Joseph “JB” Bensmihen hasn’t been in Pinellas County very long. In fact, he officially became a resident only within the last week. So while you might consider that fact alone makes him a decided underdog in the now wide-open Pinellas County state House District 68 seat, he doesn’t. And he has an impressive history of exceeding people’s expectations about himself.
“I don’t want to sound silly, but I got a gift,” the 47-year-old home health care business exec said last week while speaking with this reporter at a Panera Bread location off of Fourth Street in St. Petersburg. “The incumbent said I’m not doing this anymore. It’s a winnable seat, and he leaves it now an open seat.”
Bensmihen is referring to the fact that HD 68 Democratic incumbent Dwight Dudley stunned many people in state politics two weeks ago when he announced that he would not run for another two-year term to serve in Tallahassee. He has instead filed to run for a Pinellas judicial seat.
Now attorney Ben Diamond will square off against former Obama Defense Department adviser (and CD 13 candidate) Eric Lynn in a contested Democratic primary, with the Republican Bensmihen likely to face the survivor in November. Bensmihen is the lone Republican in the race to date.
Upon seeing that JB is wearing a suit while I’m not, the candidate goes into an unsolicited soliloquy on the fact that it takes him 45 minutes to an hour to get dressed every day.
He relates a self-deprecating anecdote about how he had the chance to meet the Democratic presidential ticket — Al Gore and Joe Lieberman -– back in August of 2000 in Palm Beach County, but was underdressed himself that day in jeans and t-shirt, with nobody to help him change. The lesson he took from that day was always to be dressed to the nines, since he’s never sure when he needs to be looking his best. It’s his way of telling me about his disability. JB has cerebral palsy.
But don’t feel sorry for him – he never has.
His independent nature and will to live and compete on an even playing field started when he was young. Growing up in Montreal at the age of 7 in 1976, Bensmihen said he was upset that he was relegated to going to a school for special needs students, and questioned his father about why that was the case.
“He said, ‘there’s a law that says someone with a major disability can’t go to a regular school.’” “I said, ‘That’s stupid. Who wrote that law?’ He said the Prime Minister. I said, ‘I want to talk to him! I said,’let’s go now!'” That led to an improbable one-on-one meeting with then Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, and he directly addressed him about his complaint. It took years to work its way through the bureaucracy, but the Canadian law was ultimately changed to allow JB to attend the same regular school as his daughter.
Bensmihen later attended Yeshiva University in New York City, where he majored in political science and received a master’s in social work. “In my valedictorian address I said, ‘I think I’ve proven that society has a handicap. The individual only has a disability,’” he proudly recounts.
Bensmihen ultimately founded the businesses Boca Home Care Services and United Elder Care Services in Palm Beach County, where he says he prospered for many years. A divorce settlement with his wife (he has four children with her) led him to cut his ties to Boca Home Care services two years ago, and he says he was doing some lobbying in the health home care industry before announcing last year that he intended to take on Democrat Lois Frankel in her bid for re-election to CD 22.
Then redistricting came, with the Florida Supreme Court ruling that eight of the state’s 27 congressional districts had been drawn up unconstitutionally by the Republican Legislature. The redrawing of Frankel’s seat became dramatically different, prompting Bensmihen to admit that his congressional challenge had now become an “uphill battle.”
He also wanted to get back into home health care, and had decided to relocate to Hillsborough County. But he ultimately moved to St. Petersburg when he said he began studying the House District 68 demographics, and became convinced that he could be successful against Dudley.
“We’re going to win the seat,” he says boldly. “What people really need in the state of Florida is somebody who knows a thing or two on how to balance a budget, understand Medicaid, and how to deliver a service. So it doesn’t matter what your party affiliation is. Can you deliver the goods? And I think we can.”
But what about the fact that some people might use the “carpetbagger” epithet to describe his political odyssey?
“The community that I belong to is the state of Florida,” he says, brushing off the suggestion. “The community, if I may say so respectfully, would be honored to have me represent them. In other words, I’m going to grow with them.”
Regarding the issues, Bensmihen is a big advocate for school choice, though he insists that he’s also a big fan of public education. “What I’m saying is that parents have the right to choose – and parents with children with disabilities for sure have a right to choose.”
Although the issue of Medicaid expansion looks dead going into the 2017 session, Bensmihen is one Republican who supports the idea.
HD 68 is a swing district, and with Dudley’s departure, Democratic Party strategist Steve Schale now considers it the number one House race that could flip in Florida this election cycle.
Bensmihen says that he will publish what he describes as a self-help memoir called “Taking Your Place at the Table” next year. Whether he’ll be able to add winning elected office to his biography is a chapter that remains to be written.