Pensacola, Florida
Saturday July 20th 2019

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County D2 Race Heats Up

By Duwayne Escobedo

For much of last Wednesday night, the District 2 Escambia County Commission debate felt more like a church ladies’ tea party.

Republicans Doug Underhill (the incumbent) and Alan McMillan (the challenger) and Democrat Scott Trotter complimented each other, acted politely and conducted a civil discussion about major issues facing Perdido Key.

The gloves came off, though, near the end of the Meet the Candidates forum, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Florida and Perdido Key Chamber of Commerce. All the warm, fuzzy feelings drained from the Jim Bailey Middle School cafeteria, where a crowd of more than 100 voters watched and listened.

Underhill woke up from his government-ese daze and attacked McMillan, RESTORE Act Advisory Committee vice chairman, for ranking the $17 million development of Outlying Field Site (OLF) 8 in for economic development as his top project. The money is part of reparations paid by BP for its unprecedented Deepwater Horizon oil spill off the Northwest Florida coast in 2010. Underhill made the Perdido Key Bike Path his top RESTORE project.

“Meanwhile, Perdido Key will get pennies on pennies on pennies,” said Underhill, a Perdido Key resident.

RESTORE Act funds come on top of another $1.5 billion in Triumph money from BP to spur economic recovery in the region over the next 15 years.
Asked what he liked best about McMillan, Underhill replied sarcastically, “I appreciate his lifetime of service as a bureaucrat.”

McMillan, who rose to Deputy Assistant Secretary for OSHA during his 45-year career in federal government, swung back. He scolded Underhill, who is seeking his second term, over his controversial Facebook posts and lack of leadership.

“He does not accept people with different ideas than his own,” McMillan, a Perdido Key resident, said.

McMillan added, “He’s on the side of way too many 4-1 votes. He thinks of it as a badge of honor. What he should be doing is leading 5-0 votes.”

Underhill created a firestorm with his Facebook outbursts. Last year, he asked one of his critics if she was “one of those people walking around wearing a vagina hat and screaming in the streets.” He insulted March For Our Lives protesters outraged by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Fla., when he called them “little monsters” and “miscreants.”

Trotter, a latecomer to the District 2 race and political newcomer who lives in Warrington, also took a backhanded swipe at Underhill.

“I will not insult you if you say something I disagree with or think is wrong,” said the former U.S. Air Force budget analyst.

The League of Women Voters controlled the Q&A, giving each candidate 45 seconds to answer 15 questions centered on Perdido Key and 45 seconds for rebuttals, if they wanted. The League also allowed the candidates two minutes for opening and closing statements.

McMillan has outraised Underhill more than 2-1 and outspent him more than 3-1. Trotter has $1,012. Escambia County political kingpins have thrown their weight and dollar bills behind one of their own, the well-spoken and dapper McMillan.

For most of the forum, they stuck to the issues and distinguished their views.

District 2 Issues
One of the League’s questions centered on the Perdido Key Master Plan that dictates growth on the fragile barrier island.

For his part, Underhill boasted about pushing through the master plan. In his second term, he plans to have the Florida Department of Transportation transfer control to Escambia County over Perdido Key Drive along the barrier island and Beulah Road in the northwest part of the county in an attempt to implement key parts of that plan more quickly, such as a pedestrian and bicycle path. Among other things, it caps units at 7,150.

Underhill also took credit for decisions now coming during the commissioners’ meetings instead of being dictated by county staff members “on the fifth floor.”

“You can’t affect change without courage and tenacity,” Underhill said. “I have gotten things done in Escambia County.”

McMillan took issue with Underhill’s plan to swap the roadways with DOT to execute the island’s master plan. He said the streets need state funding for repairs if a hurricane hits.

“I think it’s a bad deal,” he said. “I will work with DOT and move the master plan forward by working at it. As an elected official, that’s what you do—work at it.”

Charles Barnes, who has lived on and off Perdido Key since 1985, supported Underhill’s position.

“He made that master plan happen,” Barnes said. “I will support Doug Underhill in the future.”

McMillan criticized Underhill and the current commission for acting too slowly to submit projects to the Triumph process. State lawmakers released the first $300 million in May 2017.

“We’re getting beaten to the punch by Okaloosa and Bay counties,” said McMillan, who ignored Underhill’s attack on his RESTORE Act decision. “We need to move forward to get money for our projects now.”

McMillan maintained that traffic safety is “one of the biggest issues” facing District 2.

“We need to four-lane Sorrento (Road) from Navy Boulevard to the Perdido Key Bridge,” he said to loud applause. “It’s time to get it done.”

Underhill said he advanced projects to relieve traffic congestion and improve safety in the area. Perdido Key Drive improvements are ranked No. 5 on the DOT funding list for Escambia County, while Sorrento Road ranks No. 7.

“We need to fund them first and special interest projects last or ideally never,” Underhill said.

Underhill throttled the Escambia County School District for failing to create a new high school in the area as it had planned because of school overcrowding. One of his sons attended Pine Forest and the other Booker T. Washington.

He was also unhappy with the school district announcement of a new elementary school on Sorrento, adding to traffic issues, and on land near Naval Air Station Pensacola set aside by the county to prevent encroachment.

McMillan added he would support bringing economic development and new jobs and improving neighborhoods to improve schools in District 2, where the median income ranges from about $91,000 a year in the Perdido Key area to $22,000 in the Warrington area.

Who Will Win Seat?
With the primary fast approaching on Aug. 28, it seems clear the eventual commissioner will be either Underhill or McMillan. Republican voters account for 45 percent in District 2, while Democrats make up 30 percent.

After watching the candidates’ banter, Jimmy Sherouse and his wife, Patty, said their vote will go to the challenger, McMillan.

“McMillan shellacked Underhill tonight,” Jimmy said.

Still, others remained on the fence, such as Perdido Key resident Bill Short.

“They all indicated what their priorities are,” Short said. “Now, I need to sit and think about it.”