Linda Chapin

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Linda Welch Chapin, a Florida politician, was the first chairman[citation needed] of the Orange County Commission and an unsuccessful candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives.

The former Linda Welch received her early education at the Old Greenwich School in Greenwich, Connecticut and eventually studied political science and journalism at Michigan State University.

Linda met her future husband Bruce E. Chapin at Walt Disney's "It's a Small World" attraction at the 1964 World's Fair in New York City. They moved to Orlando, Florida, where she joined (and eventually became president of) both the local chapters of the League of Women Voters and the Junior League. Then, when their children were old enough to attend school, she took a job at a downtown bank, a position that expanded her contacts amongst the city's power brokers.

In 1985, Chapin was selected by the Orlando Regional Chamber of Commerce to head their "Project 2000," an effort to set millennial goals for the city in the areas of economic development, the arts, and transportation. As this project came to an end, her district's incumbent county commissioner retired and she ran a successful campaign to win his open seat.

As a new county commissioner, Chapin is credited with pushing for modernization of the county charter. This was done in 1988 and included the creation of a new position: Chairman of the Orange County Commission, to be elected by a county-wide vote (rather than being selected from the commissioners representing single member districts). Two years later, in 1990 she was elected the first person to fill that position, buoyed in part by her leading role in getting the Walt Disney Company to work with the county's housing finance authority to buy back bonds and provide mortgage assistance to lower-middle-income families.

Disillusioned with the job by 1994, she announced her decision not to seek re-election and encouraged state senator Toni Jennings to run to succeed her. But, Jennings chose to remain in Tallahassee, eventually becoming Lieutenant Governor under Jeb Bush. This left two rival commissioners to compete for the job: the conservative Tom Dorman and the liberal Fran Pignone. So, Chapin relented and launched a re-election campaign to regain the support of the then-polarized electorate. She overwhelmingly won a run-off against Pignone, 61% to 39%.

Chapin's time as Orange County Chairman coincided with the administration of Glenda Hood as Mayor of Orlando, a time when feminine influence over local politics was at an all-time high. The two women, along with Jennings and Dianna Fuller Morgan (Walt Disney World's Senior Vice President for Community and Government Relations), were recognized as the leaders of the local "old girl network." They formed closed friendships despite surface political differences, and even took annual Christmas shopping trips to New York City together.

On June 25, 1996, Chapin led the Orange County Commission in approving a $53 million subsidy to build a fourth interchange for Walt Disney World on Interstate 4. This spending would later spark a public outcry when it was revealed the construction project was not even in Orange County but across the line in Osceola County. Chapin justified the subsidy, however, by pointing out Disney's billion dollar investment in constructing its Animal Kingdom theme park as well as the Coronado Springs and Boardwalk resorts--all of which would generate tax dollars for Orange County.

As her second term drew to a close in 1998, Chapin again did not want to run for re-election. Instead, she was succeeded by future HUD Secretary and U.S. Senator Mel Martinez. And, she was tapped by Buddy MacKay (who was acting as Governor of Florida since the death of Lawton Chiles) to complete the unexpired term of Fran Carlton, who had recently resigned as Orange County Clerk of the Courts. Chapin enjoyed the clerk's job even less than the county chairmanship, because it was more administrative and less policy-driven.

It came as no surprise in 2000, when local congressman Bill McCollum announced his candidacy to succeed Connie Mack in the U.S. Senate, that Chapin jumped at the chance to claim his open seat in the House of Representatives as a Democrat candidate. She quickly raised over $1 million in campaign contributions, more than the combined funds raised by the three Republicans who also announced their candidacies that year: moderate state legislator Bill Sublette, conservative attorney Ric Keller, and military veteran Bob Hering.

Chapin would go on to face Keller in the general election that November. The campaign gained considerable national attention as the more politically experienced Chapin seemed capable of taking the seat away from the Republican majority in Congress. But, the 8th Congressional District of Florida is historically conservative, and Chapin's long career in public service provided easy fodder for the Keller campaign. They successfully painted her as a liberal opponent of the right to bear arms, but more famously cited her spending $18,500 in county funds for a bronze sculpture of a frog to back up their claim of her fiscal irresponsibility. These tactics allowed Keller to eke out a 51% to 49% win over Chapin.

Since leaving elective office, Chapin has continued to hold considerable influence over public policy in the Orlando area as Director of the Metropolitan Center for Regional Studies at the University of Central Florida. Most notably, in 2007, she headed Orange County's Task Force on Ethics and Campaign Finance Reform and recommended (among other things) that local election laws be amended to require all candidates for public office submit a final list of contributors one week prior to Election Day.

Mrs. Chapin and her husband now live in Belle Isle, Florida. Their son Roger Chapin waged an unsuccessful campaign to unseat incumbent Orlando City Commissioner Vickie Vargo in 2002.

The Linda W. Chapin Theater at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando was named for Mrs. Chapin.

References[edit]

  • "Linda Chapin's legacy of hard battles and great luck," by Jeffrey C. Billman, Orlando Weekly, 25 October 2000.
  • "Happy Town," Orlando Weekly, 20 October 2005.
  • "Put openness, accountability at forefront in Orange," by Linda Chapin, Orlando Sentinel, 25 November 2007.
  • Married to the Mouse: Walt Disney World and Orlando, by Richard E. Foglesong, Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut, 2001. Pages 116, 133-136, 173, 175-179, 188, and 192.