Cynthia Chestnut wins Gainesville City Commission seat in narrow victory

·4 min read
Cynthia Chestnut smiles as she is interviewed after winning the open seat on the Gainesville City Commission in a runoff election on Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022 in Gainesville.
Cynthia Chestnut smiles as she is interviewed after winning the open seat on the Gainesville City Commission in a runoff election on Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022 in Gainesville.

Cynthia Chestnut, with decades of experience serving in elected offices, defeated a political newcomer in a hotly contested runoff election on Tuesday for an open seat on the Gainesville City Commission.

The runoff in the special election at-large Seat B seat pitting Chestnut with Matt Howland was tight all night long, with Howland ahead by a narrow margin after early voting results. But Chestnut then came back to hang on for the win.

The seat, which opened when former commissioner Gail Johnson resigned, has a term that ends in January 2025.

Cynthia Chestnut smiles as she speaks after winning the open seat on the Gainesville City Commission in a runoff election on Tuesday.
Cynthia Chestnut smiles as she speaks after winning the open seat on the Gainesville City Commission in a runoff election on Tuesday.

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In unofficial results, with 35 of 35 precincts reporting, Chestnut received 6,256 votes, or 51% of the vote, to Howland’s 6,012 votes, or 49%. Voter turnout was 13.6%.

The runoff was needed because neither candidate got enough votes to win the seat outright in the general election on Nov. 16, when five candidates split up the votes to give none an outright majority. In that race, Chestnut received 46%, or 5,400 votes, compared to Howland, who garnered 41%, with 4,840 votes.

Chestnut, who has served as chairwoman of the Alachua County Democratic Party, became the first Black woman elected to the Gainesville City Commission in 1987. She served as Gainesville city commissioner from 1987 to 1989, and mayor from 1989 to 1990.

She also represented the 23rd District in the Florida House of Representatives from 1990 to 2000, and served on the Alachua County Commission from 2002 to 2010.

During the campaign, Chestnut said her campaign is focusing on neighborhood preservation and lowering electric bills in Gainesville. She said Tuesday that a top priority is finding a way to lower or at least stabilize power bills, which are causing financial hardships for many families.

The city this year transferred $36 million of utility revenues to the city’s general budget, a $2 million reduction from the prior year. Chestnut says the city may need to reduce the transfer even more.

“There is some belt-tightening that needs to be done,” she said.

Her campaign supporters gathered at Cypress & Grove Brewing Co. to watch the results. Jason Davis was among them.

“We definitely got somebody who can restore Gainesville and give Gainesville what it needs,” she said. “We definitely know that she is dependable and very experienced in her job and she is a future leader.”

He said he trusts Chestnut to work to lower the city’s electric bills.

“She definitely has an ear to hear (constituents) and has great concern for what is going on here in the city of Gainesville, and she is ready to respond to the people’s needs and concerns,” he said.

Howland, a former history teacher at Westwood Middle School and founder of a nonprofit after-school fitness program, said he is not sure if he is going to run again for a commission seat.

“Good question but I don’t know,” he said. “Lots of people have asked me that, even back in October, November.”

He said Chestnut was not making a realistic campaign promise by saying she would lower utility rates, pointing out that the City Commission has already voted to increase the rates in next few years to cover debt.

“You can promise lower utility rates tomorrow, but it’s not going to happen,” he said.

He said adopting solar projects is the best way to reduce electric rates in the long run.

Howland said he did his best during the campaign to be honest and stick to the issues.

“I’m really proud of our team and our supporters,” Howland said. “I told everyone from the beginning that we are going to stay positive. We are only going to talk about the issues. We’re not going to go negative.”

A resident of downtown Gainesville, Howland serves on the Downtown Strategic Plan Advisory Group and works for military and veteran service organizations.

He knocked on 8,000 doors during the campaign, he said.

Howland watched the results come in at at Opus Coffee-Innovation Square, where he held a “Celebrate Democracy” event where people made speeches and to watch the campaign results.

DeJeon Cain, who said he plans to run for the District 3 commission seat, said Howland was the better candidate. “We need fresh ideas. We need new blood at City Hall. Matt is a proven leader.”

This article originally appeared on The Gainesville Sun: Gainesville election: Cynthia Chestnut wins City Commission seat

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