Lakeland’s canvassing board met Thursday evening to examine provisional ballots and to certify the results of the Nov. 7 election in which six candidates competed for two seats on the City Commission.
The board accepted two of five ballots in question, increasing the number of votes for Commissioner Chad McLeod — who won reelection to his at-large seat — from 5,337 to 5,339.
Guy LaLonde also gained two votes in the northwest district race, increasing his total from 4,465 to 4,467. However, because neither he nor his two rivals earned more than 50% of the vote, that race will be decided by a runoff election between LaLonde and interim Commissioner Sam Simmons on Dec. 5.
The board rejected three ballots — two by people who had already voted by mail, and one from a resident who was not registered to vote.
With the results certified, attention now shifts to the runoff. Although the Dec. 5 election is to choose a commissioner to represent the northwest district, all voters who live within Lakeland city limits will have a chance to weigh in. The city’s seven commissioners are elected citywide, regardless of whether they hold one of the four district seats or an at-large seat.
The dynamics of this year’s northwest district race have some Lakeland residents wondering if the city should consider changing its charter to have only district residents vote for district seats. Every eight years, a 15-member Charter Review Committee convenes to review Lakeland’s foundational document. The next review begins in January 2024.
A citywide election for a district seat
A LkldNow analysis of Tuesday’s election results shows that — although LaLonde received the most votes in 23 of the city’s 27 precincts and finished more than 17 percentage points ahead of Simmons — his support was weakest in the quadrant he hopes to represent.
LaLonde did well in the northern and western parts of the diverse district, but he struggled to win over voters in precincts 204, 205 and 210, which encompass several historically Black neighborhoods including the Paul A. Diggs, Gladys Leggett, Webster Park South and North Lake Wire neighborhoods.
That issue is a sensitive one because, while LaLonde is universally acknowledged as a gregarious and hardworking campaigner, he is seeking a seat that has been held by a Black commissioner for nearly five decades. If he is elected, the commission will be all-white for the first time since 1968.
Terry Coney, president of the Lakeland branch of the NAACP, said LaLonde has run a very strong campaign. “I mean, there wasn’t an event that was going on in the city — or in the outskirts of the city — that he hasn’t been to over the last six months.”
Simmons, by contrast, is not a natural campaigner. “It’s not in his nature to be proactive. Working a room and shaking hands and patting people on the back, that’s not him,” Coney said. “But if you run against somebody that has that kind of energy, you’ve got to at least make an attempt to match that energy. That’s why they call it a race.”
Coney said in his opinion, “the optics would be just terrible” for Lakeland if there were an all-white commission for a city that is 20% Black and 17% Hispanic. “Nothing personal to any of the current commissioners that are Caucasian, but to have a feeling and to give the appearance that everybody’s represented, you need a diverse commission.”
Bruce Anderson, a political science professor at Florida Southern College, said despite the different designations, Lakeland City Commission seats are all effectively at-large seats because of the way they are elected, so it’s not surprising that the city might end up with a very homogenous panel.
But he also warned against assuming that a racially diverse commission truly represents different stakeholders. Anderson said successful commission candidates have nearly always been recruited and backed by business interests.
“And you know, I understand their point of view. I mean, they’re business people and there’s not necessarily anything racist about business,” Anderson said. “And they really do love this place. … They want to control the commission because they have a tremendous investment in things like land use and so on.”
Anderson, who believes the city should switch to a strong-mayor form of government, said LaLonde has run an at-large campaign for a district seat because that’s how the system works. A candidate can’t get elected by focusing too narrowly on the needs and concerns of a single quadrant.
While Simmons did comparatively well in the northwest district, he polled significantly lower in the rest of the city. LaLonde performed best in the southeast district, which is demographically the city’s most affluent and conservative.
“Would Lakeland do better, in terms of little ‘d’ democracy, if it had single-member districts and a couple of at-large districts? I think the answer is yes,” Anderson said. “Would it prevent the powers-that-be from running candidates in these districts? No, it wouldn’t. But they would have to work a little harder.”
Coney said he has heard a lot of people say over the past month that the city should move to single-member districts where only residents of the district vote for their representative, but he isn’t sure it’s necessary.
“The current system has worked in the past. Why? Maybe we’ve had more charismatic candidates that had connections across the city,” he said.
Prior to Simmons, the northwest district seat was held by notable Black Lakelanders including Phillip Walker, Gow Fields, Carrie Oldham, and Charles Coleman. Dr. John Jackson, the city’s first Black commissioner who later served as mayor, was elected to an at-large seat in 1968.
Voter turnout was lowest in the northwest district
Both Coney and Anderson said low turnout means a very small portion of the city is making decisions for the whole. Although participation in the election was light citywide, only 13.5% of voters in the northwest district cast ballots compared with 16.5% in the southeast.
Coney said he was disappointed, but not surprised by the turnout figures.
“There’s an apathy that goes back a ways now; a sense that nothing is going to change,” Coney said. “When President Obama was elected, I think some people expected miracles from him. But he was elected president, not king, so he didn’t have all-controlling power.”
Rather than giving up or complaining, Coney said Black residents in every part of Lakeland need to participate in the process. And he said Simmons and his proxies need to work harder to inspire and mobilize voters.
“To get anything done on your behalf, you have to have somebody sitting at the table that’s willing to represent whatever your cause or concern is,” he said. “I think over the next three weeks, Commissioner Simmons needs to be very visible. Probably a combination of him and all his campaign workers, every Sunday, need to spread out in all the churches — but especially the African-American churches — to talk about the history, talk about the importance of him getting reelected, and just tell what he’s done, what he stands for.”
For his part, LaLonde told dozens of supporters gathered at Union Hall on Tuesday night that he will keep pushing. “Sam is a good guy. But we need to put the right person in the job, and I believe I am that person,” he said.
Runoff election details
City Clerk Kelly Koos said early walk-in voting will be available for the runoff election, but because of the compressed timetable, it will be one week instead of two. Voters can cast ballots between Monday, Nov. 27 and Friday, Dec. 1 from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the Polk County Government Center, 930 E. Parker Street.
Mail-in voting will also be available. People who requested ballots for Tuesday’s election will automatically get ballots for the runoff. Anyone who would like to vote by mail and did not already request a ballot can contact the Supervisor of Elections.
The deadline to request mail-in ballots is Nov. 22. Supervisor of Elections Lori Edwards said there are three ways voters can do it:
- Call (863) 534-5888.
- Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Make the request online at polkelections.gov/Mail-in-Ballot-Request-Form.
Koos said because runoffs are so commonplace — it’s more unusual for Lakeland not to need one — she budgeted $219,000 for this election cycle. That includes both rounds. The elections cost the same amount, except for a small sum for training poll workers, so the runoff will be about $109,000.
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