County district 1 race heats up with familiar names, big donors

  • Candidate
  • Peggy Choudhry
    Peggy Choudhry
  • Jose Alvarez
    Jose Alvarez
  • Mike Harford
    Mike Harford

Three well-known political names are squaring off in the race for Osceola County Commission district 1 ahead of the 2020 election.

Unlike city races, Osceola County elections are partisan, meaning nearly all candidates are affiliated with a political party. Residents must live within the district where they wish to vote.

District 1 sprawls along Osceola County’s westside and covers the bustling U.S. Highway 192 tourism corridor. Attractions like Old Town and Margarettaville fall within its boundaries, along with the affluent community of Celebration. District 1 also encompasses the rural and historically low-income neighborhoods of Campbell City and Intercession City near Poinciana.

Peggy Choudhry is a first-term commissioner, elected in 2016, who is battling two fellow Democrats this year to keep her seat. She will face off against Michael Harford, the two-term commissioner she defeated four years ago, and Jose Alvarez, the mayor of Kissimmee.

Because all three are Democratic, the district 1 election may be decided in the August primaries if no opponents with a different party affiliation file to run.

Peggy Choudhry

Choudhry made her career as a hotel owner along U.S. 192 prior to her first run for public office. She successfully courted big donors in the hospitality and tourism industries before cinching her 2016 victory. She now serves as a consultant to the hotel industry.

Choudhry has positioned herself as “the people’s commissioner.” She’s created multiple citizen-led committees, including one for students, and hosts regular town hall meetings in her district.

“I’m getting the input and experience of residents all the way from fifth graders to senior citizens,” Choudhry said. “It’s essential to incorporate them into our decisionmaking process.”

Concerns about homelessness and a lack of social services for those living in pay-by-the-week motels led Choudhry to propose a one-stop emergency crisis resource center in Osceola County in 2018.

Fellow commissioners denied Choudhry’s multiple requests for $1 million in government seed money, though her efforts mobilized a group of active followers who regularly spoke at public meetings in support of the idea.

In February 2019, the Salvation Army pledged to partner with Choudhry to open the resource center.

But Choudhry’s stance on homeless issues has evolved over time. In 2017, she supported an ordinance that bans homeless camping in public places – particularly in her district along U.S. 192. Enforcement is left up to the discretion of the Osceola County Sheriff ’s Office, but violators can face a $500 fine and up to 60 days in jail.

Choudhry’s donations

Choudhry is leading the way in campaign donations for the district 1 race, with $78,612 in contributions, according to the Supervisor of Elections Office.

The commissioner has drawn tens of thousands of dollars in donations from tourism-related businesses, including Marriot, Treasure Island Resort Wear and Gift, Gator Inn, Palm Motel, Spirit of the Swamp in St. Cloud, Central Florida Hotel and Lodging Association, BA Gift Shops and Al-Marah Arabian Horses.

Disney and its business subsidiaries backed Choudhry with at least five different $1,000 donations.

She also snagged funds from local downtown Kissimmee businesses like 3 Sisters Speakeasy and the Kissimmee Diner.

Her fundraising efforts include donations from some political hopefuls, including Alex Barrio, candidate for Florida State House Seat 43; Barbara Cady, who is vying to defeat Choudhry’s fellow commissioner, Fred Hawkins Jr., in the 2020 State House Seat 42 race; and Marcos Lopez, one of four candidates running for Osceola County Sheriff.

Jose Alvarez

Kissimmee’s current mayor, Jose Alvarez, became Choudhry’s first opponent when he filed to run against her in January 2019.

Alvarez is wrapping up his second term on the City Commission and is term-limited from running again in Kissimmee in 2020. There are no term limits for County Commission.

Alvarez, who moved to Osceola County in 1997, made his career as a Realtor. He now owns a local real estate company where he works as a licensed real estate broker.

Alvarez said he wants to take lessons learned in Kissimmee and apply them to ongoing issues at the county level, such as road improvements, better housing options and more job training opportunities.

In an email, the government official touted accomplishments in Kissimmee during his tenure on the commission, including a vibrant downtown and refurbished parks.

“I get things done and this is why I believe I’m most qualified,” Alvarez wrote. “I challenge anyone to compare our records.”

Alvarez’s donors

Jose Alvarez is running a close second behind Choudhry in total campaign donations with $66,070, according to online records.

Alvarez has championed economic development at the Kissimmee Gateway Airport during his time as mayor. He voiced strong support for the creation of a failed charter school shuttered by the School District in December 2018 before the end of its first semester.

Several Kissimmeebased aviation companies, including Sky Way Enterprises and Kissimmee Aviation Services, donated to Alvarez’s campaign in November and December.

Alvarez repeatedly represented the city in Tallahassee during legislative sessions to advocate for bills benefiting local government. According to the Supervisor of Elections, the mayor received $850 in campaign contributions from Tallahassee lobbyists last year.

Alvarez’s donor list also includes well-known local politicians and familiar names like Viviana Janer, a recently re-elected Osceola County commissioner; Angela Eddy, who serves alongside Alvarez on the Kissimmee dais and is vying to take his seat as mayor in 2020, and Atlee Mercer, a former commissioner who spearheaded the Fix the Traffic! political action committee aimed at raising sales tax in Osceola. The proposed sales tax increase was killed by voters in 2019.

Alvarez received two $1,000 donations from Mosaic, the development company tapped in late 2015 to create apartments and retail space as part of a $65 million revitalization project in downtown Kissimmee.

Real estate firms and agents also boosted the mayor’s donor rolls, with contributions from Old Kissimmee Realty, the Real Estate Gallery and Robles Realty International.

Both Choudhry and Alvarez show donations from engineering firms, construction companies and developers.

Michael Harford

Money isn’t everything, according to Mike Harford, the former two-time county commissioner looking to re-claim his seat from Choudhry. At $7,472, he’s raised a mere fraction of the campaign donations garnered by his opponents. His modest contributions include a $2,500 loan to himself.

But Harford, an Osceola County native, said he likes it that way.

“Money doesn’t matter to me,” he said. “I think money coming into campaigns forces you to seek out big dollar donations and then, as far as I’m concerned, you’re beholding to those big dollars.”

As a retiree, Harford said he doesn’t need to worry about his career taking time away from serving as a government official.

But Harford admits that fewer funds can make running a political campaign challenging. He said he plans to rely heavily on grassroots efforts and has launched what he calls an “Open Mike Tour” to speak with voters at community centers, churches and local businesses.

Harford said smart growth is one of his major goals, with an emphasis on improving infrastructure and law enforcement.

Harford served as a sergeant in the U.S. Army during his youth before returning to Florida to act as a union leader. He went on to serve on the Osceola County School Board before running for County Commission in 2008.

Harford has been involved in local politics since the 1980s, but said he doesn’t identify as a career politician. Instead, he thinks experience and historical perspective is what Osceola County needs right now.

“I’ve seen what’s worked and failed in this community,” he said. “I think there’s a lot more work that needs to get done. And if voters believe in me, I’m here to serve them.”