Florida House Minority Leader Janet Cruz and Senator Dana Young sparred in a heated debate Friday at Tampa Tiger Bay in their battle for the Senate District 18 seat.
This Tampa-area race has become one of the most hotly contested in the nation as Democrats seek to create a “blue wave” and Republicans fight to keep their majorities in state legislatures and Congress.
There’s a lot to watch in the race that pits to veteran lawmakers against one another.
Here are five takeaways from their latest match-up:
Education is one of the top issues
The Tiger Bay Club of Tampa is known for its feisty members who come prepared to ask tough questions. Friday’s forum with Cruz and Young was no different.
In addition to a question from the moderator, retired USF Political Science Professor and political commentator Susan McManus, several Tiger Bay members asked education-related questions ranging from funding for infrastructure improvements to the pros and cons of school choice programs like charter schools and voucher programs.
Cruz bashed her opponent, the incumbent in the District 18 Senate race, for continually supporting funding for charter schools and voucher programs at the cost of traditional public schools.
“[Her priority] has been with privatizing public schools and watching the infrastructure crumble,” Cruz said.
Young did not refute her track record on charter schools, which are publicly funded but run by private education providers, or voucher programs that give low-income students the opportunity to attend private schools using tax-credit scholarships. Instead, she said she considers “the changing face of education.
“Public education today is very different than when I went to school,” Young said. “But now we have a wide variety of choices where parents can pick what works best [for their child.”
Both candidates think they care about student safety and guns
Young voted in favor of the student safety bill earlier this year that increases the minimum gun purchase age to 21, provides funding for additional school security, bans bump stocks that allow a modified weapon to fire similarly to an automatic weapon and allows school districts to arm teachers if they opt-in. Cruz voted against the bill because it didn’t include a ban on assault weapons.
Young sharply implied that Cruz’s vote against the school safety bill meant she didn’t prioritize student safety.
“We need to figure out why [lawmakers like Janet Cruz] don’t care about children’s lives,” Young said.
“Isn’t that hilarious, Dana,” Cruz fired back in a loud voice that countered Young’s stern, but calmer demeanor. “When she was elected … she was all about campus carry. She was all about open carry.”
Cruz accused Young of being a shill for the National Rifle Association. Young said she did not vote for an amendment that would have included an assault weapon ban in the school safety bill because it would have tanked the entire thing.
Neither candidate is afraid to get dirty
The gloves were off right out of the gate. Young accused Cruz of not caring about childrens’ lives. Cruz basically called her a hypocrite. The two were so shouty at one another, dozens of people were wrestling cell phones from their pockets and pocket bags to get some top-notch footage of one of the hottest races in the nation right now.
Cruz doubled down on her “dammit Dana” slogan she just came up with this week during a press conference on education funding — this time about guns. Young scolded her for being rude.
Cruz later accused Young of avoiding a vote banning assault rifles.
“She ran and hid because she was owned by the NRA.”
In turn, Young fired back that Cruz was a shill for the teacher’s union because “she doesn’t want to lose their funding.”
There are some things on which they agree
Despite the verbal jabs, there were moments of true diplomacy and mutual respect. In a now unusual moment of bipartisanship, both candidates praised Hillsborough County Public Defender Julianne Holt for her work with troubled youth and people with disabilities.
“She recognized early on … you take a kid who’s marginal. His mom is working. Maybe he doesn’t have the support some of us grew up with. She stood up for diversion programs [to keep those kids from going over the cliff,] Cruz said.
Young nodded in agreement and added her own praise for Holt’s work with people in the system with disabilities.
Both seemed on the same page about opening primary elections, agreeing that the demographic of voters without party affiliation is growing and closed primaries effectively disenfranchise those voters.
Don’t get too settled in the touchy-feely moments though. Like Cruz, they were in the minority party.
They might both support the transportation referendum
In a nod to the bipartisan tone transportation tax campaigners are trying to strike, it’s likely both candidates will support the All for Transportation referendum that would increase sales tax 1 percent to raise $280 million a year for both transit and transportation projects.
Cruz offered her support specifically.
Young was not as straightforward saying she would “probably” support it. Young said she needs to study the bill more before making a final decision noting that while transportation needs to be a priority — and needs additional funding — it’s important to carefully consider any tax increase before placing that burden on taxpayers.