Nicole Wilson’s swearing-in ceremony Dec. 8 was an emotional one for her and her family — the culmination of months of hard work in an election campaign many people considered a nearly impossible battle. She was running against an incumbent, Betsy VanderLey, a four-year county commissioner.
The political newcomer, however, garnered enough followers and support (57.2%) in the August Primary Election to win the District 1 seat on the Orange County Board of County Commissioners.
“I heard from everybody on both sides of the aisle that I had no chance at all except for a very solid core of residents who live right there in District 1 and believed in my message and were engaged,” she said. “We had no money, there was no opportunity to raise funds like there normally was.”
Candidates were forced to seek alternate modes of campaigning in 2020 because of guidelines established during the COVID-19 pandemic. Wilson enlisted friends and community members to help with her campaign, and many more people volunteered because they believed in her message, she said.
“The lesson is that grassroots efforts still work, the issues to those people, issues that matter, those were the issues that they brought to the table to see how we could formulate a message and get it out without getting people in a room,” Wilson said. “I did tons of Zoom meetings with small groups, we did parking lot meet-ups. … You hear sometimes people who are really embedded in government say things like, ‘Voters don’t pay attention; the public doesn’t know what’s going on,’ and I found the exact opposite to be true.”
She called her husband, three children and parents “the ground troops” of her campaign for their individual roles with graphic design, sign making and sign waving.
“My kids got me used to the web calls and being online — to make sure I did Instagram Live, Facebook Live, online meetings,” Wilson said.
WHAT IT TAKES
Wilson, a 50-year-old resident of the Windermere/Gotha area, has never held public office, but she has the drive to handle the expectations of the role and wants residents to know she is ready for the position.
She has a bachelor’s degree in human services and psychology, as well as a Juris Doctor degree and honors certificate in environmental law.
“I think we’ve learned so much in the last nine months in how to adapt (to COVID-19 social-distancing guidelines), because to see this being done was remarkable. Different departments, different community leaders, could be present, and no one was in the same room. It’s pretty amazing what we can do, but I look forward to being in the same room with the community.”
— Nicole Wilson, District 1 county commissioner
Wilson put her professional career on hold when she had children but found she missed connecting with people, so she taught at their preschool and then became a substitute teacher at Lake Whitney Elementary and SunRidge Middle schools. Her involvement in PTO provided an opportunity to learn about policies and bylaws, and she also joined parents in fighting the county’s road-widening plans near the school.
“That was my first toe in the water of navigating the local government … and trying to advocate on behalf of the parents’ interest and the community’s interest,” Wilson said.
“I carried all of that (experience) with me into the (commission) job,” she said.
Because of her connections with Orange County Public Schools teachers and administrators, Wilson is confident this can help bridge the gap between County Commission decisions and OCPS plans and goals.
Being an advocate for residents is an important role for Wilson.
“I think we are at a very critical juncture with our planning in West Orange County, with our trying to diversify our economy and trying to make sure that the things that make our quality of life what we know and what we love continue and improve,” she said.
It seemed like the right time for her to run for office, she said, after she spoke with folks who had concerns about community connectivity, such as safe sidewalks for schoolchildren and adequate walking and biking opportunities, as well as sustainable transportation options.
“I think also the thing that I heard from people is the lack of public trust in local government,” she said. “I think that we all think that government is mysterious, and we want to know what’s going on behind closed doors.”
Her goal is to be available and interact with her constituents.
“They don’t feel that availability and that they couldn’t participate in the process, being involved, to be heard and to contribute and to be involved in different levels of planning and decisions that affect them in their neighborhood,” Wilson said. “They felt like they hit dead ends.”
To prepare for the position, Wilson has been reviewing folders she created of concerns residents have shared with her. She also is combing through old District 1 emails to get acquainted with issues that had been discussed with the previous commissioner.
“Just because I’m not face to face doesn’t mean I’m not working hard every day,” Wilson said. “And we’re committed to making sure the future of District 1 is what people envision it — that the quality of life and the things they find important I find important.”
She has started doing Friday office hours, she engages in Facebook Live Friday events to meet with constituents, and she is blocking out her afternoons for phone calls with them.
“I want people to know that I’m still here and I’m still available,” she said. “I can’t wait to get out to community meetings.”
She wants to host Webex meetings, which can accommodate up to 5,000 people. She is considering breaking down the meetings by topic so the conversations are more focused.
“If there’s a way (we) can, we’ll find a way to do it,” she said. “I’m feeling very optimistic about 2021.”
Wilson is aware of the unique challenges in District 1, which is experiencing an explosive growth in the Horizon West area. During her campaign, Wilson stressed economic recovery and smart budgeting; poor growth management; and health and safety as her main reasons for running for office.
“I think the infrastructure is just not in place to support the residents that are already there,” she said. “We are continuing to see the construction outpacing the infrastructure.”
Other issues include ensuring all residents have the same access to emergency and public safety services, working on flooding problems and looking at economic drivers following the pandemic lockdown.
“We have so many people in District 1 who rely on our tourist area,” she said. “We have a beautiful area that we want to bring people to. We are going to be going through a difficult time in our economic recovery. … (We need to) make sure we are connecting with, I think, industries that will bring high-paying jobs so those people (in the hospitality industry) can pivot with what they have.”
Wilson’s hope is that her constituents feel connected to her and understand her goals for District 1. She recently hired two aides who will work alongside her in her county office.
“Looking forward, we are one community, we are one district in a great county and we’ll be unified and get things done,” she said.
Wilson said she is excited about a potential project that could alleviate traffic in her district. A private partnership between Brightline, a high-speed passenger rail system, and Walt Disney World is in the works that could bring intermodal transportation to the area.
“They are very interested in partnering with Disney to bring some — not just high-speed component — but also the intermodal so people who are maybe staying in the area have some options for transportation,” she said. “I have been able to hear and see some of their collaborations, and I think it’s very exciting.”
After being sworn in last month, Wilson thanked the community for believing in her and her platform, her family for their support, and her parents for instilling in her a strong moral compass.
“My word is my bond,” she said.
“We learned so much during this crazy process,” Wilson said. “We learned that even with our challenges, we are creative and we are compassionate and that we are problem-solvers to work tirelessly for a better tomorrow. We learned that even under the most difficult circumstances, even when it seems impossible, that when we put our heads together, we can accomplish great things. We learned that most of us want the same things for our families, our communities, that regardless of our political affiliations and we learned that we are in charge of our democracy and that every vote matters.
“I will fight tooth and nail to make sure that District 1 is in the forefront of anything at the district level,” she said. “This is where my children were born and raised, and I’m going to make sure that everything I do — I have our future, District 1 and Orange County in our sight. … I would just encourage everyone to reach out, make contact with us. … If someone had dialog going on and they are worrying about that being left hanging out there, the best way to make sure that’s not happening is to reach out. We will make sure we don’t leave anything undone.
“Now it is time to roll up my sleeves and get to work for you, Orange County,” Wilson said. “I take your vision now and light the path for a brighter future.”
Community Editor Amy Quesinberry was born at the old West Orange Memorial Hospital and raised in Winter Garden. Aside from earning her journalism degree from the University of Georgia, she hasn’t strayed too far from her hometown and her three-mile bubble. She grew up reading The Winter Garden Times and knew in the eighth grade she wanted to write for her community newspaper. She has been part of the writing and editing team since 1990.