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Monday, June 17, 2024

Harvey Ward defeats Ed Bielarski for Gainesville mayor

Ward will replace current mayor Lauren Poe

Gainesville mayor-elect Harvey Ward delivers a victory speech to a crowd of about 70 at the Heartwood Soundstage, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022.
Gainesville mayor-elect Harvey Ward delivers a victory speech to a crowd of about 70 at the Heartwood Soundstage, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022.

Harvey Ward defeated Ed Bielarski in the race for Gainesville mayor, securing 57.44% of the votes as of 9:17 p.m. 

Ward will replace Lauren Poe, who held the seat since 2018 but reached his term limit this year. Ward’s victory caps off a contentious race between the city commissioner and the man who he voted to fire — the former general manager of Gainesville Regional Utilities.   

Securing public trust would be a major priority of his term, he said. 

“We need to focus on rebuilding the public trust and making sure that everyone is aware that, at City Hall, we care about every neighborhood and every neighbor and that we are doing the best we can to make a great community here,” Ward said.

Bielarski, a Gainesville resident of seven years, managed GRU from 2015 until Ward proposed a motion for a termination of his contract that was approved by the Gainesville City Commission in January. 

The firing was spurred, according to Ward’s comments at the time, by several failed initiatives under Bielarski’s leadership including an attempt to attain a UF contract and a Florida Power & Light partnership. Bielarski announced he would run for the mayoral seat during the meeting and filed the paperwork soon after.

Ward stood by his support for Bielarski’s termination on election night, but expressed a desire to keep looking forward, noting that regardless of the result Bielarski would not be general manager of GRU.

Ward and Bielarski competed in the run-off mayoral election after neither secured at least 50% of votes during the primary election. The primary election also eliminated seven other mayoral candidates. This election marked the first in 12 years without an incumbent mayor running.

Ward, a District 2 city commissioner who attests to roots in East Gainesville, heralds himself as an advocate for the often-neglected part of the city.

He’s anticipating the renovation of the MLK Center and Citizens Field and the development of a medical complex on Hawthorne road.

“We are poised to start being able to do the renovation on that,” he said of the Citizens Field and MLK Center expansion. “I'm really excited about what that means for our whole community.”

Despite past difficulties in implementation, Ward would continue to strive for a grocery store on the east side. 

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He also champions higher wages for Gainesville laborers and wants to see a $15 minimum wage implemented among companies that contract with the city. He wants to open up opportunities for marginalized workers as well through city construction contracts. 

Ward wants to revitalize some of the city’s public spaces, he said, including Sweetwater Branch and Boulware Springs, to make them welcoming spaces for the community.

Ward’s ascension to the mayoral seat comes amid a city undergoing a reckoning with policing in light of the police K-9 mauling of Terrell Bradley

Characterizing himself as a supporter of law enforcement, Ward seeks to improve relations between the community and police. In expressing support for “community-oriented policing,” he echoes a sentiment expressed by GPD chief Lonnie Scott as he officially took the position over the summer. 

Ward garnered 13 endorsements from organizations, including The Gainesville Sun, Equality Florida, Young Democrats of Alachua County, Human Rights Council of North Central Florida and the Central Labor Council of North Central Florida (AFL-CIO).

Ward declared victory at Heartwood Soundstage, located at 619 S Main St, as he handily defeated Bielarski. On stage, Ward thanked his supporters but also struck a conciliatory tone toward those who hadn’t favored his campaign.

“For everybody who has not been a part of this, everybody else, I want to earn your respect and your trust over the next four years,” he said.

Prior to managing GRU, Bielarski worked as a certified public accountant. His campaign focused on lowering utility rates, affordable housing and renewable energy. 

One of his most notable goals was adjusting the GRU transfer to the city’s general fund, or the money diverted from GRU to support city resources. 

Donning his signature purple color, Bielarski accepted the election results amid a crowd of supporters and multicolored twinkling lights at Depot Village. 

Bielarski, who has no political party affiliation, suspected he had lost the election because he did not express a partisan focus in his campaign. Even Bielarski’s signature color was a reference to his independent affiliation. 

“I'm truly an Independent. I'm not a Republican. I'm not a Democrat, and I didn't espouse the dogma in either one of the parties,” Bielarski said. “I suspect that was my downfall. If you mix red and blue together, you get purple.”

Bielarski reported $64,248.63 in monetary contributions to his campaign and $61,003.64 in total expenditures and distributions, according to Supervisor of Elections data.

David Bielarski, one of Bielarski’s two sons, attended the watch party to support his father. Since the beginning of his father’s campaign, the 32-year-old has been offering any support possible, whether it be moral support or helping put up signs. 

“It's a shame that it looks like the race is turning out the way it is,” David said. “He really wanted to do a lot of good for the people, especially the people that have a hard time paying some of those high GRU rates.”

David’s dad is his hero, he said.

“I think a lot of people really look up to him,” he said. “I think you can see that in how his employees have really looked up to him and stood up for him through a lot of trials and tribulations in this city.”

George Johnson, who is retired and lives in downtown Gainesville, voted for Bielarski in the election because he feels the city needs Bielarski’s business background and knowledge of the utilities budget. 

“He is the first person that has ever tried to lessen the amount that they take from utilities to run the city with,” the 71-year-old said. “If Harvey Ward gets elected, it's gonna be the same thing they've been doing, which is spend, spend, spend.”

Mickenzie Hannon contributed to this report.

Contact Melanie Peña and Omar Ateyah at mpena@alligator.org and oateyah@alligator.org. Follow them on Twitter @MelanieBombino_ and @OAteyah. 

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Omar Ateyah

Omar Ateyah is a third-year journalism student and the Alligator's Race and Equity reporter. He previously served as the Alligator's crime reporter and as a news assistant on the Metro Desk. He enjoys going on long, thoughtful walks. 


Melanie Pena

Melanie Peña is a second-year business and journalism major. When she's not designing a graphic or writing an article, she's probably making jewelry or exploring coffee shops in Gainesville.


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