This used to be Andy Gardiner country, a Florida Senate district at the heart of GOP power, and now three Democrats are fighting for it like it’s theirs for the taking Tuesday.
Tuesday’s Democratic Florida Senate District 13 primary will pit three former elected officials, all with at least decent name recognition, one of them, former state Rep. Mike Clelland, with enormous amounts of campaign money; one, former state Rep. Linda Stewart, with a legendary ground game; and one, former Orange County School Board Member Rick Roach, with 16 years in the local spotlight.
Because redistricting has changed SD 13, dominated by central and east Orlando, from a strong Republican lean to a moderate Democratic lean, this is one of the Florida Senate districts the Florida Democratic Party thinks it’s most likely to flip this year, and even Gardiner, the outgoing Republican Senate president, has hinted he thinks it will flip.
Standing in the door disagreeing is Realtor Dean Asher, who’s got his own big piles of campaign money and much of Central Florida’s business community behind him. But Asher will have to wait to see which of three very different candidates he’ll have to take on.
“I am the favorite,” to win, Stewart bragged this week.
It’s an odd boast coming from a candidate who has raised just $25,400 for her campaign through Aug. 12, less money than Clelland sometimes collects in a week. Yet Stewart’s name recognition is high and her ground games have long set standards in Orange County, where she was three times elected county commissioner and once as state representative for House District 47.
Roach also calls her the front-runner, and Clelland clearly has recognized her strength, for he and his political action committee, “Common Sense for Central Florida,” have run attack ads focused on Stewart.
Clelland has raised more than $285,000 in his campaign fund and another $452,000 for Common Sense, which is collecting five-figure checks from firefighters’ unions and law firms, representing his background as a career firefighter who went to night law school and became a lawyer. His campaign also is being supported by Christian Ulvert’s Engaged Florida PAC and the Florida Democratic Party, who’ve both run Clelland ads in Orlando.
But Clelland said never mind the money.
“I made 208 phone calls today and then I went knocking on doors,” he said. “That’s what we’re focused on: we’re talking to voters.”
Meanwhile, as Clelland has been attacking Stewart in in TV commercials and mailers, and Stewart has been dismissing Clelland as someone who doesn’t know the district [Clelland moved in this year; he previously represented House District 29 in Seminole County], Roach has been the candidate showing up at every event and drawing crowds of more than 100 to his own town halls.
“I have talked to literally 2,000 people in the last two years in small groups and one-on-one,” Roach said. “I formed my campaign on what they told me.”
The trio agree with Democratic policies on almost all issues, though they’ve clearly quibbled over details, particularly as Clelland and Stewart have traded jabs on gun votes. But each has and focuses on individual strengths: Clelland, with his background in public safety; Stewart with her background as an environmental, women’s issues and community activist; Roach with his background as a school board member and former teacher.
Roach, who’s gotten a number of education-related endorsements from teachers unions to school administrators, combines his understanding of the schools and their challenges with economic themes. His message: strip the schools of much of the testing-prep, turn those test-prep positions, including reading teachers, back into shop classes and technical teachers. Graduate students who can get technical jobs and careers. Increase employment in higher-wage, skilled-labor jobs, reduce impacts on social services, including prisons.
“Once I discovered the talent gap, that I learned from the Chamber of Commerce, once I learned we had over 200,000 job openings, most of which don’t require college education, that pay good wages, I thought, well hell, why don’t we put people in those jobs,” Roach said.
“I know what’s happening in education. We’ve clogged it up with prep courses. So we can’t give kids auto education, construction, heating and plumbing. We’re too concerned about driving up standardized test scores. So if we just simply clean out all the junk in schools and use these tests the way they were designed, you could actually put between 10 and 15 courses in 1,000 high schools that all matched up with those jobs,” he said.
Stewart, whose endorsements have ranged from the National Organization of Women to mental health advocates to environmental groups, and said those represent the issues she’s best known for.
“People do want you to take a stand on assault weapons and no-fly, no-buy, which I have done a number of times,” she said. “People want you to take a stand on women’s issues, anything dealing with any kind of restrictions to abortion, they’re very concerned the government is getting too concerned about their personal lives. They’re also very concerned about the award of Amendment 1 money being diverted.”
Clelland has gotten endorsements from various first responder groups, law firms and a handful of establishment Democrats such as former Orange County Chairwoman Linda Chapin.
“It’s education, health care, Medicaid expansion, and water has resonated, particularly in Orange County, where quantity is as important as quality,” Clelland said. “I think those are the important things. That’s what I’m focused on.”