Top Candidates Close in Race for Campaign Dollars

The five candidates in the November election for an open at-large Lakeland City Commission seat have raised almost $50,000, and campaign finance reports show a close split between the two most well-connected candidates.

The campaign to elect Chad McLeod out-raised Carole Philipson’s campaign by just under $2,000, with McLeod bringing in $24,050 to Philipson’s $22,053.

In a distant third at the start of the summer fundraising season was Shandale Terrell, 44, who raised $2,630. Pablo Sologaistoa, 30, has taken in $450, and Ricky Shirah, 65, has primed his run by loaning his campaign $200. Shirah, in his numerous campaigns for state and local office, has mostly shied away from serious fundraising.

Commissioner Justin Troller, who currently holds the seat, is being termed out as he closes his 12th year on the governing board.

Traditionally, the early part of the campaign season tends to be a bit light on policy talk and the two money-leading candidates held to that tradition.

Both, however, have expressed an interest in producing growth downtown and hinted at their broader governing philosophies they plan to unveil in the near future.

McLeod said Lakeland is on the cusp of major changes and the decisions made by the commission in the coming years will have generational implications. Those moves need to make Lakeland competitive with other Central Florida metropolitan areas, he said, by creating an environment for private investment and a strong and vibrant local economy.

“As a father of three young children, I want there to be opportunities for them,” he said.

If elected, McLeod would join the commission amid a years-long refocus on the central business district by its elected leaders.

“I want it to make economic sense to come in and set up business,” he said. “The city plays a big role in creating momentum and pulling people into that process, and to help with creating excitement.”

“I think there is tremendous potential for downtown Lakeland,” he added. “I want downtown to be a place people come to and say ‘Wow! This is what I want for my community.'”

Philipson said in the coming weeks, “it’ll be very obvious what the difference is” between her and McLeod.

In recent months she has been a constant presence at commission meetings, including at a set of strategic planning meetings in April and May, the only candidate to attend.

“I’m educating myself by attending these things,” she said, and meeting with community members and city officials. “You have to be able to hit the ground running; you can’t wait until you’re on the commission to start educating yourself.”

Philipson, a healthcare consultant and former executive with AdventHealth and Lakeland Regional Health, said she has a passion for long-term planning. She was a Community Redevelopment Agency advisory board member and an executive at Lakeland Regional Health when the city’s medical corridor was assembled.

In recent years’ competitive races, the split between classes of donors has been clear, but the McLeod-Philipson contest shows a muddier middle, with both candidates attracting their fair share of donors from the development and professional services industries.

Perhaps indicative of these candidates’ connections to the community is a pair of $500 donations from Hoyt “Barney” Barnett, Publix Super Markets Vice Chairman, one to each of the candidates.

McLeod, 37, a co-founder of public relations firm McLeod Communications, has attracted the support many notable donors within Lakeland’s business community, including:

  • Randy Larson, Chris Larson and R Larson Company, $1,500 total.
  • Lakeland Land Company, which is owned by Seth McKeel, a former state legislator, and Ellen McKeel. The total contributed is $1,500 total.
  • Cory Petcoff of Baron Realty, $1,000.
  • William Harrell of Harrell’s, a fertilizer company, $1,000.
  • Blue Steel Development, a company associated with Marcobay Construction President Howard Bayless, $1,000.
  • Brian Philpot, CEO of AgAmerica Lending, $500.
  • Wesley Beck, president of Aspyre Properties, $500.

Though Philipson’s contribution checks tended to be smaller, on average, the list doesn’t want for high-powered Lakelanders in business, land development and politics, including:

  • Jean Bunch, whose family operates Bunch Realty and whose husband is a leader of the Bonnet Springs Park project, $1,000.
  • James C. Dayvault, the president of Rita Staffing, $1,000.
  • Joe Ruthven and Greg Ruthven of The Ruthvens, a warehouse development company, $600 total.
  • Ron Clark, an attorney and founder of Broadway Real Estate, $500.
  • David Touchton, the owner of Servpro Industries, $500.
  • Chris McLaughlin, an operating principal of Keller Williams Realty, $500.

Philipson, 71, also received funds from former state legislator Paul Dockery ($250); former City Commissioner Jim Malless ($250); County Commissioner Martha Santiago ($100); SHR Human Resources, former Commissioner Don Selvage’s company ($100); former Polk County School Board member Hollis Hooks ($250,) and Kristen Carlson, a Democrat who lost to Republican Ross Spano for the 15th District U.S. House seat last year.

Lakeland First backs McLeod

McLeod has gotten additional support from Lakeland First, the only active local-interest political action committee with five-digit spending power. McLeod is right for Lakeland, the group posted to its Facebook page, to keep taxes low, fighting crime and developing workforce education.

The group, founded by Philpot of AgAmerica Lending; Jack Harrell of Harrell’s; Barnett, of Publix Super Markets; Bob Adams of homebuilder Highland Homes; and Ralph Allen of Allen & Company.

In 2017, the group went 3-for-3 in its backing of commission candidates Bill Mutz, Stephanie Madden and Scott Franklin. Earlier this year it backed Sara Roberts McCarley in the Jan. 15 special election for former Commissioner Michael Dunn’s Southwest District seat, a race she easily won.

The PAC has spent $31,672 in direct mail and internet ads from December through May, according to state campaign finance reports, though its not clear how much of that benefited McLeod, McCarley or the committee’s political goals outside Lakeland’s commission races.

Philpot and Harrell recharged the account earlier this year with $20,000 and $5,000 contributed, respectively, in January and May.

McLeod said he met with the Lakeland Firsters and talked about his vision for Lakeland as a place friendly to enterprise of all types. He said he appreciates their endorsement.

Philipson confirmed she met with the PAC. She said she didn’t think the additional support would make much difference.

“I think voters decide based on who the best candidate is and not necessarily who backed them,” she said.

The slower-paced races

Both Northeast District Commissioner Bill Read, 71, and challenger Jiwa Farrell, 41, have not begun serious fundraising. Read has added a $500 loan to his campaign and Farrell contributed $100 to her run.

Commissioner Phillip Walker, 65, in his quest for a third term in the Northwest District seat, remained unchallenged as of Wednesday. Candidates can file to run until noon, Sept. 20, the final day of the qualifying period.

Election day for the nonpartisan race is Nov. 5. If no candidate wins a majority of the votes cast in their race, the top two candidates take it to a Dec. 3 run-off election.

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