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Thursday, November 30, 2023

Following 10 weeks of campaigning, Cynthia Moore Chestnut won the Gainesville special runoff election Tuesday by 244 votes. Chestnut led with nearly 51% of the 12,280 ballots cast while Howland had about 49%. The city’s voter turnout for the special run-off election was about 13.6%, a 0.55% increase compared to the November special election. 

The head to head special runoff election between seasoned politician Cynthia Chestnut and newcomer Matt Howland, fizzled out Tuesday night when Howland surrendered.

Chestnut watched her win surrounded by former city commissioners, family and supporters at Cypress & Grove Brewing Company. After conceding, Howland gracefully shook hands and thanked supporters before leaving his Opus Innovation watch party at 9 p.m. 

Following 10 weeks of campaigning, Chestnut won the Gainesville special runoff election Tuesday by 244 votes. Howland conceded at 8:32 p.m.

Chestnut led with nearly 51% of the 12,280 ballots cast while Howland had about 49%, according to preliminary results. Out of the 90,080 eligible voters, only 12,280 voted, or 13.6%, a 0.55% increase compared to the November special election.

Chestnut and Howland initially faced off in November when they ran in the Gainesville special election against three other candidates for City Commission At-Large Seat B. Gail Johnson set off the special election with her resignation in August. No candidate received more than 50% of the vote, making a run-off election necessary. 

When Chestnut walked into Cypress & Grove for her election watch party, more than 40 people greeted her.

The majority were elderly voters and wore layers to curb the cold rain outside. 

Christopher, Chestnut's 42-year-old son who works as a lawyer, said his mother’s campaign spoke about her core as a public servant. He believes people are frustrated and find that local government can be more efficient. 

“Her candidacy was not something that was calculated or anticipated; she was retired,” he said. “I am very proud.”

Donning a brown crochet hat, former city commissioner Gail Johnson waited among the crowd for results. Thrilled to be there, Johnson said she believed in Chestnut’s leadership. 

“There was absolutely no doubt that I was going to support Cynthia Chestnut,” she said. “She’s gonna win. She can’t not win; she has to win. The future of our city depends on it.” 

Cynthia Chestnut watched results pour in for more than 30 precinct votes – eyes glued to the computer screen.

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When 31 precinct votes were counted, Chestnut formally addressed the crowd for the first time of the night, a few minutes before 9 p.m. 

“Four precincts out and it ain’t over till the Black lady sings,” Chestnut said. 

Not even five minutes later, Chestnut announced she had won. She began to thank her team and took victory photos with attendees of all ages. 

One of the first things Chestnut said she would do is set up meetings with the staff and citizens. Individual meetings with city commissioners were also being considered. 

Voters flocked to the election sites to cast their vote for the next Gainesville city commissioner before polls closed at 7 p.m. 

Grenville Barnes, a 68-year-old Gainesville resident of more than 30 years, voted for Chestnut at the Millhopper Library Branch in District 3.

He voted for Howland in November, but said he decided Chestnut was the best choice for his community in the end.

“It was quite a toss up,” Barnes said. “Now we've sort of gathered more information and I mean, just weighing things up. It seems like we need diversity.”

Joanne Auth, a 76-year-old Duckpond resident of 36 years, knows Chestnut personally as a neighbor. Auth headed to the District 4 polls at the Thomas Center.

Chestnut’s political experience set her up for success on the city commission, Auth said.

“I have always felt that Cynthia had integrity and was straight with you,” she said. 

Auth doesn’t count Howland out of local politics just yet. 

“In a couple of years he could be an excellent city commissioner,” she said. “I hope he will go to and listen to city commission meetings for a couple of years to really get a sense of the history and the complexity of the city.”

Howland hosted his watch party from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. inside Opus Innovation, a coffee shop in the Innovation District. About 35 supporters attended — half wearing masks — bundled in scarves and jackets. Howland tried to greet every supporter, volunteer and staff member who walked through the door.

His campaign knocked on nearly 8,000 doors throughout the city, campaign manager Claudia Tio-Cartagena said.

The grassroots strategy was almost enough to overcome Chestnut, who Howland admitted is a legend and dynasty. 

Coming to a realization before official results, he conceded at 8:32 p.m. 

“It’s a nail biter. It’s very close, but the one thing we know is that there are not enough votes remaining to overcome,” he said. “So, it looks like this is going to be it.” 

As the night wrapped up, he graciously shook hands and hugged attendees, thanking each supporter.

These results were not what Howland hoped for, but he said he would not change a thing about his campaign. 

“No regrets,” he said. “Came within a couple hundred votes, and we did it the way we wanted to do it. I’m super proud.”

Unsure of plans to run for office again, Howland said he wants to help other candidates with their election kickoffs, like Danielle Hawk, an attendee who is campaigning for Florida’s 3rd Congressional District.

“I’m going to help them win,” he said. “I’ll be happy to help anyone. Good people with good hearts and big ideas.”

Howland’s supporters emphasized their belief in the newcomer at the polls earlier that day. 

Makaya McKnight, a 42-year-old Gainesville resident, voted for Howland at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville polling location in District 3. 

McKnight was born and raised in Gainesville, and some of the issues that are currently plaguing her community have been around her whole lifetime.

“It’s very important to vote in local elections, especially because voter turnout is usually very low in them,” she said.

Another supporter of Howland, 65-year-old Patti Hill, lives up the road from the North Central Florida YMCA in District 2, where she cast her vote. Howland’s goals align with hers, she said.

“I really hope that he can do something about the electric,” Hill said. “I think he has good ideas about solar.” 

Hill was reminded about the special election after hearing it on the news while making dinner. She recalled the election last fall, when she also voted for Howland.

“I did research between the two candidates, and I chose him because he seemed more young, more innovative,” Hill said.

Chestnut will focus on lowering the costs of utilities in Gainesville during her term.  

Troy Myers, Thandie Brown, Carissa Allen, Erina Anwar, Melanie Pena and Jiselle Lee contributed to this report.

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