When former Commissioner Gail Johnson submitted her resignation five months into her second term, Cynthia Chestnut answered the call.
Johnson publicly announced her endorsement of Chestnut, a 72-year-old longtime Gainesville politician, outside of a City Commission meeting Sept. 27. About 30 of Chestnut’s supporters gathered on the steps of Gainesville City Hall for the announcement.
“I think you all know this about me — I'm big on trust. I trust Dr. Chestnut to listen first and make decisions accordingly,” Johnson said. “I trust Dr. Chestnut’s abilities to effectively and successfully navigate the present challenges in our city.”
Johnson submitted her resignation on Aug. 23. She wrote on Facebook she decided to resign because of the retention of the city manager Lee Feldman and the lack of commitment to racial and gender equity in the city’s leadership.
Ever since, the commission has quickly thrown together an election, for which the qualifying period ended Sept. 24. Chestnut is one of five candidates running to fill Johnson’s seat after the Nov. 16 special election.
Chestnut became the first Black woman elected to the City Commission in 1987 and the first Black female Mayor of Gainesville in 1989. She represented parts of Alachua County in the Florida House of Representatives in 1990 and served for more than 10 years. She then went on to the Alachua County Commission in 2002 and eventually became the chair of the Alachua County Democratic Party.
Johnson grew up around Chestnut and viewed her as a model public servant, she said.
“She has blazed the trail before me,” Johnson said. “She’s a woman whose shoulders I have stood on. A woman that very lovingly said to me during this tumultuous time in our city: ‘I will take this torch, Gail.’”
Chestnut unveiled key goals like combating gentrification, environmental justice and violence reduction. She said she wants to make sure the city is preserving historically Black neighborhoods and is on track to only use 100% clean and renewable energy by 2045.
“Looking at our city's current political climate, there’s one thing I know for sure,” she said. “We can do better … We need to fill [Johnson’s] seat with a steadfast leader who can remind the Commission who we are working for.”
Her student campaign manager, Anton Kernohan, said he recruited about 15 volunteers at the rally to help with phone-banking and canvassing. He said other community leaders will announce their endorsement of Chestnut in the coming weeks.
As an intern who worked under Chestnut at the Alachua County Democratic Party, he said he’s witnessed her leadership firsthand.
“From my own personal experience I think her heart is the biggest out of the candidates,” the 22-year-old UF political science and sustainability senior said. “We need a representative, a city commissioner, who can get in there, get the work done and rally other commissioners together towards a common goal.”
Although many UF students aren’t quite tuned into the inner workings of local government, Kernohan has seen them begin to pay more attention.
“I've actually personally seen such an uptake of students who are paying attention to what's going on in the community outside of Gainesville,” he said. “It's one of those trends that we have to keep up.”
Other students like Dani Sohn, a 20-year-old UF political science and women’s studies junior, believe there’s still more work to be done with student perception of local government. While she understands those belonging to minority groups may be less likely to pay attention for fear of not being heard, she said students in particular need to be more cognizant of how they impact the rest of the city.
“Students have to come here, they have fun for four years and maybe try to make changes that will fulfill their own personal pursuits,” Sohn said. “But for the most part, I just feel like students kind of just come here for four years and run through the city.”
Longtime supporters like Doris Harvey, a 76-year-old Gainesville resident and member of the Alachua County Democratic Party, believe Chestnut is the right fit for the job because of her history and experience.
After observing her lead the Alachua County Democratic Party, Harvey said she’s confident in her ability to lead. She won’t question her vote for Chestnut.
“She has very definite ideas and she will stand by them and try to push them through and to make the city better,” Harvey said. “She really is for the people.”
Contact Alan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @AlanHalaly.
Alan Halaly is a third-year journalism major and the Engagement Managing Editor of The Alligator. He's previously served as Metro Editor and Photo Editor. Alan has also held internships with the Miami New Times and The Daily Beast, and spent his first two semesters in college on The Alligator’s Metro desk covering city and county affairs.