District 4: Three against one

I'm not going to a runoff. Incumbents don't go to a runoff."And that is Orlando city commissioner Patty Sheehan's campaign strategy. Win, and win big. She's not polling, she says, because the results might make her overconfident. She's easily winning the money race -- $57,000 as of Dec. 31 -- and has the name recognition that comes with incumbency. "I think the five people who don't like me are running against me, or working for the people running against me."

Naturally, her opponents have a different take.

Since Sheehan took office four years ago, Tom Langford, Sue Macnamara and Michael Hart collectively believe she has been a lightning rod for controversy, which could prove fatal to her political aspirations.

Sheehan is, as history books will certainly record, Orlando's first openly gay elected official. She successfully pushed -- over the impassioned pleas of the religious right -- to include homosexuals in the city's antidiscrimination code, and in the process made an enemy of commissioner Vicki Vargo.

Langford says the issue should have gone to a referendum; Macnamara sees no need for it. Hart is relatively noncommittal.

All three agree the imbroglio between the two commissioners was childish, which is hard to argue. Vargo accused Sheehan of breaking into her office and rifling through papers and changed the locks on her office door for "security concerns." Sheehan removed her office door altogether. Vargo asked that miniblinds be put up so her administrative aide couldn't make eye contact with Sheehan's administrative aide.

"Vicki became her nemesis," says Langford, who counts Vargo among his supporters and speaks admiringly of her fiscal conservatism. Langford believes that, because she's gay, Sheehan should have recused herself from the antidiscrimination vote. "For Patty, the opposition Vicki had was a personal attack."

Sheehan admits as much: "I wouldn't have so publicly scuffled with Vargo," she says, when asked what about her first term she would change. "I did that because it was personal. It's my life. I let her push my buttons."

But when the ordinance passed, on a 4-3 vote after hours of testimony by church groups and gay-rights activists alike, it was a victory for Sheehan, despite the occasional harassing phone call she receives.

"It hurts me when I have the bad times, when people call me a Ã?faggot,'" she says. "I'm gay. Is [Chapter 57] the only thing I've done? No. I don't run from the moniker [of being Orlando's first gay commissioner], it'll be on my tombstone. But I also want to be in the history books for being an effective commissioner. I want to be a role model. It's not just a gay thing."

Langford and Macnamara both campaigned for Sheehan four years ago, and both turned on her within her first year in office.

For Langford, the pivotal moment came about six months into Sheehan's term, when she, along with the rest of the council except Vargo, voted herself a 32 percent pay raise, bringing her salary to $34,000 for the ostensibly part-time job. About the same time, Sheehan quit her job as a Florida Department of Agriculture analyst, after the state transferred her office to Bartow.

Macnamara says she withdrew her support of Sheehan because the commissioner reneged on a promise to hold quarterly meetings in her district and spent $17,000 to study parking in Thornton Park Central, which Macnamara considers wasted money.

And then came sidewalks.

In 2001, Sheehan fought residents of Audubon Park over adding sidewalks to their streets. Sidewalks, the neighbors fretted, would mean more skateboarders and burglars.

"She crammed sidewalks down their throat," Langford says. He notes that when the city redrew its district lines, Audubon Park moved from Sheehan's district to Vargo's.

Langford also opposed Sheehan's fight to ban tandem housing -- two residences on one lot -- in Colonialtown. "In effect, she says, Ã?You're not going to do it in my neighborhood,'" Langford says, pointing out that Sheehan lives in Colonialtown, where the ban was enacted. "It's a violation of the property rights of those who didn't want that."

(Sheehan says that if more neighborhoods sought the ban, she would have been happy to oblige.)

Last year, Sheehan stepped into the fray again, publicly saying that mayoral candidate Pete Barr, Sr. had used the word "nigger" at a private party, and had said that women didn't belong in public office. Barr denied the accusation, but the damage was done.

"She just stirred up controversy," says Macnamara. "I don't believe Patty, no."

"I don't lie," Sheehan responds. "I'm incredibly honest to a fault. I didn't [come forward] specifically to help Buddy Dyer. I didn't want a mayor who had those views. You can't talk that way when you're the mayor of a major city."

And in what Sheehan calls the "year of the angry campaign," she dismisses her opponents' criticisms: "It's a whole lot more fun to lob grenades than to catch them. What are they doing besides lobbing grenades?"

Good question. The answer, at least for Macnamara, is not much. Her campaign strategy, as spelled out in a lengthy interview with Orlando Weekly, is that Sheehan is bad. (The enmity goes both ways; Sheehan calls Macnamara a "pain in the ass.")

Macnamara accuses her rival of showing up to city functions drunk -- "I heard it from another commissioner," she offers as proof -- and trying to use her influence to get out of a traffic ticket.

She even says Sheehan screws up charity, as when the commissioner organized a bicycle-donation campaign for the low-income children of Reeves Terrace.

"I'm the chairman of the [Reeves Terrace/Langford Park Advisory Council]," Macnamara says. "We would have never recommended to give away bicycles over there. She should have given the kids a bus pass. They're riding in the streets without helmets. ...Make those kids earn their bicycles. All it is is a giveaway. It doesn't build character. Patty doesn't have children so she doesn't understand that."

Beyond Sheehan-bashing, Macnamara says she wants quarterly district meetings, and "a bunch of little things."

At 30, Michael Hart is the youngest person in the District 4 race. He's a recent political science graduate from the University of Central Florida, and the only candidate still clinging to a "real job" -- as a bartender at Cowboy's. He's last in fundraising, but says if he loses in March he'll gear up to run for something else, probably in November. (Sheehan says she'll "probably appoint him to a board or something.")

Hart wants to build a world-class parks system, and use Community Redevelopment Agency funds to improve downtown parking and make Orlando a "24-hour city."

"I don't see anything coming out of the CRA that's helping the public good," he says. "There must be a better way to spend that money."

Though articulate and engaging, his ideas are those of a fresh graduate: broad, ambitious and not likely to happen. He'd like to see Orlando institute 24-hour voting days, for example, publicly finance campaigns and install term limits.

Sheehan's most viable challenger is Tom Langford. Earnest, personable and confident, Langford's biggest advantage may be his heritage. His father, Carl Langford, was mayor from 1967 to 1980.

Though he aligns himself fiscally with Vargo, Langford says it was another commissioner -- whom he won't name -- who urged him to run. He says he still thinks of Sheehan as a friend. "This is strictly a business decision."

Langford thinks the Orlando Skate Park Sheehan pushed for should have been abandoned when it became apparent the budget was in the red. And he wonders why the city council has been surprised by Church Street Station redevelopers Robert Kling and Lou Pearlman's fiscal problems, and why the budget deficit Dyer inherited was such a shock.

"[Sheehan] shouldn't rely on staff to tell her anything," Langford says. "Vicki Vargo did her homework. It is [Sheehan's] job to know where that budget stands."

And Langford criticizes the $3.5 million advance the city may give Cameron Kuhn to redevelop the Jaymont block, which Sheehan voted for. "Why are we giving someone $3.5 million?" he asks. "Shouldn't he have some stuff lined up in advance? I have a sense that the mayor or his staff, they want to buy a downtown. I would like to say, I think it should be market-driven, not bought by the city council."

As for his platform: Langford wants a District 4 community center. Other than that, he promises his constituents a voice. "I see my job as a facilitator," he says. "Everybody's going to get a voice. I want the people to tell me what they want."

For Sheehan, a second term is about the potential for greatness, and she's not planning on seeking a third, though "we'll see where that goes," she says. "The city is on that cusp right now, it's at this renaissance. It's exciting being on the council at this time. For all this insane secrecy stuff [mayor Buddy Dyer's] got a lot of good ideas."


Since 1990, Orlando Weekly has served as the free, independent voice of Orlando, and we want to keep it that way.

Becoming an Orlando Weekly Supporter for as little as $5 a month allows us to continue offering readers access to our coverage of local news, food, nightlife, events, and culture with no paywalls.

Join today because you love us, too.

Scroll to read more Orlando Area News articles

Join Orlando Weekly Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.