TALLAHASSEE — The sudden appearance of a write-in candidate means that the campaign to succeed state Rep. Betty Reed in her seat representing Tampa won’t end until November.
Four Democratic candidates had been vying for Florida House District 61, with no candidates from other parties, so the Aug. 26 Democratic primary vote looked to be decisive.
In 1998, Florida voters OK’d a constitutional amendment to open primary contests to all voters if candidates from other parties don’t qualify.
Otherwise, Florida is a “closed primary” state: Only voters registered with a particular party can vote for that party’s candidates in the primary.
Two years later, elections officials under former Secretary of State Katherine Harris opined that any write-in candidate qualifying for the general election keeps the primaries closed.
The four Democrats qualified last month, but so did write-in candidate Nicole Santiago. That keeps the primary closed to just party voters, even though a write-in candidate has never won office in Florida.
Santiago did not respond to requests for an interview.
Early voting starts Aug. 16.
Florida’s 120 state representatives are paid $29,697 per year, more for the House speaker, and serve two-year terms limited to a total of eight consecutive years.
Reed, first elected in 2006 and facing term limits, has not publicly endorsed a successor. She also is a Democrat and a retired educator.
Her heavily Democratic district, which includes East Tampa, Seminole Heights, West Tampa and Ybor City, is roughly 74 percent black and Hispanic, according to Florida House records.
The four Democrats in the race are:
♦ Sharon Carter, an energy consultant.
♦ Tatiana M. Denson, a health care consultant.
♦ Ed Narain, an area manager for AT&T.
♦ Sean Shaw, a lawyer and former state insurance consumer advocate.
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Shaw, son of retired Florida Supreme Court Justice Leander J. Shaw Jr., the state’s first black chief justice, entered the race last January and has since emerged as the leading fundraiser.
Shaw, a transplant from Tallahassee, has raised nearly $182,000 and spent more than $105,000 on his campaign, online records show.
Much of his money comes from outside the district and from fellow lawyers and public adjusters, individuals licensed by the state to advocate for policyholders in insurance claims.
To compare, Narain has taken in $92,000, most of that from within the district, and spent about $27,500. Carter and Denson combined have raised $4,200.
Shaw has also racked up endorsements from Democratic candidate for governor Charlie Crist and Alex Sink, former state chief financial officer and 2010 Democratic gubernatorial candidate.
Last week, he also announced the endorsements of five Democratic Tampa Bay area House members: Janet Cruz and Mark Danish of Tampa, Dwight Dudley and Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg, and Amanda Murphy of New Port Richey.
“I think I’ve got the most experience with navigating the legislative process,” Shaw said. “I’m most qualified to go to Tallahassee and hit the ground running.”
He moved to Tampa to join the Merlin Law Group in late 2011. Before that, he was insurance consumer advocate in 2008-10 and left the position to help his then-boss, former state CFO Sink, in her run for governor.
Shaw also founded Policyholders of Florida, a statewide consumer advocacy group.
His legislative priorities include expanding vocational opportunities in Hillsborough County schools for jobs in welding, plumbing and electrics, and beefing up transportation options.
One of the things he heard often while knocking on doors in the district was, “‘I cannot take the bus to a job because the routes don’t run at the right times,’” he said. “It’s useless and doesn’t allow for economic mobility.”
When told his concerns sounded more like those of local elected officials, Shaw said, “There may be some funding I can bring from Tallahassee to ensure they’re done. There may be something to be done in the budget.”
He also wants to pump up per-student spending, knocking Republican Gov. Rick Scott. Scott’s initial proposal for 2014-15 of $6,949 was below the 2007-08 high of $7,126.
When asked for specific funding ideas, Shaw said he didn’t “have a magic number” but added, “I do know I don’t want Florida to be 40-something for spending per pupil in the country. That’s too low.” Ranks vary from survey to survey now. For instance, Florida Governing magazine places Florida 38th in per pupil spending.
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Narain has run as the hometown candidate. He has worked his way up in AT&T and now is in charge of six retail stores and 70 employees in Pinellas County. He also attended law school at night at Stetson University, graduating last year. He plans to take the Bar exam next summer.
“I’m not a Johnny-come-lately,” Narain said. “I’ve lived in the city for almost two decades. I share the same struggles that everyone in this community does. I just decided I can’t sit back while the same problems keep rising up in this community.”
His priorities are getting people to work, or back to work, by offering more job-training programs, especially in tech jobs like computer programming. The state could do more to fund nonprofit organizations that offer such training, Narain said.
He’s also unhappy with lawmakers’ decision to expand the state’s voucher program, saying it hurts public schools in the long run.
“I get heartburn when I hear about putting money potentially to help build new private charter schools when we have capital projects that need to happen in our public schools,” said Narain, whose wife is a public school teacher.
He also wants to continue the fight in the Legislature to expand Medicaid and find new ways to treat juvenile offenders, treating crime “more like a disease.”
“I’m not looking to get elected to ‘be somebody,’” Narain said. “I was fighting for this community long before I became a candidate. This is not a stepping stone; this isn’t about some long-term political ambition that I have. It’s about me really trying to serve the interests of the community.”
Narain said the amount of one’s campaign contributions alone doesn’t show the true measure of a candidate.
“You put in the time, you put in the work, you volunteer, you work your way up in organizations,” he said. “You get to know the people, and then you decide — after talking to a lot of folks — whether you should even consider running for office. That’s what I did. That’s the blueprint.”
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❖Denson said she built a foundation for a run for state representative by working on local issues such as lowering parks and recreations fees and pressing city officials to install more traffic-calming devices.
She also has come to Tallahassee to speak to lawmakers about helping ex-offenders to have an easier time finding work and a place to live, she said.
For instance, she favors a state law that changes the kinds of questions that can be asked on employment and housing applications. Employers generally can’t ask an applicant if he or she has ever been arrested but can ask about convictions.
This past session, a bill sponsored by state Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, would have prohibited employers from inquiring into “an applicant’s criminal history on an initial employment application.”
The bill (SB 234) would have allowed a criminal background check only after a determination that an applicant met the “minimum employment requirements.” The measure died in committee.
“What distinguishes me as a candidate is my tenacity to voice genuine concern to the issues that matter most to the people,” Denson said.
As examples, she mentions her work with the East Tampa Advisory Committee, the Head Start Advisory Committee, Hillsborough County League of Women Voters and organizing for the light-rail initiative.
Denson isn’t shy on her website about describing her hardships.
Her father was murdered on Central Avenue when she was 8, she said, and she grew up with a military mom, moving from state to state.
She moved in with other family in Florida when she couldn’t follow her mother to duty in South Korea.
Denson said she also spent two years on public housing assistance before buying her first home when she was 28. Her first taste of politics was serving as secretary for the Florence Villa-Oak Park Neighborhood Association.
Her priorities are to increase economic development in East and West Tampa, and using Port Tampa Bay as “a future hub for global trade.”
She also wants to encourage more mass transit in the Tampa Bay area.
“That promotes infrastructure and job creation,” Denson said.
She also wants to devise a statewide minority teacher-recruitment program, and see classes in business and entrepreneurship in juvenile and adult detention centers.
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Carter said she has seen businesses big and small leave the district over the years, taking away jobs that residents don’t have to commute to.
Her father, the Rev. Frank L. Carter, was founding pastor of First Baptist Church of Highland Pines and spent 32 years working for Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority.
Her mother, Earnestine, worked in the Hillsborough County public schools.
“We need economic development,” she said. “We need to bring in more businesses.”
Carter was short on specifics on how to do that but suggested a better trained workforce in the area, particularly in science and technology, may entice firms to relocate.
She also wants to expand Medicaid.
Hialeah Republican Rene Garcia tried this year to cover more poor Floridians by expanding Medicaid, building on a failed effort inside the House from last year. His effort also went nowhere as House Republican leadership remained opposed, and Scott, who supported expansion last year, focused instead on tax cuts and job creation as he began running for re-election in November.
Carter also wants to add public transportation options and build pedestrian bridges over Hillsborough Avenue, particularly near public schools.
Another interest of Carter’s is “comprehensive housing counseling and home ownership preparation,” by developing ways to stave off foreclosures and teach financial literacy.