Linda Stewart’s Tallahassee Tourism Two-Step

Let us tell you one of the worst-kept secrets in Florida politics right now. 

Term-limited Democratic State Senator Linda Stewart is planning a run for the Orange County Commission, a body she served on before making the jump to the Florida Legislature. This might not be very noteworthy news outside Central Florida — except for a scandal now enveloping Stewart, the county government, and Florida’s tourism industry.

Stewart was originally elected to the Orange County Commission as a sort of populist grassroots candidate who rode her bicycle all over the district to talk to voters. She cut her teeth by speaking up for the environment and standing up to developers. But becoming a Tallahassee insider has changed her.

Public dollars have long been used in central Florida to subsidize publicity for the tourism industry through entities like Visit Florida and Visit Orlando. If that makes you ask, Why are taxpayers paying for the publicity investment of corporations like Disney and Universal Studios? — you are not alone.

But it turns out, the industry doesn’t like that question. Linda Stewart was there to try to help them avoid it.

Recently filed legislation by Stewart would have made it harder for local elected officials to cut funding for these subsidized tourism programs. That would be bad enough. But public records obtained by journalists covering this bill uncovered that this proposal didn’t originate with Stewart. It was written by a lobbyist from the tourism industry.

It gets even worse. That same lobbyist worked for a firm, GrayRobinson, that was also retained by Orange County — essentially working against the interests of local officials, while being paid by them and the taxpayers they represent. Even though the firm was fired by Orange County, it’s alarming that Stewart was happy to carry water for special interest groups in such a blatant way, in direct conflict with Orlandoans’ interests.

Alarming, but not surprising. So much legislation is created in this way in Tallahassee. A large corporate donor will donate and prop up these lawmakers, write legislation for them, and the politicians dutifully oblige and file it on their behalf.

But one especially absurd part about this particular case is that proponents of these advertising slush funds propped up by public dollars claim that tourism will suffer if these subsidies are not dutifully granted—as if Disney and the other tourism giants in the state would not pay for publicity themselves, like every other company in every other market.

The most frustrating thing is that these public dollars could be spent on projects that both benefit residents and foster tourism in these parts of Florida. There are downsides to tourism in the Orlando area to be mitigated, like increased traffic congestion, lack of housing units for workers, and an abundance of low-wage jobs.

A wiser investment would be a workable public transportation system that properly connects Orlando neighborhoods and the rest of Orange County, or more affordable housing units, instead of giving millions of dollars to Visit Orlando to run socialized advertising campaigns for billion-dollar corporations.

Unfortunately, Sen. Linda Stewart saw a developing effort to finally put the expenditure of public dollars on behalf of the tourism industry under some scrutiny towards balance, and decided that she needed to team up with Tallahassee lobbyists to stop it.

What can be expected from a politician who rose to power touting her environmentalist stances only to support an effort by then-Senate President Bill Galvano to build three giant toll roads through Florida’s environmentally sensitive lands?

Stewart is the politician who makes the old cliché ring true: you don’t change the system; the system changes you.

The bill concocted by tourism lobbyists and Stewart is now thankfully dead, but it should be a warning sign to Orange County voters who may be presented with the option to vote for her in upcoming local elections.

Stewart was trying to further ingratiate herself with these giant tourism corporations that will surely funnel high-dollar donations to any future campaign she may mount, while selling out taxpayers and restricting the ability of an office she is seeking to protect public dollars from misuse on behalf of special interests.

Stewart has spent too much time in the swampy political world of Tallahassee, and her actions show it. It’s time for Orange County voters to make sure she stays a private citizen and away from public office in 2024.

Corey Hill is a human rights activist, journalist, screenwriter, and Orlando resident. You can find him on Twitter at @newschill

Jen Cousins is a mom and LGBTQ+ rights activist in Orlando. You can find her on Twitter at @JenCousinsFL

Thomas Kennedy is a writer, advocate, and former elected Democratic National Committee member from Florida. You can find him on Twitter and Threads at @tomaskenn.

One response to “Linda Stewart’s Tallahassee Tourism Two-Step”

  1. KARINA TERUEL Avatar

    Muy interesante investigación!

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