Business Groups Split on City Commission Candidates

The race for Lakeland’s open at-large commission seat has produced a rare split among Lakeland’s business leaders.

BusinessVoice Inc., the political action committee affiliated with the Lakeland Area Chamber of Commerce, endorsed Carole Philipson for the open seat. Her equally-funded opponent in the five-way race, Chad McLeod, has been endorsed by Lakeland First, a PAC created by a smaller group of area business owners and executives.

They will face three return candidates for the seat now held by Commissioner Justin Troller: Ricky Shirah, Pablo Sologaistoa and Shandale Terrell.

James Ring, the BusinessVoice chairman, said Philipson’s connections to the community and her experience as an executive in large organizations earned her the group’s endorsement.

“As a former administrator, Carole has overseen strategic planning, construction operations, fiscal management, and employee relations for large organizations,” Ring said in a news release.

Philipson (LinkedIn profile) was a Lakeland Regional Health executive and is currently a consultant with expertise in hospital operations.

“Based upon these unique qualifications, we believe Carole is the best candidate for the open Lakeland City Commission, At-Large seat, and we are fully committed to helping her win in November.”

LkldNow contacted several members of the endorsement committee but was referred to Ring for the group’s official statement.

Ring said he also thought it was important that Philipson seemed as though she would be a tough questioner of city staff members, continuing a role that Troller fills on the board.

“Justin Troller has sometimes questioned staff and challenged staff and we think that’s important. We think Carole will challenge staff to be able to articulate the decisions that they’re making,” Ring told LkldNow.

Ring, an Army reservist and former sworn Lakeland police officer who now runs Ring Roofing with his family, said he wasn’t in a position to comment on a notable difference of opinion between BusinessVoice and Lakeland First, the largest independent political action committee currently active in Lakeland.

“I don’t want to speak to Lakeland First; I’m not familiar with how they operate,” Ring said, adding they are “wonderful people.”

But for his group, “At the end of the day I think the (BusinessVoice) members went with their hearts and they selected a candidate they felt would serve best in that position,” Ring said.

BusinessVoice and Lakeland First have no connection except that since Lakeland First was formed in 2017, the groups have seen eye-to-eye on local races.

For the 2017 election, both groups endorsed Scott Franklin, Stephanie Madden, Bill Mutz and the No Boss Mayor campaign to prevent a change in Lakeland’s form of government. All were successful.

In that race, BusinessVoice endorsed Michael Dunn over Larry Durrence for the Southwest District seat; Lakeland First did not weigh in on that close race that went to Dunn in a run-off.

Both groups also endorsed Sara Roberts McCarley, who won the special election for the Southwest District seat held in January after Dunn’s resignation.

BusinessVoice is a more traditional local political action committee as seen in the local races, publicly endorsing a candidate and, as Ring said, “doing what they can to get her elected.”

Based on past committee finance reports, BusinessVoice’s direct contribution to campaigns is a standard $1,000 check.

Lakeland First instead chooses to keep its political action in-house. Campaign finance reports reveal expenditures in internet and direct mail ads, and the use of a political strategy firm.

Chairman Will Harrell said the group interviewed both candidates and was impressed with McLeod’s “vision and ideas” for Lakeland.

When asked for more detail, Harrell said the founder of McLeod Communications, a public relations firm, has “just got a common sense, deliberate approach to how he handles things.”

On account of his work as an aide to former Sen. Mel Martinez, McLeod (LinkedIn profile) is “very comfortable dealing with weighty policy issues,” Harrell added. And “he’s a young leader and a family man and I think he has his finger on the pulse” of the city’s issues.

Lakeland First was started by a small group of business owners in 2017 who donated $121,000 within that first year. The largest contributor, Publix Super Markets Vice Chairman Barney Barnett, has not contributed more since his initial $50,000, based on the most recent available reports through May 31. This year, Barnett has written checks to both McLeod’s and Philipson’s campaigns.

Harrell would not say who the members of Lakeland First were or how many voted in the decision to endorse McLeod, but said the decision was unanimous.

Meanwhile, Lakeland First received another round of funding. This year, which included January’s special election, only two of the original members have contributed cash: Brian Philpot of AgAmerica Lending added $20,000 to the chest, and Jack Harrell of Harrell’s fertilizer company added $5,000.

Harrell said the group has added some members and suggested updated reports would show those additions.

Qualifying for the Nov. 5 election ends at noon,. Sept. 20. Until then, more candidates could enter the race.

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