Big money flows into Winter Park elections

The three-way race for Seat 2 on the City Commission is also proving a tight financial contest

Feb. 28, 2024

By Beth Kassab

Money is flowing into Winter Park elections, with five candidates for two open seats raising a combined $200,000 so far, and about half of that still on hand to spend before the March 19 election.

The biggest money is pouring into the three-way race for Seat 2 on the City Commission.

Craig Russell, a teacher and coach at Winter Park High School and first-time candidate, raised $49,128, according to the most recent reports filed with the city clerk last week. That figure was enough to overtake the $41,952 raised by Jason Johnson, an attorney and also a first-time candidate, who was the early money leader in the race.

The Winter Park Chamber of Commerce announced earlier this month that it would endorse Russell and his contribution records show a $1,000 check from the chamber’s political action committee as well as donations from other business leaders associated with the chamber.

Notably, at least $8,000 in contributions are from businesses owned by or associated with the Holler family, which owns car dealerships and Winter Park real estate. Individual checks are logged from Holler Honda, Holler Hyundai, Holler Driver’s Mart, Classic Mazda and Audi among others, according to the reports.

Frank Hamner, an attorney for the Hollers, gave two separate checks of $1,000 a piece on Jan. 16 and Feb. 16, both marked as individual contributions. Hamner said in an email message that one of those contributions was “misclassified” on the report and was actually from his law firm rather than a personal check. Each individual and business is limited to $1,000 maximum per cycle.

Strong Persuader Arms, a gun store on Wymore Road owned by Hamner, also contributed $1,000 on Feb. 16.

The combined total donations related to Hamner and the Hollers adds up to $11,000 or more than 20% of Russell’s total contributions.

The Holler family or corporations affiliated with the family own prominent land along Orange, Fairbanks and Park avenues that could one day be redeveloped. The family also was at one time involved in a lawsuit against the city of Winter Park, arguing that commissioners improperly overturned the original Orange Avenue Overlay zoning rules.

Hamner said the Hollers’ support of Russell evolved because they know him as a leader in the community from his work at the high school and his nonprofit Army of Angels.

“The property they own and plans for that property have zero to do with supporting Coach Russell,” he said, noting that Russell is “a great leader” and an “impressive young man.”

Russell told the Voice, “I am no more beholden to developers than I am to the other citizens of Winter Park, including our police, firemen, nurses, young professionals and others who can’t enjoy Winter Park because there’s nowhere for them to live.”

At a candidate forum hosted by the Chamber of Commerce, he said he was open to the idea of revisiting the original overlay plans.

At that same forum, Johnson said he was not interested in revisiting the OAO.

A mix of well-known names contributed to Johnson, including Full Sail University CEO Ed Haddock and his wife Edye, who each gave $1,000; a $1,000 from former Winter Park Mayor David Strong; $1,000 from former gubernatorial candidate Chris King and $1,000 from former U.S. Congressman Alan Grayson.

Noting that his opponents have surpassed him in fundraising, Johnson said he doesn’t believe the race will be decided on money alone. He said he’s been focusing on talking with as many voters as he can in individual and small group meetings.

He is the only candidate who lists detailed expenses for coffee with voters or stakeholders such as Police Chief Tim Volkerson and former Mayor Terry Hotard and sponsoring a golf tournament for Dommerich Elementary.

“I’m not trying to win the battle of the mailers,” Johnson said. “Getting in front of people and talking to voters is really, in my opinion, where this race is won.”

Mailers appear to be a key strategy for Stockton Reeves, who has sent at least eight to voters homes so far.

Reeves, the executive director for the Center for Public Safety who also ran for a Florida House seat, has brought the most money into his campaign account with more than $69,000 so far. But the bulk of that total — $53,000 — is in the form of loans from himself to his campaign. That means he’s raised just $16,000 from other contributors.

He received $250 from David Albertson, a former citrus grower and real estate investor who was one of the original founders of the Orlando Magic and $250 from Mike Clelland, an attorney and former Democratic member of the Florida House among others.

Reeves declined to answer questions about his mailers or fundraising because, “I will be giving away our strategy for the final few weeks of the campaign.”

With less than three weeks until Election Day on March 19, vote-by-mail has already started and early voting at select locations will begin on March 4 and run through March 17.

Sheila DeCiccio, who is leaving Seat 2 to run for mayor, is the clear money frontrunner in her race. She has picked up nearly $40,000 in contributions and spent more than $25,000 so far, according to reports.

Her contributors include $1,000 from King, the former gubernatorial candidate, Strong, the former mayor, and Alan Keen, an attorney and developer.

Michael Cameron, who is running against DeCiccio and owns a real estate school, has raised $4,971 and has spent nearly all of that on a political consultant called Panoplia Consulting Group started in 2022 by former Republican state house candidate Jeremy Sisson.

Panoplia’s web site describes itself as a firm that “exclusively serves Kingdom-focused candidates who are called to serve their communities in a civic capacity.”

The site calls on candidates to “put on the full armor of God” and says, “We equip our clients with the armor and weapons necessary to do battle in the political arena.”

Cameron, who has not appeared at any public forums and also skipped a private forum at the Mayflower senior living community, did not respond to questions from the Voice.

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