The UF College Democrats and the Gator chapter of NAACP hosted an in-person 2021 special election debate Tuesday night, allowing students to ask the candidates questions about traffic safety, food accessibility, affordable housing and sustainable energy.
A QR code was projected onto a screen throughout the hour-long event, where in-person and online students could submit questions for the three candidates: Matt Howland, Scherwin Henry and Cynthia Chestnut.
The other two candidates, Patrick Ingle and Gabe Kaimowitz, were invited but it is unclear why they did not attend the debate.
This special election follows the resignation of former Commissioner Gail Johnson, who was elected for a second term in the at-large City Commission seat B last spring. Johnson’s decision to resign came after the city kept city manager Lee Feldman amid harassment and retaliation complaints, although Feldman himself resigned soon after.
Brian Marra, a 20-year-old UF history and English junior, helped organize the event. Marra, who also serves as the political director of UF College Democrats, said students rarely show up for local elections, so he wanted to bring Gainesville’s candidates to them.
“I think it's really important that students [vote],” Marra said. “This is where we live. We're living here and working here, so we can make a local impact by voting in those elections.”
Naiyla Durand, 19-year-old UF environmental science and Chinese language sophomore, helped to moderate the debate on behalf of her organization, the Gator chapter of NAACP.
She said she wanted to participate in the debate because her organization encourages people to inform themselves about local politics.
“We wanted to make sure that everyone had the access to be able to vote, to know about the special election and the importance about voting in this special election,” she said. “And also get a chance to hear from our candidates, especially since we have two people of color in the running.”
The three candidates in attendance, Howland, Henry and Chestnut sat side by side in McCarty Hall, answered questions.
Matt Howland, formerly a teacher at Westwood Middle School, graduated from UF with a history degree in 2009. He taught for several years before he left his job as a teacher to found a youth fitness nonprofit called Youth Combine, which he created to help children build a healthier lifestyle.
On Oct. 28, Howland was endorsed by the Gainesville Sun.
After spending 13 years in Gainesville, Howland moved to Washington D.C. in 2017 where he initially worked on solar power projects. Later, he worked for a military and veteran service nonprofit in public relations. He moved back to Gainesville in 2020 to work remotely. What he missed most in his time away, he said, was the city’s tight-knit community.
Howland said his campaign focuses on decreasing utility rates and growing the partnership between UF and the local government in Gainesville. He is also using his knowledge of solar power to look to the future of sustainable energy in the city.
He said the university could become a better partner with the government. To combat gentrification, he said the university should not develop in areas that will displace those residents, but instead they should develop on land that already belongs to them. The 35 year old said he wants to represent young leaders in Gainesville.
“My platform is that I'm simply a fresh face,” he said.
Scherwin Henry served two terms as a City Commissioner representing District 1, which encompasses much of East Gainesville, from 2006 to 2012. He said he’s been involved in the community for over 25 years.
He said that he chose to return to the City Commission because of the “dysfunction,” the “lack of leadership” and the resignations.
“But, most of all, the separation that's been experienced between the City Commission and the citizens,” he said. “I mean, the city commissioners are there to serve the citizens.”
Henry, a longtime resident of East Gainesville, is running his campaign to focus on historically Black communities. He said he wants to close the food and economic gap between non-Black and Black communities.
“Gentrification is really displacing our historic African American neighborhoods,” he said. “I think there has to be a conversation between the university and the city and discussing the effects of their strategic plan on the neighborhoods that we're talking about.”
Cynthia Chestnut said she came out of retirement to run for City Commissioner. She has garnered several endorsements, notably the commissioner whose seat she’s running to fill, Gail Johnson, and groups like the Democratic Women’s Club of Florida.
“There's much work to be done in East Gainesville,” Chestnut said. “Every politician that runs says that they're going to do something about East Gainesville and nothing happens. [Johnson] was one of the first to really see something substantial. So it would be an honor to continue what she has been able to just start.”
Chestnut has the longest career in public office out of all three candidates.
She served as a City Commissioner, County commissioner and state representative. Chestnut was the first Black woman on the Gainesville City Commission in 1987 and became the first Black woman to be elected mayor of Gainesville in 1989.
She was the former chair of the Democratic Party of Alachua County — a position she had held from 2014 to January 2021.
Chestnut said she’s focused on East Gainesville as well as education. As a state representative, she said she was the one to pass legislation for Bright Futures. She also said she helped pass legislation to put seatbelts on school buses.
“I would look at the city being a very strong participant in after-school programs and collaborating with the school board, so that children can continue their education from the classroom after school,” she said.
There are two locations where you can vote early between Nov. 12 and Nov. 14: Alachua County Supervisor of Elections Office at 515 N Main St., Suite 100, and Millhopper Branch Library at 3145 NW 43rd St.
If you choose to vote on election day, Nov. 16, you must vote at your assigned precinct based on where you live, which can be found here.
Contact Jiselle at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @jiselle_lee.
Jiselle Lee is a journalism junior and The Alligator’s features and investigations editor. Previously, she was a reporter for NextShark and a news intern at The Bradenton Herald. In her free time, she enjoys thrifting and going to the beach.