A tale of two candidates

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She's a 47-year-old Republican real-estate attorney living in a modest Democratic neighborhood in northwest Orlando, an administrator at heart who grew up in a struggling Michigan family with four younger brothers. She moved to Florida when she was 21, worked in sales for NCR for a couple of years, then put herself through law school at the University of Florida.

He's a 31-year-old Florida State University graduate, the youngest of four children from a well-connected Orlando political family, a public-affairs executive for the largest transportation company in the region, a Democrat living in a mansion in a Republican community.

More than any of the other candidates in Orlando's three council races to be decided March 12, Vicki Vargo, the District 3 incumbent, and Roger Chapin, her challenger, are contradictions in personality and lifestyle.

Together they've held the best public debates of the municipal election season, knocking heads 10 times in the last month. (By comparison, District 1 candidates have appeared jointly only three times; District 5, none.) Between them they've raised over $100,000 in campaign contributions; Chapin $73,000, Vargo $41,900.

On the campaign trail, Vargo comes across much as she does at council -- as someone's no-nonsense older sister who won't buckle when faced with tough decisions. At a public forum hosted by a gay and lesbian business association, Vargo endured several unhappy people who wanted to know why she hadn't signed a pledge to endorse a city ordinance prohibiting job and housing discrimination based on sexual orientation. The ordinance will be much discussed this spring as it winds through city government.

Gay leaders seized comments Vargo made at the end of the forum -- statements in which she said, "As a group, you're a bright, creative people who bring a lot to the community. In fact, I'd like to have some of you move into my neighborhood because you're immaculate homeowners" -- as evidence that she doesn't understand gay issues. Vargo, however, shrugged off the controversy as an attempt to force her to bend to the group's wishes.

"I will not make an emotional decision," Vargo says. "I absolutely refuse to allow emotion to play a role in my decision-making. In essence, that's what they were asking me to do. My response was, show me the evidence. It can't be a case here or a case there. I need to see some level of discrimination as there are with other groups, like African Americans or people with disabilities."

Chapin, on the other hand, is anything but stoic. He is relentlessly upbeat, telling his audiences how glad he is to be on the campaign trail. He is among the best-prepared candidates in this election cycle, using documents and obscure traffic studies as props during debates. More than the other seven candidates, he often deploys self-deprecating humor to let people know he's an average guy. During a discussion about the expansion of Interstate 4, Chapin described a type of neighborhood-friendly pile driver called a giken (pronounced geekin), which, he pointed out, should "not be confused with what they called me in high-school."

On the stump, Chapin occasionally has invoked his mother Linda's name. She is the former Orange County chairman and clerk of courts who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2000. After Vargo said she meets one-on-one with some county commissioners as an attempt to bridge differences between city and county governments, Chapin responded by saying he's "been meeting with county commissioners since my mother was elected as one in 1986."

However, as Chapin acknowledges, his family name cuts two ways. College Park, where he lives, is Republican dominated; Linda Chapin is a Democrat. Even though city elections are nonpartisan, many voters are unlikely to forget party affiliations. The Republican Vargo, meanwhile, already has proven her ability to win the support of her neighbors in the Democratic enclave of Rosemont.

Chapin usually begins his campaign speech by emphasizing that he is the challenger, which "by definition means I have something to challenge," he says. Traffic is the main problem in District 3, which includes Rosemont, College Park and sections of north-central Orlando such as Audubon Park and Orwin Manor. Chapin has scored some points for his criticism of the planned re-striping of Edgewater Drive from four lanes to three as part of an overall traffic-calming solution for College Park's main thoroughfare.

As Chapin points out, the project was supposed to have begun already and Vargo should have gotten better feedback before agreeing to the change. Vargo emphasizes that the project is an experiment and can be easily converted back to four lanes. She relied heavily on the College Park Neighborhood Association and Merchant Association for input. Chapin says she should have alerted more businesses and residents that the change was coming. "Many people are confused about the project," he says. "Or worse, they think it's a bad idea."

Less convincing have been Chapin's attacks on Vargo for being a developers' handmaiden. To make his case, Chapin has pointed to Vargo's votes on tandem housing and community-development districts.

Vargo was amenable to curtailing the practice of tandem housing, which allowed large homes on small lots. Then she changed her mind when the city surveyed neighborhoods and found that College Park residents favored that type of infill development. Vargo could be accused of flip-flopping. But the survey, though unscientific, surprised many city officials. It showed no mandate for curbing tandem housing, even in Colonial-town, where the anti-tandem ordinance originated.

Chapin also isn't likely to score many points with community-development districts. The districts, established by state law in 1980, allow developers to finance large developments (typically, those over 300 homes) by forming quasi-governmental boards that can issue bonds used to build infrastructure. The Orlando Sentinel has been on a mission to tag the districts as fraught with peril, claiming -- without much evidence -- that they decrease government revenue by generating lower property taxes than other types of developments. Chapin says the city has been "handing [the districts] out like Halloween candy."

In fact, the City Council has approved six community-development districts. Only one of those, Baldwin Park, is in District 3. Three of those districts were approved in the last three months. But no one appeared at council to oppose them, and commissioners voted unanimously in approval. In other words, there doesn't appear to be enough interest in community-development districts for them to be used as a wedge issue.

Chapin's strategy makes less sense given that Vargo has the strongest reputation on the council as a neighborhood advocate. At the Feb. 11 council meeting, Vargo and commissioners Don Ammerman and Ernest Page queried representatives of Frito-Lay who wanted to build a warehouse distribution center next to a neighborhood along John Young Parkway at Country Club Lane. It didn't matter to the commissioners that the warehouse wasn't in their districts. Each wanted to know if Frito-Lay could move the warehouse loading docks to the building's east side so neighbors would be less inclined to hear truck noises. Vargo went so far as to say that maybe Frito-Lay should consider a smaller warehouse since it appeared to her that the one proposed would cause too much traffic congestion and noise.

Vargo knows about such things because Rosemont is one of the more densely populated neighborhoods in Orlando. South Rosemont is also home to the Center of Commerce, the largest industrial park in the city. Vargo says she can hear Nabisco trucks beeping as they back into loading bays near her home.

Additionally, Vargo's legacy is that she ran for office when she learned that the city wanted to develop the old trotter's track, Ben White Raceway. "I went ballistic," she says. "It pushed me over the edge. I ran for office because of overdevelopment and the negative impact on neighborhoods. That was my agenda and that is a continuing major concern as we grow as a city."

Still, Vargo hasn't always shone in her two years in office. Before Christmas she returned a gift given to her by District 4 Commissioner Patty Sheehan, who has endorsed fellow Democrat Chapin in the race. Returning the gift made Vargo look petty and perhaps led to the Sentinel's calling Vargo politically immature. Vargo says returning the gift, a lapel pin, was a mistake, though she also says that the gift disturbed her because it was identical to other gifts that Sheehan gave.

"No one is perfect, including myself," Vargo says. "However, it does trouble me when someone is an open hypocrite. I would have preferred her to send me a holiday card like I sent her rather than giving me a gift that had no meaning."

Vargo is easily the council's most independent voice, having voted nine times in opposition to Mayor Glenda Hood during her two-year tenure. (She finished out the four-year term of Bruce Gordy, who stepped down to run unsuccessfully for mayor.) Those nine votes opposing the mayor are the most of any commissioner since June 1, 2000, when Vargo joined the council with Sheehan. (Ammerman is second, having voted against the mayor's position seven times during the same time span.)

Vargo is also the most conscious when it comes to the state's Sunshine Laws. Before, during and after council meetings, she stands out of the way as other commissioners pass so she isn't seen talking to them. Other council members often pay lip service to the law, but huddle together or whisper during meetings, making observers wonder if they are discussing city business, which would be a violation of the Sunshine Law.

"People mentoring me told me to stay in my cubby hole and do my job," Vargo says. "So that's what I've done."

District 3 voters will decide Tuesday whether that job was good enough.

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