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Monday, January 30, 2023

Incumbent Gail Johnson, newcomer Desmon Duncan-Walker elected to city commission

Voter turnout fell to about 11%, the lowest in Gainesville city elections since 1997

<p>Desmon Duncan-Walker, the District 1 Gainesville City Commissioner-elect,  talks to reporters after her win at Cypress &amp; Grove Brewing Co. on March 16, 2021.</p><p></p>

Desmon Duncan-Walker, the District 1 Gainesville City Commissioner-elect, talks to reporters after her win at Cypress & Grove Brewing Co. on March 16, 2021.

Gainesville residents voted Tuesday to re-elect one city commissioner who saw them through a year of the COVID-19 pandemic, but voted out the other incumbent in favor of a local activist.

In the tight race that some East Gainesville residents followed closely, Desmon Duncan-Walker replaced incumbent Gigi Simmons, who was elected in 2018, for the District 1 seat by just 119 ballots. As of Tuesday night’s unofficial results, Duncan-Walker earned about 53% of the vote with Simmons earning about 47%. 

At-Large Commissioner Gail Johnson won re-election with about 88% of the vote against Gabriel Hillel, a disbarred attorney who frequently attends Gainesville City Commission meetings. Hillel, also known as Gabe Kaimowitz, received about 12% of the vote, up from the 5% he earned when he ran in last year’s race.

Johnson said she is optimistic about a second term and will continue to advocate for another grocery store in East Gainesville, a known food desert, and equitable development, which is an effort to reduce disparities in underserved communities.

“I'm thankful to everyone that voted for me, and all that continue to support the important work that has to happen in our city,” she said.

Ahead of her term, Duncan-Walker said she’s prioritizing accessibility to her constituents.

“If we're not listening to our constituents, we're not doing the job,” Duncan-Walker said. “So I expect for them to keep in contact with me, just as I'll keep in contact with them.”

Simmons’ loss continues a nine-year streak of one-term District 1 commissioners, who represent most of downtown and East Gainesville. Scherwin Henry was the last to serve two terms from 2006 to 2012.

Some East Gainesville voters in District 1 felt Simmons was hard to reach and didn’t vote to protect the infrastructure of historically Black neighborhoods. The district currently faces issues such as economic development, food insecurity and COVID-19 relief.  

Simmons complimented her team on a solid campaign, and said she wouldn’t rule out another run at city commission and plans to continue working in the community. 

“But right now, I want to spend some quality time with family,” Simmons said.

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Desmon Duncan-Walker, the District 1 Gainesville City Commissioner-elect, celebrates her win with her cousin, Erin McCray, at Cypress & Grove Brewing Co. on March 16, 2021.

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This is the last city election to be held on its own. In 2018, Gainesville voted to hold city and county commission elections together in August and November starting next year.

This year’s voter turnout — the lowest in a city election since 1997 — continues a downward trend.

About 11% of the city’s electorate, or 9,665 ballots, were cast in this election, according to the unofficial election results. The last time these seats were up for election was in 2018 when turnout was 27%. 

In 2016, the District 4 and mayoral election turnout was 44%. In 2019, just 13% of eligible voters participated in the city’s mayoral race.

The city had 90,794 eligible voters. In 2019’s Regular Election where three city commissioners were elected, 184,103 Gainesville residents were eligible to vote.

At the Millhopper Branch Library located at 3145 NW 43rd St., voters trickled in throughout the day to cast their ballots for the At-Large Seat B race.

Jamie Barichivich, a 50-year-old Gainesville resident who lives near the library, was not surprised by the election’s low voter turnout.

He said a poll worker told him he was the 10th voter at the Millhopper Branch location at around  1 p.m., which marked halfway through Election Day.

Barichivich was excited to cast his vote for At-Large incumbent Gail Johnson because of her platform for racial and gender equality and focus on improvements in East Gainesville.

“I'm just one of the handful of people who are going to make or break (the election),” he added.

Trinity United Methodist Church, a precinct for the At-Large race, had a slow day with only 19 people turning up by about 2 p.m, said Gail Sherman, a 70-year-old poll worker. More workers were there than voters, she noted.

The only candidate to host a watch party this election cycle was Duncan-Walker.

Duncan-Walker arrived at her watch party at 7:40 p.m., and about 20 of her supporters wearing purple campaign shirts set up a large projector screen inside the brewery to watch the results. Attendees danced in celebration to upbeat songs like “Whip My Hair” played by DJs from The Jerk Jerkins Show, a popular Gainesville radio show. 

Two big black and white banners that hung on a wall read “Black Communities Matter” and “#StandForSeminaryLane,” in reference to her activism against a contested student apartment development in Pleasant Street.

She was happy to win alongside her family, dancing along to the music and wiping away tears of joy. Duncan-Walker said she plans to celebrate her win with her father, who has been in the hospital since late Monday night.

Jasper Anderson, a 13-year-old campaign volunteer from East Gainesville, first met Duncan-Walker three years ago when she worked at the A. Quinn Jones Museum and Cultural Center, an exhibit that documents the history of the Pleasant Street neighborhood. 

When he watched Duncan-Walker speak at an Alachua County League of Women Voters forum, he knew he had to get involved with her campaign. 

He spent Tuesday night smiling, poking around to ask volunteers how they were feeling.

“She’s made a huge impression on us and taught us so much,” his mother, Aly Anderson, said. 

Madeline Whitton, an 18-year-old Gainesville High School student, volunteered for the campaigns of President Joe Biden and former gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum. She said none of the candidates she’s campaigned for were as special as Duncan-Walker because of her pledge to remain accessible to her constituents.

“She just felt like a genuine person that was going to do something about the issues in this town,” Whitton said. “There’s so many things that go on that people don’t really talk about, and she’s going to hold them accountable.”

At 10 a.m., Mount Carmel Baptist Church, located at 2505 NE Eighth Ave, four supporters helped campaign for their respective candidates.

Dressed in a bright pink shirt with “Go Gigi Go” printed on the back in white, Brenda Rush, Simmon’s 67-year-old cousin, stood on the grass outside holding a campaign poster. 

Rush traveled from her home in Georgia to help campaign for her cousin. 

“I remember when she was born,” Rush said. “So it's an awesome thing to see her blossom into something like this.”

Mary Stover, a 67-year-old East Gainesville resident, said she was happy both District 1 candidates were qualified Black women, though she didn’t specify who she voted for. 

Stover voted at the T.B. McPherson Center, a District 1 polling site located at Southeast 15th Street. She said she lives nearby and has voted there for about 40 years. 

Stover strolled out of the center wearing a white mask that read “Black voters matter” in bold black font. She said regardless of who won, she said she was grateful for how Simmons had served the community. 

“I know what Gigi has done for us,” she said. “She has stood up for what she believes in.”

Joanna Roberts, a 19-year-old Santa Fe sophomore, voted at Mount Carmel Baptist Church about 45 minutes before the polls closed. She then rushed to get home to finish an essay due at 11:59 p.m.

Roberts said she kept up with news coverage ahead of the election, but she ultimately voted for Johnson and Duncan-Walker because of her family’s influence, who supported Duncan-Walker.

“It just felt more personal with Desmon,” Roberts said.

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Peggy Golston, 63, (left) and Brendel Lovette, 67, (right) picket at the Mt. Carmel Baptist Church Precinct 30 polling place to show their support for Desmon Duncan-Walker, the District 1 Gainesville City Commissioner-elect, on Tuesday, March 16, 2021.

Brendel Lovett, 67, and Peggy Golston, 63, held purple signs in support of Duncan-Walker outside the church as they waved and cheered at passing cars. 

Lovett, Duncan-Walker’s neighbor, was excited because Duncan-Walker is a new voice who will bring more jobs and training opportunities to the community.

Golston said she liked that Duncan-Walker has worked on bringing back the history of the Pleasant Street neighborhood and she looks forward to more positive work to protect East Gainesville’s historically Black communities.

“We have somebody that's going to be held accountable,” Golston said. “To go where we need to go in the trenches that we can't go.”

Alan Halaly, Michelle Holder, Lucille Lannigan, Jiselle Lee and Jack Prator contributed to this report.

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