Presidential races get all the attention, but it’s the folks down ballot that make the real decisions.
In the Sunshine State, there’s no shortage of high intensity — and sometimes high drama — battles for office.
And we aren’t talking about the races for state House and Senate. There have been allegations of election fraud in a mayor’s race, dirty tricks in a superintendent battle, and fights over genetically modified mosquitoes.
Here are 10 down ballot races and referendums we think you should be paying attention when the polls close on Tuesday
Miami-Dade County Mayoral
Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez thought he had it in the bag.
Going into the Aug. 30 primary, Gimenez was believed to have a leg up on his competitors. Internal polls showed him ahead of the Raquel Regalado and five other competitors, enough to avoid a run-off.
Then the results came in: Gimenez got 48 percent of the vote; Regalado came in with 32 percent. That wasn’t enough to secure the win, and set the mayoral hopefuls up for a rumble in November.
And what a fight it has been. Regalado filed a lawsuit to disqualify Gimenez because a technicality. The lawsuit, according to WPLG in Miami, claimed the Miami-Dade election office received a qualifying check, which was rejected by the bank.
A Miami-Dade County dismissed the suit during a hearing last week.
The lawsuit wasn’t the only thing hanging over the election. In October, a 74-year-old woman was charged with two felony counts of marking another person’s ballot. The Miami Herald reported the woman’s coworkers caught her illegally marking ballots for Regalado.
Regalado told the Miami Herald that she didn’t know the person and it had “nothing to do with” her.
An October poll, according to the Miami Herald, showed Gimenez beating Regalado by 22 percentage points.
A bloody primary between hopefuls Jose Alvarez, Art Otero and Freddy Villaneuva ended in a run-off, pitting Alvarez and Otero against each other in November.
Both men are sitting Kissimmee commissioners, and in July, Alvarez told the Osceola News-Gazette he was running because he wanted “newcomers to know the satisfaction of community that I know, and I want natives to know that the things that they cherish are not lost, but rather overshadowed by the pains of growth – and that’s unacceptable.”
Wage increases have been a key issue in the non-partisan race, and Alvarez scored the endorsement of the two major labor unions representing the workers at Walt Disney World and other hospitality businesses in Central Florida.
Otero has his own top-notch credentials to tout. He’s the former vice mayor, a member of the Osceola Expressway Authority Board, and former chairman of the Osceola Housing Commission. But he appears to be running as an outsider, telling the Osceola News-Gazette in July the mayor’s seat has “been filled by a lifelong career politician long enough.”
“It is time for new ideas and a fresh perspective. It is time to move our city into an entirely new level and make it an even better place to live, work and play,” he told the newspaper. “The time has come to ultimately unite our city and listen to its citizens and their needs.”
St. Cloud Mayoral
The race for the St. Cloud mayor pits a well-known pastor against the community’s deputy mayor.
James Nathan Blackwell faces Jeff Rinehart in the November election.
Blackwell moved to St. Cloud in 1988, and became the founding pastor of Cornerstone Family Church. The church has a weekly attendance of about 1,000, and his position means he’s accountable for a team of 53 staffers and managing a $2.3 million budget.
But his role at the church has gotten him in a bit of hot water. In August, WFTV reported Blackwell used one of his sermons to talk about parties among politicians. According to the report, his decision to talk politics from the pulpit might have been a violation of the federal tax code.
Rinehart served as a St. Cloud city councilman for four years.
“Serving on the City Council is an honor and a responsibility that requires time spent in City Hall and interaction with the residents,” he said on his website. “When a council member is “disengaged” they can make decisions that may not best serve the residents of St. Cloud. I am the Councilman that proved that there was money in the budget, ultimately saving all our taxpayers money and reducing the waste of taxpayer dollars.”
Orange County Commission
Development is at the heart of a contention race in Orange County.
The race for Orange County District 5 pits incumbent Commissioner Ted Edwards against Emily Bonilla, an environmental activist. Both candidates admit it’s become a heated race, divided over a single issue: the two Lake Pickett projects, Grow and Sustany, which promise to bring thousands of new homes to the area east of the Econlockhatchee River.
Edwards is all for the projects, saying they are community oriented.
“I understand that any time you develop open land, people hate to see it go,” he said. “There’s been a lot of opposition, but it has misstated a lot of facts about these projects.”
Bonilla is squarely on the opposing side. While she has stressed she isn’t anti-growth, she has focused her campaign on mobilizing the county against urban sprawl. In August, she called on the County Commission to take another vote on the Lake Pickett project, saying the project would encroach on the Econlockhatchee River Basin and displace many wild animals from their homes.
Tampa City Council
Everyone loves a special election, and Tampa residents have one on their ballot this election cycle.
The Tampa City Council District 7 election was needed to replace Lisa Montelione, who is running as a Democrat in House District 63. It’s a crowded field, with six candidates — Jim Davison, Orlando Gudes, Avis Harrison, Gene Siudut, Cyrial Spiro, and Luis Viera —all vying for a spot on Tampa City Council.
Davison had the lead in an October poll conducted by St. Pete Polls. The survey showed 27 percent of voters said they were backing the emergency room physician, while 10 percent backed Harrison. The mid-October poll found 36 percent of voters said they sure who they were going to vote for.
Issues like transportation, economic development and crime are hot topics this election cycle. But there’s also been a few controversial moments.
Davison returned $1,000 contribution from the Hillsborough County Republican Executive Committee, after the chairwoman of the Hillsborough Democrats filed a complaint asking the the Florida Elections Commission to look into the contribution. The Tampa City Charter prohibits candidates for municipal office to “solicit or accept party funds or endorsements.”
Davison, according to the Tampa Bay Times, raised about $12,000. Viera, the newspaper reported, has raised $71,000.
With six candidates in the running, it’s unlikely one candidate will receive the necessary votes to come out on top come Election Day. That means Tampa residents should gear up for a run-off election in December.
Pinellas County Commission
Three Pinellas County Commission candidates got a pass, winning their seats after running unopposed.
The fourth seat, that’s where all the action is.
Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice is hoping to keep his seat, and faces retired businessman Mike Mikurak, a Republican, in the District 3 race.
Justice has been hammered for his positions over the years, including the commission’s unanimous vote to refuse a developer’s request to rezone land in Safety Harbor. The developer later sued, and a judge entered a $16.5 million judgement against the county.
Justice has said the charges aren’t gaining traction, in part because he said the county is doing better than it was four years ago. Commission members work together, and the county has worked through financial issues and have made peace with cities and other commissions across the Bay.
The two men have also clashed over sewage being dumped into the Bay. During the last two tropical storms, the St. Petersburg sewer system was overwhelmed by millions of gallons of partially treated or untreated wastewater.
Leon County Superintendent
The race to lead Leon County Schools has been one of the nastiest on record.
Need proof? Superintendent Jackie Pons came under fire in September after he launched a TV spot that focused on a 2013 paternity lawsuit involving opponent Rocky Hanna. His longtime media consultant left over the ad, a top supporter withdrew his support, and Pons faced immediate backlash on social media.
Pons, who has served as superintendent since 2006, apologized and pulled the ad after a few days. He said while the advertisement was truthful and factual, “it was a mistake.”
“I wouldn’t have even expected Donald Trump to do that, quite honestly,” said Hanna during an October debate hosted by WCTV. “But there’s a line you don’t cross. No job, winning no election is worth sacrificing someone else’s family when you have no idea what’s gone on.”
A Tallahassee native, Hanna has spent the past three years working with special sites and programs, including students in foster care. Before that, he served as the dean of students at Leon High School, moving his way up the ranks to becoming the school’s principal.
Pons and Hanna aren’t the only ones in the race. Patricia Ann Sunday and Forrest Van Camp are also running.
Leon County Sheriff
Leon County Sheriff Mike Wood is hoping to keep his seat, but will need to fend off three other hopefuls to keep his job.
Wood, who is running as a no party affiliate candidate, has built up good will in the community and the department over the years. He joined the force as a deputy sheriff in March 2983, moving up the ranks over his 30-year career. He was hired as Under Sheriff on Jan. 1, 2015. He was appointed sheriff 22 days later following the death of longtime Sheriff Larry Campbell.
The battle to keep his job won’t be an easy one. He faces three former law enforcement officials, including the former Tallahassee police chief.
Walt McNeil, who’s running as a Democrat, served as the chief of the Tallahassee and Quincy policy departments, as well as a stint as the Secretary of the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Department of Corrections. Like Wood, he has deep roots and deep connections in the community.
Republican Charles Strickland, a former lieutenant with the Leon County Sheriff’s Office and the CEO of Talon Training, and Tommy Mills, a no party affiliation candidate, are also running. Strickland, according to the Tallahassee Democrat, has the backing of Machelle Campbell, the former sheriff’s wife.
Sheriff Campbell, according to the Democrat, had planned to back Wood as his successor.
Jacksonville slots referendum
For the second time this year, Jacksonville voters are faced with a County Referendum 1 on their ballot. The first CR 1 authorized the extension of the current half-cent sales tax past its current 2030 sunset date, and earmarking funds from that to address the city’s $2.8 billion unfunded pension liability.
The new CR 1? It would allow slot machines at licensed pari-mutel facilities in Duval County. The initiative is backed by Jacksonville Greyhound Racing, which owns the bestbet facility expected to house the slot machines if it passes.
Supporters of the initiative say it will create jobs, and $5 million or so in anticipated tax revenue (1.5 percent of gross proceeds) will go to much-needed city services.
But the Florida Times-Union points out, the referendum could be moot, regardless of the outcome. The Florida Supreme Court is considering a case that will decide whether slots can be legalized through a countywide vote.
Monroe County Zika initiative
Maybe Forbes said it best: The fate of fight against Zika rests on voters in Monroe County.
For more than a decade, Oxitec has found genetically modified insects have served as an effective mosquito control tool, reducing the population and slowing the spread of mosquito-borne diseases. The process has worked in Brazil, the Cayman Islands and Panama, and the company is prepared to begin its first trial in the United States.
But before the trial can start, Monroe County residents have to head to the polls to say whether they support the proposed trial.
The Florida Keys Mosquito Control District agreed to put a non-binding referendum on the ballot to gauge support for the ballots. The decision came after residents expressed concern about the trial, despite years of discussion over it.
Two referendums will be on the ballot — one in Key Haven, and a second on ballots across Monroe County. Although the referendum is non-binding, Forbes reported three of the five mosquito board members said they would take the public’s decision into account before moving forward.
There’s been a big push to rally support for the referendum. The Florida Keys Safety Alliance formed earlier this year, launching a public education campaign to reach residents in the Keys.
__Staff writers A.G. Gancarski, Lawrence Griffin, Anne Lindberg, and Mitch Perry contributed to this report