Although the candidates for Florida’s 19th Senate District have engaged in numerous campaign forums over the past couple of months, Friday’s encounter at the Tampa Tiger Bay Club did offer some new wrinkles.
One was the appearance of the lone Republican in the race, John Houman, who has carried such a light footprint to date in the campaign that Ed Narain joked that he didn’t know he actually existed. The other new element was watching Augie Ribeiro (twice) break into a not-so-terrible Bernie Sanders impression.
The Democratic primary — which will likely decide the winner in November in the decidedly liberal-voting district — also features two veteran Tampa Bay state lawmakers, former House District 59 Rep. Betty Reed, and current HD 70 Rep. Darryl Rouson.
The headlines in the race have lately featured a war of words between Narain, currently serving in the HD 61 seat, and Ribeiro, the high-powered, wealthy civil justice attorney who has poured approximately $400,000 of his own cash into the contest since entering on the second-to-last day of qualifying in late June. Ribeiro has defended those contributions by saying essentially he hasn’t taken the money from corporations that have business before the Legislature, a comment that rankled Narain, who works for AT&T.
“Just because you’ve received the contribution from somebody, it doesn’t mean they get to tell you how to vote or what to do,” Narain said, adding that the sources he’s received funding from are the same companies who give to most Democrats.
He then attempted to turn the tables on Riberio by saying that 60 percent of the more than 600 individual contributions he’s received in this campaign come from citizens in the district. “There are other candidates here who can’t say that, because they haven’t been doing the grassroots fundraising. They haven’t raised money from the ‘special interests ‘ in Tallahassee. I reject the idea that any of the candidates are bought and sold.”
Ribeiro didn’t back down.
“I think it’s very important that the folks know where money is coming from,” he said, adding that he doesn’t want to take money from the corporations that historically he’s gone after in court (like BP and General Motors).
He also said he didn’t want to explicitly say Narain or the other candidates who received funding the utility companies in Florida were “bought and paid for,” but he did say that the public should know Narain took over $34,000 from utility companies and more than $40,000 from insurance companies. “That’s important because those amounts are more than the salary of a state senator (which is less than $30,000 annually),” Ribeiro said. “And I think the people, especially people in a poorer district, who are struggling to survive, who are really cost conscious, and need to make sure that their representatives are fighting these very industries to keep costs down.”
Reed added her own thoughts about big money. “I’ve served in Tallahassee, and when you take money from too many people, they are going to be there waiting to be paid,” she said, generating applause.
Later in the forum, Ribeiro said that one reason he decided to get into the race was that he wasn’t hearing anybody say anything about the 15,000 children in Senate District 19 who go hungry every night. But Narain said that the number was actually 144,000.
Houman was spare in his responses, sometimes eliciting laughter at the succinctness of his comments. “That’s a simple answer — yes,” he said when asked if he would support a proposal to make the education commissioner an elected position as it was previously. When discussing whether there was too much testing in the public schools (something all the candidates agreed that there was), the Republican responded, “Simple question. I agree. Less testing and more teaching.”
The candidates — including Houman — all decried the prevalence of pro-gun legislation that is part of Florida culture.
“I am proud of my F rating from the NRA, unlike some of the other people up here who have been endorsed by them,” Narain said to applause from the audience. That was a not-so-subtle dig at Rouson, who was the recipient of a campaign mailer from the powerful organization urging SD 19 voters to support him in the race, though they officially did not call it an endorsement.
Rouson has boasted at other forums that his legislation passed earlier this year making it illegal to discharge a firearm for recreational purposes in residential neighborhoods was the first pro-gun control legislation in Tallahassee since the late 1980s. But before he got a chance to mention that Friday, Narain prompted him, saying, “No disrespect, representative, but the last gun control bill passed by the Florida Legislature was passed by a Miami Beach Gardens Democrat Barbara Watson in 2013 that restricted those with mental illnesses to be able to purchase a firearm.”
All of the candidates said they hoped Florida would echo the Justice Department’s announcement Thursday that they are phasing out privately owned prisons, citing safety concerns. Rouson says he is campaigning on a platform of prison reform, referring to the large number of unresolved deaths in state prisons. “We can’t just allow for-profit agencies come in and do what it is a core mission of government,” he said.
The St. Petersburg-based legislator also talked up his previous work for Driver’s License Reinstatement Day, in which various local agencies meet up with members of the public who have had their licenses suspended because of a failure to pay fines.
Betty Reed said it wasn’t easy to get legislation passed in the House as a member of the minority party, “but sometimes if you continue to work on it … sometimes it takes years before you can get it actually through, but if you keep working, you will get it there.”
All of the candidates have received important endorsements in the contest. Ribeiro said he was proud to get the backing of the group Tampa Bay for Bernie, which prompted him to (twice) begin doing a vocal impersonation of the Vermont senator.
SD 19 encompasses West Tampa, East Tampa, Riverview, Gibsonton, Apollo Beach, Sun City and downtown St. Petersburg and South St. Pete.