Local primaries focus on proposed development

This story was originally published in the first edition of The Lion’s Tale (October 6, 2020).

Florida held its primary elections on Aug. 18, with voters choosing candidates for races in the House and state  Legislature, as well as for local offices. 

The primary saw several changes due to the COVID-19  pandemic, some of which may provide a preview for the much-anticipated Nov. 3 general election. Election officials launched efforts to recruit poll workers, purchased plexiglass barriers and hand sanitizer, and implemented social distancing and disinfecting procedures.  

More ballots were cast through mail-in and early voting than in previous years, including a record 2.3 million mail-in ballots, accounting for nearly 60% of all votes cast. Despite the challenges posed by the coronavirus, the August election drew the highest state primary turnout since 2002. 

Election day featured several noteworthy races in Central Florida, including the Republican primaries for county commissioner in Seminole County’s First and Third Districts. Incumbent Bob Dallari defeated Longwood Mayor  Matt Morgan in District 1 and incumbent Lee Constantine held off his challenger in District 3, Longwood City Commissioner Ben Paris.  

The contests largely centered on the controversial River  Cross development, backed by former state Rep. Chris Dorworth. The development would open a 669-acre parcel of land located just east of the Econlockhatchee River and north of the Orange County line to homes and commercial space. That piece of land falls within the protected rural area established by Seminole voters in a 2004 ballot measure, and the county commission, including Dallari and  Constantine, unanimously rejected the proposal in 2018.  Many local residents support protecting rural zones and limiting urban sprawl. 

“Rural Seminole County is important for both animals and people,” said senior Sean Mings. “People move to rural  Seminole County to be away from all the construction and developments. They also move there for the scenery and to see wildlife that you wouldn’t normally see in developed  areas.” 

All four Republicans stated that they supported guarding the rural boundary during the campaign, but the two incumbents faced attack ads funded by a political group that received $150,000 in contributions from Dorworth. The former state rep. is currently engaged in litigation against  Seminole County over the River Cross development. 

The county commission races weren’t the only primaries in which the River Cross plan was at issue. Patricia Sigman defeated four competitors in the Democratic primary for state Senate District 9. The seat, which covers  Seminole and parts of Volusia County, is being vacated by  Republican David Simmons due to term limits and will be hotly contested in the general election. Sigman overcame a late ad push in favor of another candidate, which she claimed was paid for by supporters of her November opponent, Republican Jason Brodeur.  

Brodeur is a friend and political ally of Dorworth, and has faced doubt over his stated commitment to protecting  Seminole County’s rural areas. As a member of the state House he voted for legislation that would’ve helped  Dorworth’s development bypass the county’s building restrictions. A Brodeur spokesman later claimed the vote was a “mistake,” and the state rep. went back shortly after  the bill passed to change it to a “no,” but this did not alter his official vote. 

In Orange County, two controversial incumbents, District 1 County Commissioner Betsy VanderLay and Property Appraiser Rick Singh, whose office was recently under criminal investigation, were shown the door by voters. Sheriff John Mina will likely return to office after winning his primary. 

Elsewhere in the Sunshine State, Republican Ross  Spano of Florida’s 15th Congressional District was ousted by challenger Scott Franklin, who hammered Spano over an ongoing ethics probe regarding possible finance violations in the incumbent’s 2018 campaign. Spano’s seat, which covers much of Tampa, is one Democrats are aiming to flip in November. Republican Carlos Gimenez will take on Rep. Debbie Murcasel-Powell in the Miami area  26h Congressional District, a seat that has changed hands twice in the past decade and will be a battleground again this year.