Debating for the first time in the state Senate District 18 race, South Tampa Republican Dana Young had her voting record pummeled by her three more-liberal male opponents at the Reeves Theatre on the University of Tampa campus Wednesday.
Young has maintained a fairly conservative record in her six years representing House District 60, a record her Democratic first-time opponent, Bob Buseing, has said is out of the mainstream of the voters in SD 18 which, like HD 60, encompasses South Tampa and much of western Hillsborough County.
Young has moved up in House leadership during her tenure, and is currently majority leader. She’s also raised more than a combined $2.3 million in the race, between her own campaign and her political committee, “Friends of Dana Young.” With just six days before the voting stops, her appearance on Wednesday was the first time she has met her opponents for a debate. And they were ready to attack her from the get-go.
“Dana Young wants to hide her record as a career politician,” said independent candidate Joe Redner in kicking off the forum, indicating what was in store for her and the audience for the next hour-plus. “She wants to hide that she takes millions of dollars from every special interest pulling the strings.”
Buesing followed suit, offering an aggressive take on Young’s stance on virtually every issue raised by the UT students in the audience. Seconds into his opening statement, he announced he was opposed to fracking, and immediately criticized Young for voting for the measure in this past session.
Young’s record on fracking has been seized upon by her opponents and environmental groups this election cycle. She has insisted that her support for Florida HB 191 the past winter was NOT a pro-fracking vote, a stance she maintained throughout the debate.
Critics have claimed she voted against allowing local governments have their autonomy on whether they want to ban fracking, but Young said she believed a statewide ban was the only legitimate way to handle the issue, because “our aquifer does not know county lines.”
“I’m not worried about the counties that pass bans on fracking, I’m worried about the counties that don’t,” she said.
That answer failed to mollify Redner, who has placed television ads criticizing Young on the environment. He said her fracking vote was done in a “slick way that career politicians do,” his voice dripping with disdain. And both he and Buesing referred to a complaint made by environmental groups that while the bill would have required fracking companies to disclose to the state all chemicals they used, but if the formulas were considered trade secrets, they wouldn’t have been available to the public.
“It seems like we’re all trying to out-hate fracking [more] than the next guy,” Young countered, saying that the other candidates had not studied the bill.
On guns, Buesing said he opposed a bill that failed to advance in the Florida Senate last session that would have allowed concealed carry permit holders to carry their weapons on college campuses.
Young took the offensive when it was her turn, citing statistics that one out of four women in college will be the victim of sexual assault. “I support the right of myself and other women to stand up and protect ourselves against men who would seek to do us harm.”
Buesing responded by saying the college campus which Young’s daughter attends, Clemson, does not allow guns on campus. “If she thought the only safe place was a place where there are guns on campus, why is she sending her daughter to Clemson University?”
Sheldon Upthegrove, the fourth candidate in the race, brought his perspective as a veteran of the Afghanistan conflict to the discussion. He said he supported concealed guns on college campuses, but only after a citizen passed a marksmanship test. But he disagreed with Young regarding feeling safe by carrying a gun, saying self-defense classes should be considered first before using a firearm.
“It’s insanity. Guns kill,” snarled Redner when it was his turn. He said citizens should be able to maintain firearms at home, but not out on the streets.
On the issue of medical marijuana, all four candidates said they support Amendment 2 on next week’s ballot that would legalize the substance for those with certain treatable diseases, and two of them, Redner and Upthegrove, support outright legalization. Redner again talked poignantly of how the herb helped him when he was receiving from Stage 4 lung cancer, and Young said her husband was diagnosed with cancer several years ago and had to contend with chemotherapy and radiation, but did not use pot to alleviate his pain. “I believe anyone in that situation should be able to make a choice with what they wish to do with their body,” she said.
When asked about reforming Florida’s campaign finance laws, Buesing said, “I hate it,” saying that with outside groups, he has been outspent on a three-to-one ratio.
“There is too much money coming from dark money groups, like the ones that are supporting Mr. Buesing,” Young said, eliciting shrieks from the audience. Young called out the group Florida Strong, who this week alleged Young’s votes helped to pad her personal fortunes since her time in elected office. “They don’t have to disclose their donors, where my donors are all disclosed for the world to see.”
Those comments set off her opponents.
“So how much have you collected, Dana, $3 million from those upstanding donors?” asked Redner sarcastically, adding that, if elected, he’d work to pass the toughest campaign finance laws the state has ever seen.
“I find it funny that Dana says there’s too much money in politics, which in this race, she has more money than … at least a couple of us,” Upthegrove said, who said he thought there was too much money in politics.
In his concluding statement, Buesing read from various Tampa Bay Times editorials and opinion columns that have criticized Young and the third-party groups for some of their statements on Buesing’s background as an attorney with Trenam Kemker.
Afterwards, Young said the encounter was “interesting,” adding “that’s politics.”
Buesing said “I win this hands down, if it’s about the issues.”
Election Day is now just five days away.