- March 3, 2023
If you are walking down the street in Ocoee — and you run into Mayor Rusty Johnson — he’ll likely greet you with a smile and maybe even strike up a conversation.
“I love talking to people,” he said. “You’ll be surprised about the people you can meet when you are open to talking to them.”
At City Hall, in downtown Ocoee, at a coffee shop or even at Target, Johnson will stop and talk to residents whenever they approach him, and that’s one of the things he loves about the way local government works — or at least the way he loves to serve his city.
“If you walk (into City Hall) to see me, if you want to talk to me, I am going to talk to you,” he said. “I was in Target the other day and a lady came up to me (because she wanted to talk), and of course, I am going to talk to her. We spoke for about half an hour.”
A DAILY ROUTINE
In the seven years he’s served as mayor for the city of Ocoee, Johnson has developed a routine that works for him — even though sometimes it may be altered by unexpected events.
Usually, he wakes up at 7:30 a.m., prepares himself — and his wife, Marilyn — a nice cup of coffee. With coffee in hand, Johnson sits at home for a while and talks to his wife about the things that are lined up in his schedule for that day.
“I go through my emails and texts to see what I have to do,” he said. “If there is something really important that has to be done, I work on that.”
Even though every day ends up being different, Johnson usually leaves his house at around 8:30 a.m. and takes time out of his every-day routine to head down to City Hall, where he gets the daily scoop of what’s taking place there — and in the city. Sometimes, he’ll get together with City Manager Robert Frank to talk about potential future projects.
At about 2:30 p.m., Johnson usually heads back home to have lunch in a family setting. There, he listens to music for a little while he figures out what he will need to do — or where he will need to go — next.
Talking to developers takes a part of Johnson’s days more often than not, as he gets constant requests for meetings where potential future businesses may be discussed.
“I don’t tell them what they are supposed to do, but I sit down with them, and I listen to them and what they want to do (for the community),” he said.
As mayor, Johnson’s main goal on a daily basis is helping people and making sure they are happy living in Ocoee.
“I meet with people who are looking (to get approval) for permits,” he said. “(Whether) that is permits for their fence, building their house and stuff like that.”
A PASSION FOR SERVING
Despite what some may think, Johnson was not always involved in politics. In fact, he developed a passion for serving his community later in life.
His first candidature for commissioner of the city of Ocoee came as a result of an interaction with a neighbor when Johnson saw his neighbor’s truck parked on his yard and a few of his sprinklers broken.
“I went to City Hall to talk to the (back then) city manager,” he said. “He said (I didn’t) pay 25 cents worth of taxes, so I went home to my wife and told her, ‘I am going to run for office.’”
A city of Ocoee resident since he was 10 years old, Johnson has seen his city grow exponentially with the passing of the years to the point where he feels proud of the way the city functions.
“Our city has progressed and grown as we have brought in more people,” he said. “You grow along with the people who move here (from elsewhere). You don’t want to sit still; you want to make it so you move forward with everybody else. You learn from other people, their heritage, their lives and what they do.”
One of the things that allow Johnson to feel pride in what his years of serving his community have done for Ocoee is how the workforce opportunities have expanded as more and more job openings become available thanks to the incorporation of newer businesses within the city limits.
“Before, you had to go to Winter Garden to find a job,” he said. “Now, (people) can get jobs here and live in our town, raise (their) children and maybe one day, (their) children may have a job here, too.”
He says this from experience given that when he was 14 years old, he worked as a bagger in the old Winn-Dixie formerly located in Winter Garden, where he spent four years until he graduated high school.
HIS IMPACT IN THE COMMUNITY
Johnson’s wife, Marilyn, has been a huge supporter of his political career since the beginning.
His wife is a huge help when it comes to everything campaign-related, and she even worries on a daily about his temper, as she knows his day revolves around talking to people. The reason? Johnson suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, which originated from the two years he spent serving in the military during the Vietnam War.
“I’ve seen things that you won’t see in your everyday life,” he said. “My problem is, I have a short temper, so my wife — bless her heart — she reminds me every day (to stay calm).”
After seven years in office, serving as the mayor of Ocoee, and his previous years as commissioner for districts 1 and 3 (from 1986-1997 and 1999-2015, respectively) Johnson said the one thing he has learned — and the most crucial one when it comes to effectively executing his duty with the community — is patience.
“I don’t have a lot of it, but I try,” he said. “(There’s some stuff) that tick me off. … I can get mad really quick; sometimes I take things to heart. … But, I know exactly how to treat people; my parents taught me that. I want people to know me.”
GOALS FOR THE CITY
Johnson plans on running for office again this year; he would love to serve the Ocoee community for another term.
Born in Savannah, Georgia, Johnson moved in 1965 to Oakland when he was 9 years old. He lived there for a year before moving to the Ocoee area at age 10. Today, he sees the city of Ocoee as the place that saw him grow — and the place where his family has established its roots.
“I want it to be a place where citizens are proud of the kind of town we have,” he said.
Part of his vision for the city is to expand the downtown area and bring more businesses, such as DG Doughnuts.
“To do that, we have to have people living in downtown,” he said.
Hence, Johnson has hopes — and is looking forward — to develop condos in the surroundings of the downtown area similar to those that were built in Winter Garden. He also wishes to add a parking lot space to be able to fit all the people without creating any cluster in traffic.
“My thought process is that we have to grow all the time, because we can’t sit still,” he said.
Over the years of marriage with his wife — and through his love for music — Johnson has realized music brings people together and helps create everlasting memories with family and loved ones.
Because of this, he analyzed how the Ocoee Lakeshore area could serve as a place where families could gather and experience beautiful moments together.
“Our lake is our selling point,” he said. “If you put an amphitheater there, you could have live music there on Friday nights and have people listen to live music. You can even have kids running around down there, bring your blankets, sit outside.”
However, whether or not he gets elected during this upcoming campaign process, Johnson will remain in Ocoee, enjoying life with his wife and his family.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he said.