Incumbent Chad McLeod won a decisive victory in his bid for reelection to the Lakeland City Commission on Tuesday, but political newcomer Guy LaLonde fell just short of the 50% needed to win outright, so he will head to a runoff election against interim Commissioner Sam Simmons on Dec. 5.
When the Supervisor of Elections posted the unofficial final vote tallies just after 9 p.m., LaLonde had captured 47.97% of the vote, Simmons earned 30.9% and Lolita Berrien garnered 21.1%.
In the race for at-large seat 2, McLeod earned 57.4% of the vote, followed by Kay Klymko at 27.24% and Dennis Odisho at 15.36%.
Voter turnout was light with only 14.9% of the city’s 62,582 voters casting ballots — 3,536 on Tuesday, 219 during early walk-in voting and 5,557 by mail.
McLeod and LaLonde declared their candidacies in April and raised significantly more money than their nearest rivals in an overwhelmingly cordial and positive campaign. LaLonde raised $28,695 — more than five times as much as Simmons. McLeod raised $25,525 — more than three times as much as Odisho.
City commissioners are elected to set policy for Lakeland’s municipal government and its $747 million budget on a multitude of issues that include police and fire protection, growth and development, transportation, recreation, and utilities — including water and electricity.
All seven members of the commission are elected citywide, with four representing specific districts and two filling at-large seats; the seventh member is the mayor, who chairs the commission.
The evening got off to a strong start for LaLonde, with same-day votes putting him at 53.14%, followed by Simmons at 28.51% and Lolita Berrien at 18.35%. However, LaLonde’s numbers dropped following the counts of mail-in and early votes.
“We are almost there,” LaLonde told dozens of supporters gathered at Union Hall Tuesday night after he learned there would be a runoff. ”I am humbled by having all of you here.”
“I don’t see any reason why we can’t make some people second-guess Sam Simmons. And then we’ll reach out to Lolita and try to get some of her votes,” he said. “She’s a wonderful lady and Sam is a good guy. But we need to put the right person in the job, and I believe I am that person.”
Simmons, LaLonde, and Berrien were among eight people who applied last year for a one-year position as interim city commissioner after three-term Commissioner Phillip Walker resigned from the northwest district seat to run for another office. The remaining six city commissioners selected Simmons for the interim position.
Should LaLonde win the runoff election, it would mark the first time in nearly five decades that the northwest district has not been represented by a Black commissioner.
“I’m surprised by the margin of separation between LaLonde and Simmons, considering that Sam Simmons is the current commissioner for northwest Lakeland,” said Lakeland NAACP President Terry Coney. “I’m extremely disappointed with the voter turnout.”
LaLonde, 56, is a small business owner and works as a Publix manager. He and his family moved to Lakeland when he was 12 years old. He is a 1985 graduate of Lake Gibson High School and is married with seven grown children and three grandchildren. In addition, he is a U.S. Navy and Navy Reserves veteran. He is heavily involved in city issues, currently serving as the vice chair of the Polk County Housing and Finance Authority, chair of KidsPACK, and a board member of Central Florida Speech and Hearing. His campaign slogan was “For Lakeland – For YOU! – I’m your GUY!”
LaLonde ran a comparatively sophisticated campaign, sending at least six text messages to voters between Oct. 28 and Tuesday, mailing full-color campaign postcards and making effective use of social media.
Berrien, 67, works as an administrative secretary at Lincoln Avenue Academy, a magnet school in northwest Lakeland. She is a lifelong resident of Lakeland, the mother of three, grandmother of five, and great grandmother of 16. She serves on multiple boards and committees, including the Webster Park Association South Neighborhood Association, the Lakeland City Wide Mission, the Code Enforcement Board, and was formerly on the Planning and Zoning Board. Her campaign slogan was “Making a positive difference.”
Simmons, 66, is a business entrepreneur and owner of Samuel Simmons Housing and Financial Services, an accounting, consulting, and real estate business he founded in 2008. He served for more than 20 years as president of the Webster Park Neighborhood Association and as one of the founders, the executive director and vice-president of the Central Florida Business Diversity Council, Inc. He is married and they have two children. His campaign slogan was “The right choice, for your voice!”
LaLonde was the highest vote-getter in 23 of the city’s 27 precincts, but he polled behind Simmons and Berrien in several precincts within the northwest district he aims to represent. Lakeland commissioners are elected citywide, so voters in every part of the city weighed in on the race.
Berrien said she was thankful to have been a part of the northwest district race.
“It has been a long three-month process,” Berrien said. “I’m happy for everyone and our city will continue to grow and fulfill the (dream) for what the city of Lakeland has, as far as the vision, the goal and the mission. And I hope it will be accomplished as to what was written in black and white. We’re still working to achieve that.”
Berrien said she had not decided if she would endorse LaLonde or Simmons.
Simmons was caught off guard when told by LkldNow that he was in a runoff with LaLonde.
“I did not know that — I thought he had won outright,” Simmons said. “I think Guy is a great guy. I think he ran a great campaign and I look forward to the runoff. I thought it was over to tell you the truth, but you know what I say: To God be the glory.”
Simmons said his priorities will remain the same: Affordable housing, public safety and infrastructure.
“I think I really would like to continue working as a city commissioner,” Simmons said. “I really think I have a lot to contribute and I really wouldn’t like it to be over at this point.”
City Commission At-Large Set 2
First-term Commissioner McLeod faced two challengers for At-Large Seat 2.
McLeod, 41, works in public relations and communications. He is a Polk County native and 4th-generation Floridian. He worked on the staff of U.S. Senator Mel Martinez from 2005 to 2010 and then became an entrepreneur and small business owner, running a Lakeland-based PR and communications consulting firm that worked with clients ranging from Fortune 500 brands to local nonprofits. In 2022, he joined the communications team for Compassion International, a global child development nonprofit. He and his wife have three children, are foster parents, and have adopted a child. His campaign slogan was “A Voice for Lakeland’s Future.”
McLeod gathered with his wife and children to watch the results come in Tuesday evening. When the final results came in, he had bested his rivals in all 27 precincts.
“I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to serve a second term. I want to thank my wife, Erin, our family, friends and so many Lakeland residents for their support,” McLeod said. “I look forward to what’s ahead for our city, and its an honor to continue serving with my colleagues on the commission.”
McLeod said one of his top priorities is the continuing our revitalization of downtown, from East Main Street to the RP Funding Center.
Kay Klymko, 73, is a recent transplant to Lakeland from Detroit so she could live near her daughter and grandchild. She is a family nurse practitioner and a retired Wayne State University professor. She and her husband also own and operate a small retail business. Her campaign slogan was “Building a Better Lakeland Together.”
Political newcomer Dennis Odisho, 44, is a construction senior manager, working his way up from laborer to pay his way through Purdue University. He moved to Florida in 2004 and is a single father to an 8-year-old boy. He is currently on the Lakeland Regional Health Foundation Board of Directors, is on the program advisory council for Everglades University, and is formerly served on the AdventHealth West Florida Foundation Board of Directors. He said he didn’t believe in catchy campaign slogans, but “in the vision, strategy, and process of making things better with a detailed plan that is measurable.”
Although City Commission races are nonpartisan, the Polk County Democrats sent text messages urging people to vote for Klymko. “A vote for City Commission candidate Kay Klymko (At Large Seat 2) will be a vote for progress in Lakeland,” the text said.
City Clerk Kelly Koos said her office did not receive any complaints about it. If a complaint were filed, she would refer it to the Ethics Commission. Candidates are legally barred from campaigning based on party affiliation and including party labels on signs or other materials. But the rules regarding endorsements are less clear. Both major parties endorsed candidates in the recent nonpartisan school board election.
Odisho didn’t have any signs up at polling places Tuesday, but he said that doesn’t mean he wasn’t campaigning right up until the end. “I don’t think signs, shirts or slogans win campaigns,” he said. “It’s straight-up substance.”
“I wish all the best to the winner of this race,” Odisho said. “To represent, you have to be able to relate. I hope they go out into the community and listen to the people, and work on their behalf and in their best interest.”
Voters share their views
Jinny Garland, 95, her daughter, Patricia, and 18-year-old grandson, Alex, all voted at First Alliance Church on Edgewood Drive. Garland and Patricia said they voted for Chad McLeod.
“I’ve met him and his kids go to the same school as mine,” said Patricia. “And Chad’s local. Odisho might’ve had some experience, but I’m wary of people working in real estate.”
One woman said she went into the polling place, got her ballot and realized she didn’t know anything about the candidates. “I just prayed because I’ve never seen those two (groups), so I just prayed and voted,” she said, declining to give her name.
David Wiles also went into the voting booth unprepared.
“I thought we were voting for president,” Wiles said. “My wife said she didn’t think so. I saw it was Nov. 7, then I opened the folder and there were only two races.”
He declined to say for whom he voted.
At the Coleman-Bush Building, Tanesha Hicks brought her two young children into the polling place with her. She said she voted for Lolita Berrien.
“I feel she embodies what I would say, what a city of Lakeland commissioner would say for me,” Hicks said, noting that she knows Berrien from her daughter’s school, Lincoln Avenue Academy, where Berrien serves as an office administrator. “She’s done a lot for me and my kids.”
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