Interview with Virginia Whittington – Candidate for Orange County Commission, District 6
Conducted by: West Orlando News Online
Date: April 17, 2014
WONO: Ms. Whittington, could you please introduce yourself? Who is Virginia Whittington and why are you running to become the next Orange County Commissioner for District 6?
Virginia Whittington: I am a lifelong resident of Orange County Commission District 6. I have lived here all of my life, attended Orange Center Elementary in District 6, and Tangelo Park Elementary, Westridge and Walker middle schools. I graduated from Jones High School. So I am a lifelong resident, mother of four, grandmother of seven, and wife. I am an Elder at the Hope Church.
Currently, I am the Director of Regional Partnerships at MetroPlan Orlando, the regional transportation planning agency that plans the transportation future of Central Florida – Orange, Seminole, and Osceola counties. I have been there for 17 years and essentially, I am responsible for oversight of all of the services. So, for example, when our Board of Directors comes together to make decisions, it is my team’s responsibility to prepare them for those board meetings. Also, I provide oversight for all of our public engagements, public involvement, and media relations for the organization.
Prior to MetroPlan Orlando, I worked at the Orange County Budget Office for six and a half years. I have some experience with Orange County government, in particular the Office of Management and Budget.
I am running for Orange County Commissioner because I am a very concerned citizen in terms of the community in which I live and have come to enjoy living in. My decision to run was not one of those decisions where I got up in the morning and decided, “I’m going to run for County Commissioner.” It started for me about eight years ago when the current commissioner was elected and I began to look at the lay of the land and see who’s next and a voice inside of me said, “You’re next.” There were some personal goals that I had set that I wanted to accomplish. I’m a strategic thinker and a strategic planner and I set myself on a course to seek the office of County Commissioner.
One impetus for running happened when I was sitting in a meeting where Harris Rosen was speaking. He talked about how he’d gone back to his childhood where he grew up and he took his children. He wanted to show them his humble beginnings, where he had come from, and wanted to give them an appreciation for where he is now. That kind of caught my attention and it challenged me to do the same thing. So, I began going home a different route from work. As I drove past my childhood neighborhood on Orange Center Boulevard, I saw buildings boarded up with fencing around them – the buildings are in foreclosure – and I realized my childhood had been bashed because of what the area has now become.
I went to a number of other areas and places and didn’t like what I saw. Added to that, where I live now, when I purchased my home 17-years ago there was a grocery store that we could walk to close by. That store is now closed and I’m living in a food desert. The shopping center is experiencing vacancies and businesses are continuing to close. It’s one of those things – either you are going to watch it, or you’re going to do something about it . And I decided to do something about it.
WONO: Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer in his recent State of the City address talked about diversifying the economy and making the city more tech oriented. And Mayor Jacobs too, has underscored diversifying the economy and branding Orange County. You are running in a largely poverty-stricken district with a low-skilled base. What are your thoughts on diversifying along tech lines? How would you go about creating a higher skilled workforce?
Virginia Whittington: We are at a very pivotal moment and have the opportunity to do just that. We are in the middle of the Creative Village development which is downtown Orlando and there is a synergy that is being created in West Orange County with what is happening in Lake County. There is what’s called Wellness Way, which is what they are looking at out there. So, that creates an opportunity for us to develop an enterprise within this particular area, possibly in the Hiawassee/Pine Hills area. We have a lot of empty infrastructure and so looking at opportunities that will be a nexus between what is happening in Lake County and what is happening in downtown Orlando, we can create that synergy here.
Now, how do we do that? We have to work with the Economic Development Commission and identify businesses that want to relocate to Central Florida and pitch District 6 as an option, and not an area that is bypassed. Oftentimes we are overlooked because of the stigma that comes along with being in such a poverty stricken area, as you classified it. We have to be able to reverse that trend. We have to work along with the Economic Development Commission and also create an opportunity for the human capital to be ready when the jobs come.
Working with organizations like the Urban League, Jobs Partnerships of Central Florida, where I’ve been a jobs counselor. I’ve worked as a facilitator there – and I say work, but it is more like volunteering for the last 14 years – preparing people to re-enter the workforce, or to gain better employment. I’ve worked very closely with that organization and we have to do more of that. And there are other programs within the district that can do the same thing.
I met recently with some individuals who talked about the culinary program at the Orange County Jail where inmates or offenders are being trained to go back into the workforce upon leaving jail. So, we need to offer more of these programs to prepare the workforce.
WONO: At the Forum last month, you expressed concern for businesses leaving the west side of Orange County. Why is that? And what plans do you have to bring businesses back to the West Side?
Virginia Whittington: First of all, in this area, there is a stigma of being not only poverty-stricken, but also crime ridden. We have to work hard to overcome that stigma and must hold the media accountable too for that. A lot of what happens in the Pine Hills area goes across the airwaves and makes people afraid. It also permeates into those business owners who have to make decisions as to where they should locate. If I have to make decisions to locate in an area that is poverty-stricken and crime ridden versus one where there’s not a lot of that, I’m going to go where I feel safe. We have to work with the media to help Pine Hills and other areas within the county overcome the stigma, so that business owners and companies are willing to take that risk. If they don’t feel confident they will be able to produce a black bottom line, then they’re not going to come. So that is one of the ways.
WONO: The vast majority of jobs in Florida, including in Orange County are low-wage jobs in the services sector. There’s been a lot of talk recently about raising Florida’s minimum wage, to $10.10, the proposed Federal minimum wage. In fact, bills have been filed in Tallahassee. Some argue that increasing the minimum wage would drive up prices and slow job growth, while others say it will spur economic growth. Do you think that the minimum wage should be raised?
Virginia Whittington: There is a consequence to everything that we do. If you leave the minimum wage where it is you have families that have to work much harder in order to provide for their families. If you increase the minimum wage you have the businesses who will say that the costs are going to be borne by the consumer, at that point. I believe that if we could raise the minimum wage at the Federal level then it should be consistent at the State level and at the local level as well. I’m a supporter of increasing the minimum wage. You know, I have family members who are working day-to-day to make an honest living and it is difficult. I was very surprised to see that there were at least four legislators that were going to live on the minimum wage for a week. I was encouraged by that because experience helps you to be able to support the decisions that you are making.
WONO: Crime remains a problem in Orange County, including in District 6. We have seen within the matter of six weeks, two law enforcement officers gunned down. What do you think can be done to help reduce crime and improve the quality of life for residents?
Virginia Whittington: I am an advocate of collaboration, cooperation, and partnerships. Our law enforcement agencies are very important for keeping our residents and communities safe. The more crime is perpetuated and the more crime that is reported on the news, then people are afraid to come. As a matter of fact, I was having a conversation recently with some folks who had just moved to Florida from Upstate New York and they were surprised at the news reports. They were surprised at the amount of crime that is being reported. Everybody thinks that this is the happiest place on earth, but it is incumbent upon us as a community to work together on community policing programs that advance neighborhood safety. We need to make sure that homeowners are not afraid to see something and report it. I think that it is those types of programs that help to target and ultimately reduce crime. Also, we have to make sure that our men and women who are responsible for public safety have the equipment that they need as well, to perform the jobs that they do out there. So we have to be very strategic in how we do that.
WONO: In your campaign platform you talk about creating sustainable neighborhoods and that can mean several things. I want to zero in on one aspect – that is the gentrification taking place in the District. There are lots of changes taking place and although Orlando receives 59 million tourists many in the District feel left out. In fact, many are being forced out because of the higher cost that come with gentrification. What’s your message to voters who feel this way and what will change if they send you to the Orange County Commission?
Virginia Whittington: I think a lot of times we as a culture and community are reactionary to things that happen. We hear about it and it is too late. One of the things that I am very interested in is making sure that voters and residents are informed, that they are engaged and participate in the process so that when these things happen we are included in the process. Residents need to be involved and make their voices heard, so that they don’t feel like it’s an over and done deal. I believe that if we bring about more inclusiveness, then we are able to demand that as these changes occur, there’s input in it, and residents are a part of what’s going to happen in the future. I think that a lot of what we experience is because we have not been engaged enough and informed as to what is happening. These decisions are happening during the day when residents are working at minimum wage jobs. So, an elected official can play an important role in informing, engaging and empowering the residents to be a part of the process and that’s what I intend to do.
WONO: As a follow-up on that, do you think there’s a balance to be struck between growth and development on the one hand and maintaining some stability for the people who have lived their lives in this particular area, on the other hand?
Virginia Whittington: Yes, we need that balance because we need some semblance of growth in order to prosper. I don’t know any neighborhood that has remained stagnant that has been able to move forward. You can’t remain stagnant and at the same time grow and prosper. But there does have to be a balance to it.
The situations that we are seeing in downtown Orlando is where most of the gentrification is happening. It’s necessary because, you must have those components into our economy so that it creates a tax base so that services can continue to be provided for the citizens and residents. Here’s an example: In Eatonville you don’t have as much growth there because, a direct effect of the double homestead was to take a lot of the homes off of the tax role. So when this happened there’s not a lot of revenue coming in to realize the growth potential that actually exists there. So it’s necessary. But, there has to be a delicate balance so that communities don’t lose their identity and lose their ownership, and we still are able to grow and prosper.
WONO: One of the challenges faced by Orlando and Orange County is the growing homeless population. In fact, Mayor Dyer mentioned it in his State of the City address. What are your thoughts on how the challenge of homelessness and affordable housing could be tackled?
Virginia Whittington: It continues to grow. On any given night 9,200 homeless people are in the streets – that is the number I’ve heard. Of course that takes in the chronic homeless, it includes families in transition, and our veterans who have served our country and are back here. I have been following the Commission of Homelessness that is now forging a brand new program called Rethink Homelessness. Their goal is to change that trend in terms of the number of homeless people that we have on the streets.
There is no magic bullet. There is no one person, or there is no one organization that can do it. I believe that the solution requires a wraparound, holistic approach. For instance, the chronic homeless are usually the ones who are suffering from some type of mental illness or substance abuse. So they are unable to have gainful, meaningful employment that would sustain them once they are put into housing. Then you have families in transition – their homes have been foreclosed, they couldn’t afford the rent, so they are living in hotels. They are not living in the streets but they are classified as homeless.
The U.S. Housing and Urban Development has suggested that you target putting the homeless in housing first and also providing essential services such as, medical care, training to help them get jobs, helping them get a higher education, among other services. So it takes a holistic approach because it’s not just the fact that someone is out in the streets; there are other factors.
So, my answer is partnership and collaboration, continuing to work with the organizations and make sure that they have the funding that they need to help address the homelessness challenge.
WONO: Transportation and transit issues are very close to you. On May 1, SunRail will begin operating officially. Will this new transit option help to ease the burden for those residents in District 6 that depend on public transportation? And if not, what can be done and does LYNX have a role here?
Virginia Whittington: There is an indirect benefit to SunRail. It is by far an essential component to the transportation system in Central Florida. It is a game changer. It moves the needle to Central Florida and Orange County becoming a world-class location. The direct effect to those commuters is commuter rail. It means it is bringing residents from the north and the south into the Central business district and it takes them back home. That is number one.
The indirect benefit is that it gives access to employment, education, and healthcare to those who are not directly on the line. It will require connections to be made from District 6, so we are not completely outside of SunRail. There has to be a feeder bus service that gets people to that train. The majority of residents who live in District 6 would have to take a bus to get to a SunRail station. The connections are there, and so if need be, they can get there.
My concern, or focus, is making sure that those that need to get to work have more efficient transportation to go to International Drive, to the airport, to Sea World, to the attractions, without having to come to downtown Orlando to do so.
WONO: As follow-up to that, how do you see LYNX and its role in providing more efficient transportation in terms of getting residents to other places not necessarily along the SunRail route. And do you think LYNX should have a dedicated source of funding?
Virginia Whittington: We absolutely need a dedicated source of funding for transportation in Central Florida. We’ve been discussing it and reviewing options for a number of years. There is no person that I know of who does not think that the need is there. How that need is met is the question. There are several options, but I don’t see it happening in the very near future. It’s needed, but it may not happen for some time.
The County went for Mobility 20/20, fourteen, fifteen years ago. It’s time to have that conversation again, but what that looks like may be different this time. So absolutely, I am a supporter of dedicated funding, it is definitely needed. The timing may not be right.
WONO: April is Child Abuse Prevention Month. There’s story after story about children who are victims of neglect, physical abuse and sexual abuse. In fact, Orlando/Orange County is notorious in terms of human trafficking. What are your thoughts on how this might be tackled?
Virginia Whittington: That is a very interesting question. Just yesterday, there was a news report of two young men who were caught with a young girl they had kidnapped. We have to pay close attention to that happening in Central Florida. There are organizations that are designed to look at and monitor that in our community, and again we need to make sure that the funding is there for them to be able to do what they do.
It is incumbent on a county commissioner to raise awareness of the issue. We cannot turn a blind eye to that fact because, it is happening right here within Orange County and District 6. So I think it is up to us to raise awareness, to work with our legislators to make sure that law enforcement has what they need to be able to go after the offenders and hold them accountable for those incidents that happen.
There must be too, a role for parents and guardians. It “takes a village” to do things like this. There is parental obligation; there are school obligations. I have a non-profit organization called Awesome Ministries and each year we give away prom dresses to girls. This is not just about these young girls coming and grabbing a dress off the rack, snatching it, and running off with it to go to their prom. We spend a significant amount of time speaking with these girls, encouraging and empowering them. We talk about the dangers of human trafficking, the dangers on the Internet, how they could be that person and how they should be aware of it. We talk to the parents about things like that as well.
We discuss the importance of relationships with their family, and their parents, and to have a mentor as well. All this lessens the likelihood of someone falling victim if they are aware of these issues.
WONO: Residents and voters would like their elected officials to be more accountable to them. If elected, how would you hold yourself accountable and what will you do differently from your predecessor?
Virginia Whittington: One of the things that I called attention to in the last forum was the need for bi-directional communication within the district – informing the residents of what is going on. For example, when there are opportunities to serve, residents should know that there are vacancies on boards and residents should be made aware of projects that may affect them by having more information put out. I plan to have district days where I will go out into the district and interact with residents. I’m not talking about just going out to home owners association meetings. There will be some of that, but I will hold district days where I will go out and work with the residents to tackle the issues that concern them.
WONO: What are your thoughts on the Juan Lynum – Regina Hill race? Lynum the son of the incumbent commission, who said he is running on building on his mother’s legacy, in a three-way race was rejected by six in ten voters, and Hill, who has had a troubled past? How do you percieve the Lynum-Hill runoff election?
Virginia Whittington: My thoughts on the District 5 race are like those on the race in District 4, Orange County, and the thoughts that I have on the race on District 2, Orange County. When you look at the constituent base we all serve the same constituents and whoever ends up in this seat, in District 5, District 2 in the County, and District 4 in the County, I will have to work with them and I plan to do that. So with that as the background, it’s incumbent upon us to meet the needs of the people that we serve and that is how I’m going to answer that question.
WONO: Final question: How is your campaign going? And why should voters in District 6 elect Virginia Whittington as their next Orange County Commissioner?
Virginia Whittington: My campaign is going very well. I have been excited from day one. I continue to be excited with the amount of support that I have received from the voters. We qualified by petition six months ahead of the deadline. I have a wonderful team of volunteers who are helping with the campaign. Each day that we get closer to the election, I am more encouraged that I am on the right track and that the people are supportive of the areas that I intend to focus on as the next commissioner. And that is first and foremost, transportation; to make sure that we have efficient transportation. We deserve better transportation so that our residents can get to work without sacrificing precious time with their families by spending two, three, and four hours on a bus to get back and forth.
Next, by looking at our neighborhoods and transforming them with the help of the residents so that that transformation does not leave a person feeling as though they are being pushed out and things are being thrown at them, but that they are a part of the process.
Thirdly, to make sure that we have better economic development and small business development opportunities in the district that leads to those sustainable communities that you talked about. When I talk about sustainable neighborhoods, I’m talking about a neighborhoods that have the components that breathe life, where a neighborhood is thriving and not responding and reacting to being cast down, or poverty-stricken. I’m talking about economic vitality, where people are participating and are happy to call this place home.
So, better transportation, better neighborhoods, and better small business and economic development opportunities. That is what Virginia Whittington is bringing.
People should vote for Virginia Whittington because she cares. I care about my neighbors, I care about the residents of District 6, and I care about not just District 6, but I also understand that District 6 is not an island on its own, but that we are part of the whole. I’m able to work with the commissioners who will be seated at that dais with me; the Mayor included, and the State legislators who serve at the legislative level.
MetroPlan Orlando has afforded me a wonderful opportunity to be able to work with them, so I know them by name, they know me. There is no learning curve there. We are able to work together to solve issues that are coming to us. So I believe that I’m going to be able to get things done and that the people will realize tangible results after eight years.
I’m just happy to be able to serve. This is about service for me. This is not about a job. If I wanted a job I would keep the one that I have. So this is about serving the people.
WONO: Thank you.
Virginia Whittington: Thank you, too.
MORE ON VIRGINIA WHITTINGTON
Virginia L. Whittington Director of Regional Partnerships for MetroPlan Orlando, the regional transportation planning agency for Orange, Seminole and Osceola Counties. Virginia is responsible for overseeing board services, regional partnerships, and all aspects of community outreach and public involvement. She is the staff liaison to several Advisory Committees including the MetroPlan Orlando Municipal Advisory Committee, the Central Florida Regional Transportation Funding Task Force, the Central Florida MPO Alliance and the Florida Urban Transportation Coalition. Before joining the MetroPlan Orlando staff, Virginia worked for Orange County Government in the Office of Management and Budget.
Virginia has called Orlando and District 6 home all of her life. She is married with three children and seven grandchildren. She is an ordained Elder at The Hope Church and is the founder and volunteer director of A.W.’S.O.M.E. Ministries International (a faith-based, community outreach organization). A proud graduate of Jones High School, Virginia received both, her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, from the University of Central Florida, School of Public Administration.
Virginia’s community service includes the Workforce Central Florida Youth Advisory Committee, the Central Florida Urban League Community Strengthening Initiative Advisory Committee, the Orange County League of Women Voters Transportation Committee, the Urban Land Institute – Central Florida Chapter Programs Committee and facilitator for the Jobs Partnership of Central Florida. She is also a former member of the Orange County Citizen’s Review Panel and Orange County Planning & Zoning Commission, District 6 Commissioner. Virginia is a member of the Central Florida Chapter of Women’s Transportation Seminar (WTS), Orange County League of Women Voters, Urban Land Institute, Central Florida Urban League Tiger Bay Club of Central Florida, and the NAACP. Virginia is also an alumni member of Leadership Orlando Class 45, Class Chair of Leadership Orlando Class 79, and a graduate of the 2012 Business Force, Political Leadership Institute.
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