East Gainesville activists and some residents have kept a watchful eye on City Commissioner Gigi Simmons, 48, since she was elected to represent them in 2018. Now that she’s up for re-election, some are throwing their support behind her challenger — Desmon Duncan-Walker.
Simmons faces Duncan-Walker, 44, in the March 16 municipal election to represent District 1, which encompasses most of East and downtown Gainesville. Some of the major issues currently facing the district are economic development, food insecurity and COVID-19 relief.
If re-elected, Simmons would be the first District 1 commissioner in nine years to serve a second term. Scherwin Henry was the last to serve two terms from 2006 to 2012.
Duncan-Walker, founder of the Gainesville Alliance for Equitable Development, has been critical of Simmons’ decision to not support Commissioner Gail Johnson’s proposal for a moratorium on development. Through a commission seat, Duncan-Walker hopes to preserve East Gainesville’s historically Black neighborhoods.
“We too often hear local politicians talking about big plans for Gainesville’s east side, only to find the area ignored while valuable resources go instead to facilitate and incentivize expensive developments elsewhere,” Duncan-Walker wrote in a February column in The Gainesville Sun.
One of Simmons’ greatest accomplishments, she said, was when she coordinated the SkyBridge Educational Program at Porters Community Center, an after-school program that supplied low-income public school students with 20 laptops and gave the center $20,000 to build a computer lab. She also worked with UF to create free mobile COVID-19 testing sites over the summer, testing more than 1,800 residents in her district.
After having issues with the accessibility of Simmons’ predecessor, Charles Goston, Carla Lewis-Miles, a 49-year-old organizer in East Gainesville’s Duval Heights neighborhood, said she was excited about Simmons’ 2018 win.
Lewis-Miles helped organize events and fundraisers for the 2018 campaign because she appreciated Simmons’ perspective as a longtime resident of Porters, a historically Black Gainesville neighborhood located between UF’s campus and downtown Gainesville.
However, over time, Lewis-Miles said Simmons became increasingly inaccessible to her constituents and stopped responding to phone calls and emails, despite the pair having conversations on the campaign trail about the importance of collaboration with community leaders.
“We need somebody that doesn't mind getting out there in the streets, and doesn't mind the repercussions that come along with pushing back against the system,” Lewis-Miles, who filed to run herself before deciding to withdraw, said. “Those are things that Gigi has shown us over and over again that she's not willing to do.”
When asked about these concerns, Simmons said if she missed a phone call or email, it was never intentional. Aside from the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately killing residents in her district, she said it has also put a strain on her mental health because she’s lost friends and family members to the virus.
“I am human,” she said. “I deal with loss like everyone else. If someone could not get in contact with me, I can honestly tell you there was a legitimate reason.”
Through her actions as commissioner, Lewis-Miles believes Simmons has shown she isn’t interested in fighting for the community that raised her. Lewis-Miles said Simmons consistently leaves the best interests of East Gainesville out of her decision-making, leaving activists like Lewis-Miles to rely on at-large Commissioner Johnson to vote in their favor.
Simmons voted against a moratorium on development in East Gainesville after public outcry over an affordable development was proposed to be transformed into student housing. She also voted against the construction of affordable housing because she said the development company was after a tax credit.
Duncan-Walker lobbied to prevent the Seminary Lane plot, where an affordable housing community once stood, from being turned into luxury student apartments. She said she’s ready to fight for development that meets the needs of the community.
“Throughout my life I have kept my parents’ advice close: ‘Never forget that Gainesville is the bridge that brought you over,’” Duncan-Walker wrote in The Gainesville Sun. “I want District 1 and all of Gainesville to be a place our children can call home for generations to come.”
Going forward, Simmons said economic development and healthcare are her main priorities.
“We deserve quality of life like everyone else,” Simmons said. “We are deserving of things in East Gainesville that we don't have like grocery stores, health care centers and hospitals.”
Despite some residents’ questions about her voting record, there are voters who feel Simmons is the more experienced candidate.
Gregory Stetz, a 40-year-old East Gainesville resident, said he’s hopeful Simmons will serve another term. Tuesday’s election is important because while the east side of the city has been subject to ineffective leadership before, Simmons has proved to have a nuanced understanding of the district’s issues, he said.
He noted that she’s made sure to meet with experts who can help bring employment opportunities and better education to the area.
“I fear Desmon being elected,” Stetz said. “She has shown she has no grasp of the complex issues facing our city, and would join Commissioners Johnson and Arreola in a voting pattern of ignorance.”
Other residents remain unconvinced by Simmons’ voting record.
East Gainesville resident Armando Grundy-Gomes, 40, said he’s frustrated with current elected officials who continue to further the economic development of West Gainesville. He pointed to the fact that the east side of town has only one “proper” grocery store: a Walmart on Northeast 12th Avenue.
Electing Duncan-Walker would be a positive change in city government because she will take a stand for East Gainesville, be willing to meet with constituents regularly and learn as she goes, Grundy-Gomes said.
After having conversations with other residents, he said he’s realized he’s not alone in feeling like his voice isn’t heard. He said his interests as a Black East Gainesville resident are often sidelined by the current leaders on the commission as they continually push for westward economic development.
“They talk a great game as if Black lives matter, but they don't give two cents about Black people,” Grundy-Gomes said. “Their actions speak much louder than their words.”
Contact Alan Halaly at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @AlanHalaly.
Alan Halaly is the Metro desk editor and a second-year journalism major. He spent this past summer reporting for the Miami New Times and his first two semesters in college on The Alligator’s Metro desk covering city and county affairs. Above all, he’s passionate about bringing Gainesville’s hidden stories to UF’s campus.