ST. PETERSBURG — Since President Obama made pay fairness a focal point of his State of the Union Address, the issue has become a centerpiece for pundits and politicians on the campaign trail.
Prior to the president’s call on Tuesday for a $10.10 an hour federal minimum wage, worker protests at fast food restaurants had been sparking the wage debate.
But with the president’s acknowledgment and polls suggesting voters care about it, the issue has joined “Obamacare” and Flood Insurance reform in the special election for Pinellas County’s District 13 U.S. House seat.
“My position is that the federal minimum wage should be increased,” Democrat Alex Sink said this past week.
Sink recalled the minimum wage debate when voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2004 that raised the state rate to $7.67 an hour. It is currently $7.93.
“Back then, the same people, the same groups, said, ‘The sky is falling, and it’ll destroy our economy,’” Sink said. “In the next several years we were in the biggest boom we had ever seen in Florida until the global recession hit.
“Think what raising the minimum wage does — it puts more money in the hands of lower-paid workers, and they turn right around and spend more and support restaurants and go shopping and provide for their families, and so I think it’s a spur to the economy.”
Republican David Jolly said he supports a minimum wage, but doesn’t think politicians should set it.
“Minimum wage should be indexed to inflation or subject to a cost-of-living adjustment like any other federal income program ...” Jolly said in an email. “That means some years it may go up, other years it may stay static. Barack Obama is not an economist, neither is the Congress.”
Libertarian Lucas Overby said he doesn’t think raising the federal minimum wage will do any good.
“I want three things for the citizens of my district, and across the Nation: more money in their paychecks, more buying power in their dollar, and more employment opportunities. I don’t feel that raising the minimum wage gets us to those goals,” he said in an emailed statement.“Requiring business to foot more of the bill while government continues to raise taxes and increase fees and regulations is ludicrous and is most certainly not the path to prosperity.”
Jolly, Overby and Sink each said they support the wage equality between genders, or equal pay for equal work, stressed by the president, though Jolly did catch some flack last week for lobbying for a client that appeared to be against such a requirement.
“Wage discrimination on gender,race and other factors already is and should remain illegal,” Jolly said. “I support the constitutional prohibition on discrimination.”
A Quinnipiac poll of Florida voters released Friday suggests 73 percent of Floridians support the $10.10 an hour minimum wage. It also shows that 53 percent of Republicans in Florida agree.
“It seems it will be a political liability for any candidate ... to be against giving an overdue raise to workers like nursing assistants, janitors and child care providers who make just $15,000 a year,” said Jeremy Funk, a spokesperson for progressive group Americans United for Change. “This issue shouldn’t be controversial.”
The candidates’ views on minimum wage or equal pay may drive more voters to the polls, especially Democrats, but some say the issues doesn’t have enough shelf life to last until the March 11 election.
“Income inequality in general only fires up the left and those fence sitters who are economically insecure, which could be substantial down there and it is a very purple area,” said Tallahassee-based Republican strategist Chris Akins. “They would view the minimum wage issue as at least doing something, whether it worked or not.”
Issues such as “Obamacare” may dwarf it come March.
“In a special election, turnout is so low that you’re basically talking about high information voters,” said Jamie Miller, a long-time Florida Republican operative.
And while red meat issues like wage equality might fire up the president’s base, they are the people who probably already plan to vote anyway. The president’s hour-long speech Tuesday may be a distant memory by election day.
“My guess is that the State of the Union doesn’t carry on past this week,” Miller said.