With this being a presidential election year, when Democrats historically show up in greater numbers at the polls, the Florida Democratic Party is targeting several key legislative races in Hillsborough County which they hope to flip from red to blue.
One of them is the House District 59 seat in Eastern Hillsborough County currently held by Dover Republican Ross Spano, who narrowly defeated Democrat Gail Gottlieb by just 1.6 percent in 2012, the same year that Barack Obama once again won Hillsborough County. In the 2014 election when Obama wasn’t on the ballot, Spano easily vanquished Democrat Donna Lee Fore in his first-bid for reelection.
The Democrats have high hopes this year with their new candidate, Brandon commercial litigation attorney Rena Frazier. However, Spano looks and sounds confident when he sat down with this reporter in a conference room inside his spacious law offices in Riverview last Thursday.
In reviewing his four years in office, Spano says he’s most proud and passionate about the work that he’s done on combating human trafficking, which include sponsoring bills enhancing criminal penalties for solicitation, as well as allowing the victims to move on with their lives by allowing judges to vacate certain criminal convictions if the offender can prove that they committed them under duress.
“If all I ever do is make a difference with some folks like that, that’s good enough for me,” he says humbly.
Like many Democrats running for the state Legislature in 2016, Frazier has criticized her GOP opponent’s opposition to expanding Medicaid. The Dover Republican dismisses that by saying by criticizing the services that Medicaid can provide, saying that it would allow those who could sign up on the ACA through Medicaid expansion “a false sense that they have medical care.”
“I want every person to have care,” he says. “But I want it to be quality care, and I think that Medicaid expansion is not quality care.”
Another hot button issue that Democrats are pressing incumbent Republicans on this fall in swing districts is guns.
A bill that would allow for the open carrying of firearms passed in the Florida House last season but stalled in a Senate committee. Although he owns two guns, Spano says he’s never been a hunter, and thus they’ve never been a big part of his life. He said he was alarmed when he first heard about the legislation being proposed, and initially opposed it. He had a change of heart when he realized that Florida is an outlier in the country when it comes to open carry, being one of only five states that doesn’t allow for the practice. So he did more research, looking to see if there has been an increases in violence in those states that have adopted the law. He said he couldn’t find any.
“Then I balanced that with obviously the fact that the 2nd amendment is a pretty fundamental constitutional right,” he says. “And the fact that with open carry, you have to have a concealed carry permit, you have to be 21, and you have to have gone through a rigorous background check.”
Spano says he believes “strongly” in traditional public schools (boasting that all of his kids have graduated from Strawberry Crest High School in Dover) but he strongly champions school choice. He says he strongly supports giving tax credits for scholarships, and that it’s imperative in particular for parents of children in failing schools to have the opportunity to have them go to better ones. He also supports the bill passed last session that allows parents to transfer their children to any other school in the state, space permitting.
Spano says he leaning against Amendment 2 – the medical marijuana initiative, once again on the November ballot in Florida – but says he hasn’t completely made up his mind yet. Like most critics of the proposal, he says he fears Florida becoming “another Colorado or California” in terms of the number of dispensaries built and the level of how sick a patient needs to be to have access to the herb. But he also acknowledges how it can bring pain relief for those who are suffering, and cites the case of the pain his late father was in before succumbing to cancer back in 2000. “The last four months of his life he was completely bed-ridden and unconscious, and couldn’t really communicate with us on any meaningful level as a family because he was so drugged up, and I often wonder or not we would have had another three to four months with my dad if he had the ability so I think there’s a benefit.”
Spano supported the controversial fracking bill that passed the House but died in the Florida Senate . Environmentalists and Democrats have described the bill as a simply yes or no vote on allowing fracking in Florida, but Republicans who supported the measure in the House have said it was much more complicated than that, and have had to explain what part of the elaborate bill they liked in supporting the legislation. Spano says he voted for it because if and when fracking does occur in Florida, the bill sponsored by Fort Myers Republican Ray Rodrigues would have provided state oversight that currently doesn’t exist. “I think the state has a role in ensuring what we’re pumping in the ground is not going to contaminate any groundwater, it’s not going to create a larger problem,” he says.
Democrats who support light-rail in Tampa have said they want to lobby the Legislature to pass a law that would allow large cities – and not just counties – to have the ability to place tax referendums on a local ballot. Spano says he would support such a proposal, saying, “If a local government wants to raise a tax they should have the ability to do that.”
Spano supported Florida native son Marco Rubio in the Republican presidential primaries, but is now pretty solidly a Donald Trump supporter.
While acknowledging that the New York City real estate mogul at times “says things that makes you really scratch your head and maybe in some cases makes you want to bang your head against the wall,” adds that “in no universe” could he ever support Hillary Clinton. Spano says he fears more a Clinton presidency could result in liberal justices being named to the U.S. Supreme Court who”could jeopardize” religious liberty and Second Amendment issues.
And as far as Clinton herself? “I don’t trust her as far as I could throw her,” he says, referring to the stories that have surfaced about the Clinton Foundation specifically in recent months.
District 59’s population is composed of roughly 38,000 Democrats compared to 35,000 Republicans, with 25,000 NPA voters, according to Lobby Tools. There are sizable minority populations in the district, with 13 percent of the population identifying as Black, 18 percent as Hispanic, and 63 percent as white in the latest census.
Spano has raised more than $207,000 in his race, and has more than $133,000 cash on hand as of September 16. Frazier has raised $148,172, and has slightly more than $96,000 cash on hand.