Three Orlando city commissioners fight to keep their seats and fend off a slew of candidates in a contentious race

City Council smackdown!

Robert Stuart and Asima Azam face off in District 3
Robert Stuart and Asima Azam face off in District 3

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D1 Treasure Chest:
(Total funds raised as of Oct. 6, rounded to dollar)
Jim Gray: $52,150
Tom Keen: $25,000
Sunshine Grund: $1,194 (self-loan)

Being the city's fastest-growing region is both a blessing and a curse for Lake Nona in District 1. It's led to ventures like the Medical City and the Orlando City Soccer training facility – but that growth has also contributed to pissed residents stuck in the perpetually clogged traffic veins called State Road 417 and Narcoossee Road.

Commissioner Jim Gray, though, says the Southeast Orlando district should continue with him as its representative.

"While not perfect, I think what the market is telling us is they like the lifestyle of the last five years," he says. "Except for a couple months, the district has been No. 1 in the building permits that come out of our area. Look at the results – I'm not trying to take credit for all of it, but we have led the city in new home growth, new job creation, now we're adding parks and bike trails. People like what they see. It's evidenced by the fact that they're moving to the area. Let's keep the momentum going."

Gray, president of the commercial real-estate firm GrayPointe Capital, has been in office since 2012. While his opponents say he's allowed developers to sprawl as far as they want, Gray says he's kept growth in check by requiring developers to reserve land for parks and schools to keep up with the new residents and adding more police officers for the district in the budget.

But Tom Keen, an aerospace simulation businessman who is one of Gray's opponents, says little affordable housing and standstill traffic congestion are among the district's worst problems. To the first point, Gray says affordable housing is something local officials have to work on in the future, especially with the Puerto Rican evacuees expected to relocate to Orlando. Gray has argued the city is already expanding Narcoossee Road from four to six lanes to help with traffic and that the market wouldn't support more buses in the Lake Nona area.

"I think public transportation has to be part of the solution," Keen says. "Giving permanent funding to Lynx would be a good step forward and including more routes so folks can take advantage. We don't need to wait for market conditions. We need to be thinking ahead and putting those things into place."

Sunshine Grund, an environmentalist who ran for Orlando mayor in 2015, says whomever wins for commissioner should focus on preserving the green space left in the district, particularly wetlands. Grund refuses to accept donations.

"My vision is to have a safe, smart and sustainable community that's a great place for people to live, work and play with great green spaces and great parks," she says. "We haven't had smart growth."

A last-minute controversy engulfed the race after a debate where candidates were asked whether they agreed with Dyer's decision to remove a Confederate statue from Lake Eola Park. Gray says he opposed the decision because he felt there needed to be more discussion – out of the 150 people who showed up to City Hall that day, half felt the statue was offensive, while others said the statue was part of their heritage. Keen, though, says he agreed with Dyer because a shameful symbol could discourage potential employers – Orlando should "be a modern city, not some town from the past." Gray says his viewpoint hasn't changed in spite of the national controversy surrounding Confederate statues.

"Had there been a vote, I would have voted no and said let's talk about it some more," he says. "We could maybe explore a solution somewhere in the middle that would have worked for both sides. ... The mayor and I may have different political parties [Gray is a Republican] but he's shown confidence in my ability to run my district."


D3 Treasure Chest: (Total funds raised as of Oct. 6, rounded to dollar)
Robert Stuart: $145,645
Asima Azam: $103,486

*See bottom for editor's note*

Commissioner Robert Stuart's re-election to a fourth term has become the most expensive city race this cycle – and is in the running for most contentious.

Stuart, who also serves as the executive director of the Christian Service Center, was first elected in 2006 to represent College Park and Orlando's northern neighborhoods and has been sent back by voters twice. Stuart says he thinks voters should re-elect him because he’s done nothing but serve his community.

"I think people feel good about Orlando and feel good about leadership," he says. "We need someone who understands the important work we’re already doing on traffic, on the venues on maintaining our lakes clean. …This is my hometown, and I’m going to do all I can to protect it for everybody who’s here. I want it to be a greater place not just for the people who are here a couple years but for my grandchildren, and keep it going this way so we can all be proud of Orlando."

But his challenger, Asima Azam, a local real-estate attorney who has served on several boards, says he doesn't have much to show for being in office more than a decade. If elected, Azam would be Orlando's first Muslim-American city commissioner.

"I feel like Commissioner Stuart sees his position as a figurehead," Azam says. "Commissioners should take active leadership roles and champion policy initiatives – how are we going to bring car crime down, increase affordable housing, fix traffic congestion, help small businesses? I want to be the type of leader who has measurable positive impact and can point to things you've accomplished."

Both candidates talked about the increased need for affordable housing, a dedicated source of funding for Lynx and the need to manage infill development in District 3. Stuart includes among his accomplishments "Operation Lock It Up," where police officers proactively check for unlocked vehicles; making Orlando a Compassionate City that includes compassion into the decision-making process; bringing the Main Street America program to Orlando and putting more officers on the streets. Azam says the “Operation Lock It Up” program is not currently as relevant because of more advanced methods of break-ins, but Stuart says his opponent “has no idea what she’s talking about” and would know more if she attended neighborhood watch meetings before running for office.

Stuart and Azam have gone at each other for months. First, it was Stuart, whose campaign commissioned a telephone poll asking about Azam's religion, though Stuart insisted the question was not framed negatively. Then Stuart's son filed a complaint with the state against Azam for lacking required disclaimers on her yard signs. Azam responded by calling out the commissioner's campaign for sponsoring a Princeton Elementary PTA event where students were given T-shirts with "Vote Robert Stuart" printed on them.

"My opponent claims that this has been a dirty campaign against her and that I have attacked her, but nothing could be further from the truth," Stuart says. "I think she’s spent a lot of her time trying to convince people I’m wrong for the job, but I think people feel good about me."

Azam says if she's elected, she would focus on supporting local businesses, developing strategies for transportation and promoting smart growth around existing neighborhoods that lets their culture thrive.

"I think it’s been pretty clear the direction that my opponent wants to take is to divert the public’s attention from the issues and his record over the last 12 years of not really accomplishing any kind of policy change,” she says. “I think I represent where this community is going, as opposed to where it was. I'm not running as a Muslim candidate or a Pakistani candidate, but I'm proud of my heritage, very proud of how hardworking my family is and proud to call Orlando home."

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include comments from Commissioner Robert Stuart, who reached out to Orlando Weekly after this story went to press.

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