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Students hold 'Never Again' march in Tallahassee, drawing massive crowds at Florida's Capitol.

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Joe Henderson: Parkland protests drove Janet Cruz into Senate race

As we know, the concept of normal went out the window when 17 innocents were murdered in Parkland at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine’s Day.

When thousands of people came to Tallahassee to push for tougher gun control after Parkland, it was enough to convince state Rep. Janet Cruz it was time to act.

She announced this week she will challenge incumbent Dana Young in SD 18.

It figures to be one of the most-watched races in the state between two formidable candidates against the backdrop of the Democrats’ quest to flip four more seats and pull even with Republicans in the Senate.

And it goes back to the mass protests in Tallahassee shortly after the Parkland slaughter. Cruz said that after years of being pushed around by pro-gun Republicans and the National Rifle Association, Democrats have started pushing back hard.

“I’ve been (in Tallahassee) since 2010. I’ve seen crowds. I’ve seen protests, but I haven’t seen anything like that,” she said. “And I saw Democrats take a stand against the gun lobby. We were saying to them ‘hit me!’ And we got up and said, ‘hit me again! Is that all you’ve got?’ ”

The experience was enough to convince Cruz, the outgoing House minority leader, to abandon plans to run for a seat on the Hillsborough County Commission she probably would have easily won.

Young has long been a favorite of the NRA, enjoying an A-plus rating and support. She also has had no problem raising money.

But when she left the floor just prior to a Senate vote in March on amendments to a proposed assault weapons ban, Democrats pounced. They said she was trying to dodge a tough vote that could have repercussions in her moderate district.


Young said opponents were playing politics. She did eventually file her votes against the first proposal after the roll call. She later voted in favor of a compromise that imposed modest gun controls but also allowed for armed personnel in public schools.

I asked Cruz if people were making too much of Young’s exit from the floor.

“Absolutely we are not making too much of it,” she said. “It was astounding, egregious. The nation was watching. I think she just left (to avoid voting). In Tallahassee, we call that taking a walk.”

After two terms in the House, Young won election to the Senate in 2016 by 7 points over Democrat Bob Buesing. Against Cruz though, she likely will face a tougher challenge.

Much of HD 62, which Cruz has represented, is within the Senate district she is seeking. She has been dominant there in previous elections.

She thrashed Republican Wesley Warren with nearly 70 percent of the vote in 2012 and ran unopposed in two primary and general elections after that.

Her entry into the Senate race likely signals that Buesing will abandon his plan to run again for the seat. He has said the most important thing for his party is to defeat Young.

Cruz said she has spoken with Buesing, adding, “Bob is being a real gentleman.”

While the fight for tougher gun laws may have pushed Cruz into the race, it’s not her only motivation.

“The very first thing I would like to accomplish is making sure working people have health care,” she said.

She complained that Democrats were such a decided minority in the House that Republicans steamrolled their agenda without regard to compromise.

“Some of this stuff honestly gets shoved down our throats,” she said. “Government is best when there is parity.”

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I have a 45-year career in newspapers, including nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. Florida is wacky, wonderful, unpredictable and a national force. It's a treat to have a front-row seat for it all.

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