By Stephen Hudak, Orlando Sentinel
APOPKA, Fla. — Apopka voters decided that it was finally time for a change.
After a historic run by 93-year-old Mayor John Land, they chose a new direction in the name of Joe Kilsheimer, 56, who campaigned on the need for younger, more energetic leadership in a city that had fallen short of its potential.
Land has served as chief executive of Apopka, which means “potato eating place” in a Seminole language, for all but three years since 1949. But he faced a tough opponent who ran an aggressive campaign, relentlessly canvassing voters door to door and pounding home the message that Apopka needed a new direction.
In admitting defeat, Land told supporters, “I love Apopka still, but I’ll probably have a broken heart.”
The mayor said he was “too old to cry” but hurt too much to laugh.
He then flashed back to his days as a soldier under Gen. George Patton during World War II.
“I think about old Gen. Patton — I served in his Army,” Land said. “He had a saying: ‘I wouldn’t give two hoots in hell for someone who lost and laughed about it.’ That’s how I feel.”
Kilsheimer, a former city commissioner, captured 54 percent of the vote to Land’s 46 percent in the most expensive election in Apopka’s history. The mayor spent nearly $100,000, to Kilsheimer’s $40,000.
Kilsheimer’s decisive victory almost certainly ends the political career of Florida’s longest-serving mayor, who also is believed to be the nation’s oldest.
On election night last Tuesday, Land, surrounded by his wife, Betty, and his children, thanked his supporters.
“All the young people here … who worked on the campaign here, it’s been an honor to serve,” he said. “I appreciate that.”
Some in the crowd burst into tears while someone shouted, “Come back in four years!”
At the end of the mayor’s remarks, disc jockey Ralo Flores began playing “The Good Life,” a melancholy song recorded by Tony Bennett that ends with the verse, “Please remember I still want you, and in case you wonder why — well, just wake up: Kiss the good life goodbye.”
A campaign worker asked the DJ to play something more upbeat, and Flores spun Pharrell Williams’ “Happy.”
The mayor’s race in Apopka, a town of about 44,000 in central Florida, captured national attention — most notably because of Land’s age.
At home, it generated a record-setting turnout, with a steady stream of voters at the city’s community center.
After casting his ballot, Tim Ford, 42, said he voted for Land because he’s familiar with the mayor’s accomplishments and not so familiar with Kilsheimer, a former Orlando Sentinel reporter who left the newspaper about 15 years ago.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t bother,” said Ford, a lifelong Apopka resident. “You can see what Mayor Land has done. His opponent, we don’t know. The city is too big to gamble on the unknown.”
Al Suarez, a 15-year resident of Apopka, voted for Kilsheimer.
“I think it’s time for some change, some new blood,” said Suarez, 48.
News of the protracted battle for Apopka mayor spread across the U.S., with stories by ABC News, NBC News and Reuters. But it reached even farther last week when the story hit De Telegraaf, a Dutch news site. Its story was about Apopka’s race for burgemeester, or mayor.
Its translated headline was: “Oldest Mayor in U.S. Wants More Time.”
It wasn’t to be this time around.
But will there be a next time?
“Never say never,” Land said.
Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/MCT