Longtime Gainesville politician Cynthia Chestnut and City Commission newcomer Matt Howland will go head to head in a runoff election in January.
Neither candidate received more than 50% of the vote, which resulted in a necessary runoff election on Jan. 25. Chestnut received 46% of the votes, with a 560 lead over Howland, who received 41%. More than 13% of the nearly 90,000 eligible Gainesville voters turned out in the election, according to the Supervisor of Elections Office.
With over 11,000 voters participating in this election, Gainesville saw an increase of about 2% when compared to less than 11% voter turnout in the previous city election.
The election is a result of former Commissioner Gail Johnson announcing her resignation Aug. 23. She left the position due to the retention of city manager Lee Feldman after an investigation into discrimination and retaliation claims as well as her concern over unkept promises in the city.
There were four city employee resignations between May and September, including Johnson, Feldman, city attorney Nicolle Shalley and director of the Office of Equity and Inclusion Teneeshia Marshall.
Johnson publicly endorsed Chestnut at her campaign kickoff in late September. Chestnut was the first Black female city commissioner in 1987 and the first Black female mayor of Gainesville in 1989. Her platform focuses on protecting neighborhoods from gentrification, supporting energy efficiency and reducing violence.
Howland, a new candidate in Gainesville politics, centered his platform around decreasing utility rates, repairing roads, increasing energy production and bolstering other services the city provides. If elected, Howland said he hopes to put words into action by working with the City Commission and community rather than focusing on personal agendas.
Chestnut watched results come in at Starter Space in Innovation Square, located at 747 SW Second Ave.
A crowd including her son, Christopher Chestnut, and three former mayors, Mark Goldstein, Aaron Green and Jean Chalmers, spoke about their respect for Chestnut’s ability to work effectively on the City Commission.
“We have a situation in Gainesville now where the judgment of the City Commission is out of tune with the needs of the community,” Green said. “I think the maturity of candidate Chestnut would assist in a great way in helping them get back on course.”
Chalmers worked with Chestnut during her time on the City Commission and is confident about Chestnut’s ability to work on a team.
“She spent a lot of time out in the community, talking with people and then bringing their thoughts into the City Commission meeting and making sure that their concerns were on the agenda,” she said.
Chestnut said her priority going forward is engaging voters about issues related to East Gainesville.
“I’ll do some of the same things that we did before,” Chestnut said. “The grassroots approach to get out the vote — efforts that we employed here. We will continue listening to people and working hard.”
She said authenticity is key to being a leader.
“This race is about being an authentic candidate,” she said. “This is not about an imposter — and I’m afraid Mr. Howland is an imposter.”
Howland held a watch party at Cypress & Grove Brewing Company, located at 1001 NW Fourth St., where about a dozen supporters watched as results trickled in.
Lara Drondoski, 27, a friend of Howland’s who helped manage the campaign’s social media, said Howland’s lack of experience in Gainesville politics is what makes him special.
“I think that having that nontraditional background allows him to be more in touch with the community as a whole,” she said.
Paul Bradfield, a 35-year-old campaign worker, said Howland will see projects to fruition.
“That is the crux of Matt’s message of getting back to basics,” Bradfield said. “A city government needs to function…It’s not a legislative body where deadlock can be an outcome. People need their lights on. People need their garbage collected.”
Following the election results, Howland said he was optimistic about the runoff. He said as a resident of District 1, which encompasses much of East and downtown Gainesville, it’s important to hone in on economic development on the east side of the city.
“I have spent 10 weeks talking about issues that can help lift up East Gainesville, and I intend to keep doing that for the next two and a half months,” he said.
Scherwin Henry, a candidate who amassed 10.5% of the vote, held a sign outside of the Mt. Carmel Baptist Church polling location. Passing cars were honking at him in support as he waved to get more voters to the polls.
“I’m at peace no matter what the outcome, but I’m feeling very good about winning,” Henry said. “But, you never know until the last vote is cast, right?”
Of the more than 11,000 voters that did turn out for the special election, many were passionate about Chestnut and Howland’s campaigns.
Voters who turned out to the polls for Chestnut supported her long-time involvement in the city and felt she was a good replacement for Johnson.
Jason Davis, a 48-year-old Gainesville resident, was campaigning for Chestnut outside of the Thomas Center Tuesday. He said Johnson’s resignation meant the city lost someone who should still be in their seat, but Chestnut will be a blessing to help restore order in Gainesville politics.
“She’s definitely a strong leader and a good fit for Gainesville,” Davis said. “There is no other name that will be well-known in the city of Gainesville that will give Gainesville what it needs other than Cynthia Moore Chestnut.”
Gloria Taylor, a 60-year-old East Gainesville resident, said she never doubted she was going to vote for Chestnut.
“I want to see a lot of change here in Gainesville,” Taylor said. “We can’t leave that up to our leaders. We have to do something about it ourselves.”
Other voters were excited to see a fresh face brought to a local election.
Maxine Latimer, a 56-year-old mental health counselor and Gainesville resident, traveled to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to vote for Howland. She said she admires his background in education and his love for children.
As Howland’s former colleague at Westwood Middle School, she commended his decision to create the after-school program Youth Combine. She said Howland’s experience with students has provided him the necessary skills to embrace the city’s diverse culture and start bridging the gap between East and West Gainesville.
“[That] is what I want to see in this town,” she said. “Not just Black, not just white, not just Hispanic, not just for the east side or west side. Because if you know about this town, there is an imaginary line.”
Karl Krumm, a 59-year-old Gainesville resident, said he voted for Howland because he’s an outsider to Gainesville politics. Krumm, who was born and raised in Gainesville, said he’s concerned about utility rates and the increasing number of apartment buildings.
“He seems that he wants to tackle it,” Krumm said. “Hopefully we get a new, fresh start and see how things go from there.”
Some voters were concerned over Johnson’s resignation and how a newly elected commissioner would fill her shoes.
Tia Molina, 37, looked for a commissioner like Johnson, who she said was in touch with the people of Gainesville.
“Seems like a terrible job to have but someone has to do it,” Molina said.
Voters can decide between Chestnut and Howland in a runoff election on Jan. 25. It’s unclear which precincts will be open and when early voting will take place.
Meghan McGlone, Omar Ateyah, Bryce Brown, Isabella Douglas, Alexandra Harris, Jiselle Lee, Troy Myers and Alan Halaly contributed to this report.