Ray Pena, of Lakeland, is running for the Democratic Party’s nomination for Florida’s 15th Congressional District as the first Hispanic-American to seek the district located in portions of Hillsborough, Polk and Lake counties.
He is doing it the old-fashioned way, handshaking every person he meets and appearing at all public candidate meetings. He enumerates the issues that he says are ignored by the other party, i.e., critical highway infrastructure needs, the total lack of interest in public education funding by the administration and repeal of the Republican Budget Act.
While both his Democratic Primary opponents, Andrew Learned of Valrico and Kristen Carlson of Lakeland have campaign war chests of more than $100,000, Pena reported campaign funds of less than $5,000 in the most recent report of the Federal Elections Commission.
Perhaps it is the lack of big-time contributors or the highly visible primary fight between Learned and Carlson over who should get the Democratic Party’s support that Pena is often unknown in spite of all his groundwork.
“I have been running for a year and a half,” Pena told Florida Politics Wednesday. “Do you know who was the first media outlet to sit down for a face-to-face interview with me? You are. Today.”
Learned has been running for a year, but has gained more attention now that Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross of Lakeland is stepping down from his Congressional District 15 seat and Democrats believe it is vulnerable.
The son of a Cuban mother and Puerto Rican father, Pena is a veteran of the Coast Guard and a 33-year veteran of the San Jose Police Department, retiring as a detective. He owns General Aviation LLC in Winter Haven. He is a commercial helicopter pilot
Pena embodies the belief that a person can still put themselves up for election and run on their ideas and by meeting people at post offices, the tax collector’s office, and small-town gatherings. But to meet the demands for electronic media and newspapers, big money is often a determining factor.
Unable to hold large fundraisers with Congresswoman Kathy Castor hosting as Learned has done or to have a group like EMILY’s List endorse and notify their heavy donors as was done for Carlson, Pena has gone on a marathon handshaking campaign.
“Quite seriously, I have met close to 30,000 people in the district since I started in February 2017,” he said.
One issue he says he would fight for in Congress is the repeal of the Jobs Act, which he said is unfair to middle class working people.
“Infrastructure must be addressed. I-4 is the most dangerous highway in the nation. Between 2011 and 2017, 164 people were killed on that roadway,” he said.
In education, more money is needed in every state, but particularly in Florida.
”I am against any tax dollars going to charter schools whether for profit or public. We must start investing in teachers and our school kids,” he said. “We also need to create tuition-free education for our public universities’ undergraduate programs. It’s done in the San Francisco area, New York City, and others, and students are required to stay in their area and work for a period of four years.”
And if the Democratic Primary isn’t rough enough, the winner will face the winner of a six-way Republican Primary for District 15.
“I am not worried,” he said of his opponents’ money, both Democrats and Republicans. “When people see a genuine person, they gravitate toward them. I would tell all candidates and elected officials everywhere, stop your maliciousness and just be honest to the people.”
“Ours is a genuine grassroots campaign. We certainly have the deep roots, but are waiting for the grass,” he said.