Please get out and vote. It's very, very important that you vote in this election.