Gainesville City Commissioner Gail Johnson eagerly hugged Commissioner-elect Desmon Duncan-Walker at an election watch party Tuesday evening to celebrate their victories, signaling a new era of collaboration between the two commissioners.
Johnson was re-elected to the At-Large Seat B on the commission, and Duncan-Walker beat incumbent City Commissioner Gigi Simmons to represent District 1, which encompasses most of downtown and East Gainesville.
In the coming months, Duncan-Walker will brainstorm ways to make sure she is a mouthpiece for the people in her district. She plans to place their concerns at the forefront of her policy-making and is considering holding community engagement events like pancake breakfasts and quarterly district meetings to accomplish this goal.
“I want to make sure that District 1 sees me often and that they are able to engage with me in meaningful ways,” Duncan-Walker said. “I am their voice. And the only way that you can be a voice for the people is to listen to them.”
Johnson won her second term with 88.3% 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.
City commissioners are elected to three-and-a-half-year terms, but terms will be extended to four years starting in 2022, Alachua County Supervisor of Elections spokesperson TJ Pyche said. Duncan-Walker will be up for reelection again in Fall 2024. Johnson, who reaches a term limit in 2024, will not be able to run again.
Johnson and Duncan-Walker, whose swearing-in ceremonies have not yet been planned, have continually fought against the construction of luxury student housing in the city’s historically Black neighborhoods. To accomplish this goal before even deciding to run for the commission seat, Duncan-Walker founded the Gainesville Alliance for Equitable Development (GAED).
In her previous term, Johnson proposed a moratorium on East Gainesville development, which was an effort created in response to the controversial plan to build student apartments in the Pleasant Street neighborhood. Duncan-Walker said she would have supported the moratorium, even though Commissioner Simmons voted against the effort.
The pair have supported each other throughout their consecutive campaign trails.
In a Tuesday night Facebook post, Johnson congratulated Duncan-Waker on her win.
“Our neighborhoods now have a fighting chance,” Johnson wrote in a Facebook post.
She said she is not only looking forward to working with Duncan-Walker, but also collaborating with the county commission and school board in her second term.
Thrilled about her own win, Duncan-Walker said winning by only 118 ballots is a testament to her campaign’s grassroots approach to engaging East Gainesville voters.
“The people want to see you, they want to feel you, they want to touch you, they want to hear you,” Duncan-Walker said. “Pulling the folks in is what really helped them to understand who I am. It may have boosted their confidence in me.”
Simmons’ loss continues a nine-year streak of one-term District 1 commissioners. Scherwin Henry was the last to serve two terms from 2006 to 2012.
Simmons 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.
Danielle Chanzes, a 28-year-old East Gainesville resident, spent Tuesday night setting up balloon arrangements at Duncan-Walker’s watch party and anxiously refreshing the results page on her phone. The two met before she decided to run, and both later planned a well-attended #StandForSeminaryLane protest to speak out against a controversial Pleasant Street development proposal.
Chanzes said Johnson has fiercely defended Gainesville’s historically Black communities during her term and knows that Desmon-Walker has the integrity and vision to do the same.
“I think when it comes to making decisions about anything, we need to consider the most vulnerable,” Chanzes said. “I'm very, very confident with Desmon, being on the commission now and joining Gail, that the most vulnerable of our citizens will not be forgotten.”
Notably, voter turnout was at its lowest since 1997 in a Gainesville municipal election, with less than 11% of registered voters casting their ballots.
In 2016, the District 4 and mayoral election turnout was 44.36%. In 2019, just 12.96% of eligible voters participated in the city’s mayoral race.
In 2020’s Regular Election when three city commissioners were elected, 184,103 Gainesville residents were eligible to vote. This year, the city had 90,794 eligible voters.
Voter turnout is typically higher in primary and general elections than in city elections, Pyche said.
“Traditionally, the turnout for these (local) elections is pretty low, so it's not too far off — given the total number of voters — from what it normally is,” Pyche said.
This was the last city election to be held on its own. In 2018, Gainesville made the decision to start holding city and county commission elections together in Fall 2022.
Combining the elections should increase turnout in future city office races, Pyche said.
Contact Alan Halaly and Jack Prator at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow them on Twitter @AlanHalaly and @jack_prator.
Alan Halaly is a first-year journalism and Spanish major and the East Gainesville Beat Reporter. This is his second semester on staff, and he previously worked as a news assistant on the Metro desk. He's excited to use this semester to shine a spotlight on underserved communities in Gainesville.
Jack is a UF journalism sophomore covering the Gainesville City Commission. If he's not in a hammock at the plaza he is probably watching the Queen's Gambit for the fifth time.