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Brace for the finish 

By Jeff Truesdell

So this is what it means to have a choice:

Bruce Gordy, candidate for Orlando mayor, blames Glenda Hood for throwing roadblocks in his way during the six years he's served on the City Council -- years during which projects dear to his College Park constituency languished.

Mayor Hood, confronting her first serious threat in three campaigns for the office and the defection of half of her remaining council colleagues to Gordy's camp, blames Gordy for not pushing harder to be heard.

Let the finger-pointing begin.

Since 1984 Orlando's mayoral campaigns have been distressingly dull affairs, mostly because there were no real contests to start with. The winner -- Hood in 1992 and 1996, with predecessor Bill Frederick coasting to a second and third term before that -- was never in doubt. During Hood's last run, voters were so bored (or, worse, ignored) that just 12 percent cast a ballot, nudging the de facto leader of America's 30th-largest metropolitan area back into office with a measly 7,492 votes.

But it's apparent now, as the candidates pick up the pace of their joint appearances leading to the March 14 election, that something vital is finally at stake -- though what, exactly, is still a little unclear.

New visions certainly were not on the line when the two, plus grass-roots campaigner Tom Levine, answered questions Feb. 7 in a packed church sanctuary turned over for the occasion to the College Park Neighborhood Association. Interstate 4's expansion to 10 lanes through College Park stirred the most comment, with Hood telling residents it's up to them to alter the impact, and Gordy taking credit for the organized effort that has already done so, reducing the number of potentially destroyed homes from 120 to 20.

What of the need to spark downtown's dead retail core? The desire of nightclubs to stay open later? Where were the ideas to counter the millions of city dollars spent with no result in the low-income Parramore area? Those issues would have to wait.

But unlike a Jan. 26 meeting of the South Orlando Kiwanis Club -- where, observers said, Hood and Gordy had to be stopped just short of pulling each other's hair -- when the barbs flew, they were at least clipped and precise.

Asked what could be done to expand a program of street closings in South College Park, which still feels threatened by traffic and crime that spills off Colonial Drive, Gordy bragged that it was he who overcame city staff objections and pushed for six years to put the original program in place. When it was her turn, Hood said: "I just have a question for Mr. Gordy. Why did it take you six years to bring it to the council?"

"Because you were the mayor," he replied, to cheers.

In campaign brochures and a TV commercial that the better-funded Gordy began airing last week, the councilman and College Park dentist is running against the status quo, with two main targets. To a lesser extent, he says, money put aside by Hood to build a downtown performing-arts center is ill-spent. But his outrage centers on Hood's revival of a light-rail line, now abandoned, which she championed even after the Orange County Commission bailed on the project and dumped it solely in the lap of Orlando taxpayers.

Caught unawares by Hood's 11th-hour action on rail, Gordy uses both projects to portray Hood as a bull-headed executive who bars others from her decision-making. His mandate is change.

Hood's defense is almost nonchalant.

She and Gordy split on the last light-rail vote, but he backed light rail four out of five times previously, she says correctly. (The difference, Gordy notes, is that in earlier votes, a regional line was funded by both the city and county; Hood's final action, without the county's partnership, proposed a line that stretched only from downtown to Belz Factory Outlet World.) Moreover, while Gordy emerged only weeks ago as Hood's chief council critic, she notes that during his tenure he -- along with the rest of the council -- has backed her proposals almost every time. Her mandate is to stay the course.

That leaves Levine. The free-lance outdoors writer is firmly against the I-4 project; says it's not the mayor's job to promote tourism or build a performing-arts center; and sees no need to work with the Orange County chairman.

"If we don't have an angry mayor, if we don't have an I'm-not-going-to-take-it-anymore mayor, then four years from now we will not have a city worth living in," he told the College Park crowd. He also said he wants the job "because it pays good," and vowed, "I want to become known as the mayor who sleeps around," pursuing offers to move in with residents to share their burdens for days at a time -- "depending on the quality of cooking, of course."

His laugh lines have not translated into dollars, which is not the goal for an unfunded candidate who says his rivals will make "a collective half-million dollars disappear with nothing to show for it." Indeed, the latest fund-raising reports show Hood with more than $273,000, and Gordy with more than $302,000.

In a Feb. 3 visit with gay and lesbian professionals, Hood reiterated her message that those who seek change must band together to pursue it. At issue were domestic-partner benefits -- extending health and medical care to the partners of gay and lesbian city workers -- and civic protections against discrimination in matters such as housing and employment.

Still stinging from the rhetoric that filled the council chambers in June 1998 over a privately financed gay-pride flag display, Hood told the Metropolitan Business Association that it was their job -- not hers -- to bring such matters forward. But if they did, she assured, they would be reviewed by city officials.

Recalling the flags -- which the council let fly not because they liked the message, but because organizers followed the city's rules to secure the display and council members feared a lawsuit if they intervened -- Hood said, "That did more to divide people … than I ever anticipated it would."

Tom Dyer, publisher of the gay newspaper Watermark, thanked Hood for her civility. But he added, "I wanted someone in an official capacity to say, ‘These people are part of our community. We value them.' Nobody ever said that."

Replied Hood: "I apologize for that."

The deadline is 5 p.m. Monday, Feb. 14, to register to vote in the March 14 election. Call the Orange County Supervisor of Elections office at (407) 836-2070.


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