Don't tread on me 

When Vicki Vargo won her District 3 seat on the Orlando City Council last April, it was the two precincts west of Orange Blossom Trail that propelled her to victory.

In a race where 3,463 people voted, Vargo's 529-vote differential in her Rosemont neighborhood was enough to overcome the 245-vote lead that her opponent, Tom Olsen, enjoyed in the combined three precincts east of the Trail.

Because a substantial percentage of Rosemont voters were African American, Vargo, who is white, credits the black community with helping her into office.

"This is the only time in Orlando history where three commissioners have lived west of [Orange Blossom Trail]," the 46-year-old commissioner says. "And that is because of the African-American vote in Rosemont. Their voices were heard."

So it hasn't gone unnoticed to Vargo that another commissioner, District 5's Daisy Lynum, might be trying to extend her predominantly black district north into the same neighborhoods that helped Vargo to victory.

Lynum, who is black, has a handy tool with which to work: redistricting. Based upon results from the 2000 Census, Lynum is in a position to see her District 5 boundaries expanded, while several other commissioners -- Vargo included -- will see the size of their territories shrink.

A citizen's advisory committee appointed by the council on April 2 is the first step toward redrawing the city's six council districts. Vargo's concern is that Lynum has appointed a representative to the committee who lives in Vargo's district. Jacqueline Barr, an administrator with the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority, is the only member of the redistricting committee who does not live in the same district as the commissioner who made the appointment.

It isn't a stretch to think Lynum picked Barr with the purpose of extending District 5 into the precincts that backed Vargo, especially since Lynum is no fan of her council colleague.

Vargo, however, is reluctant to criticize Lynum. "It's unfortunate that a commissioner was unable to find a qualified person in her own district" is all that Vargo will say.

Other commissioners, however, see the message Lynum is trying to send.

"It's a real rub," says District 1 Commissioner Don Ammerman. "Everybody else is conforming to this. But Daisy had a different opinion."

Barr says she has no agenda and no plans to encroach on Vargo's district -- even if the rest of her neighborhood wanted to (which they don't, she says). "It's unfortunate that someone is trying to pull me into something," Barr says. "I have no desire to move into another district. That has never come up."

Barr says that since Lynum first asked her two months ago to serve on the committee, she hasn't heard from the commissioner.

"In fact, I was beginning to wonder if I was still on the committee," Barr says. (Lynum was unavailable for comment Tuesday.)

Even so, you don't have to be a conspiracy theorist to see what some perceive as behind-the-scenes maneuvering by Mayor Glenda Hood, who asserted her own clout by naming not one but three people to the redistricting panel.

If Lynum is indeed plotting to cripple Vargo by claiming a portion of her turf, say some City Hall observers, it makes sense that Hood would willingly go along. The motivation, those observers suggest, would be to eliminate the council's most independent voice, and one that routinely frustrates Hood's desire for consensus and conformity.

In fact, Hood's appointment of the extra two committee members was unprecedented. She did so, she said, to ensure the committee would reflect the city's ethnic make-up, choosing two appointees who were Hispanic to represent the growing minority population.

But those three appointees also give Hood leverage. The three could team with Barr to provide a voting bloc that might be difficult for the rest of the nine-member committee to overcome.

District 1 Commissioner Don Ammerman, for one, doesn't see that happening. "I would be more concerned about the three if I didn't know them," says Ammerman, who was chairman of the city's redistricting committee 10 years ago. "But I do know them." But Ammerman does acknowledge that problems may arise: "Toward the end is where it gets nasty. Fangs may come out. Claws may appear. People will want to defend their strong points."

But not every commissioner is as trusting as Ammerman. When the appointments were made at the April 2 council meeting, District 4 Commissioner Patty Sheehan said she wanted confirmation that Hood's two appointees, Jeanne Rodriguez and Wilfredo Martinez, were, in fact, Hispanic.

After being reassured, Sheehan gave her blessing.

The next day, however, word circulated that Rodriguez isn't Hispanic. She's Italian. Her maiden name is D'Agostino, and she is a longtime Republican loyalist who lived in Maitland for many years. Or so the wags were saying. (At press time, administration officials still were unable to confirm whether Rodriguez was Hispanic. The mayor, according to her spokesman, was in Tallahassee but would call and query Rodriguez herself, and ask that she "graciously step aside" if she wasn't Hispanic. Orlando Weekly could not locate Rodriguez to ask the question for ourselves.)

Sheehan was understandably angry, and the rumor mill began churning at full force. Maybe Hood does have an agenda. Maybe she was using the redistricting committee as political payback.

Such political maneuvering isn't unheard of in Hood's administration, especially at election time, still a year away for Ammerman, Lynum and Vargo. Local elections often are dirtier than the mainstream media reports, with city staffers openly campaigning for candidates, grass-roots political cartoons circulating through African-American churches and enough innuendo, mud-slinging and backstabbing to make "The Sopranos" look like a Rotary Club meeting. In the last election, Hood sent thousands of fliers to Orlando's black community that painted her opponent, family dentist Bruce Gordy, as a racist who was hostile to black issues. The result: Hood won overwhelmingly in Orlando's black community.

Knowing that she's not on the mayor's list of popular people, Vargo knew it would have been naive to blindly embrace Hood's expansion of the redistricting panel.

So Vargo argued that, since commissioners have the most to lose, they (not Hood) should appoint more than one representative to the committee. Vargo even told the council she had "concerns" about Hood's appointment to the chairman's position, Joan Ruffier, a well-regarded businesswoman and former member of the state Board of Regents.

Vargo later said she was worried because people she confides in did not know Ruffier -- even though Ruffier lives in Vargo's district. "I wasn't able to obtain sufficient information where I had a level of comfort with her," Vargo says.

Other commissioners didn't back Vargo, and the matter ended. Hood kept her three appointments. Vargo now considers the issue dead. "I've moved on," she says.

Hood's office, meanwhile, denies the mayor is trying to make Vargo's re-election more difficult. "I can't speak for Commissioner Lynum," says Susan Blexrud, a city spokeswoman. "But the mayor is not after anybody, certainly not in this exercise."


More by William Dean Hinton


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